Pilot Friends, Help Me Out

To those of you who really know me, it may not come as a surprise to learn that I am absolutely fascinated by flight. From the many times that I flew solo on weekends to visit my father starting at the age of 6 (the youngest Gold Status frequent flyer in US Air’s history), to my most recent private flight lesson a couple of years ago, it is very obvious that I have always loved the idea of airplane travel. After my first experience on a plane as a child, I had fantasies of globetrotting as a jet pilot while wearing my plastic wings proudly.  As a freshman in high school, I wanted nothing more than to fly fighter jets for the Navy. Why not the Air Force? I visited Annapolis at some point that year and fell in love with the Naval Academy. There was not a more interesting profession than pilot, in my mind. Unfortunately, sometime after a rough flight experience in my late adolescence, that strong desire to fly planes disappeared completely, though I continued to try and surround myself with remnants of a childhood dream. (Sometimes in the form of guys I have dated. But I don’t recommend the Air Force F-16 pilots—really, ladies. Don’t go there.)

Watching airplanes take-off and land from the safety of the ground has always been one of my favorite activities. (And if you read the Style section of the Washington Post on July 4th, you may have seen my name attached to some advice about watching planes at Gravelly Point Park.) Sometimes even the game of choosing destinations for random planes in the air can keep my mind occupied for periods of time. I want to know where they are going; where they came from; and if I can go there someday. The possibilities that the aviation industry brings to us on the ground are limitless. For someone with a strong sense of adventure, the airplane is my vessel.

Plane taking off from DCA
Plane taking off from DCA

Unfortunately, air travel is not without an inherent set of risks. Entrusting your life in the hands of often-inexperienced pilots, or possibly faulty, old equipment seems counter-intuitive to maintaining your own survival. And the sad fact is that some people never return once they leave the ground to enter the skies.

When something terrifies me, and thus limits my life in the ways that I would like to live it, I find myself working through how to maintain control over the fear. Much to my disappointment, I developed a fear of flying several years ago. I knew that it was a fear that I could never allow to continue in my life. So what did I do about it? Research. What was I afraid of? Crashing. Why was I afraid that the plane would crash? Because I didn’t understand the way that planes worked, or the common mistakes that pilots make. So how did I overcome (most) of the fear? I began to listen to black box recorders from plane crashes. I grilled pilot friends on reasons for accidents, and how they could have been avoided. I took a flight lesson. I watched a fighter pilot named “Dirty” fly his flight simulator into the earliest hours of morning as I asked question after question about what he was doing.  I analyzed types of planes (Boeing/Airbus), and how the different operating systems worked to overcome errors—both human and mechanical. All in the name of reclaiming control over my ability to fly.

The Air France crash in 2009 set my mind reeling. I was in Los Angeles that summer, and I remember standing on the top of the parking deck at LAX and watching the planes take-off and land.  I was going over the news reports in my head, using the information I had researched about Airbus planes, and trying to analyze the crash in my mind. Investigating comes naturally to me. Maybe I should have gone into a career with the NTSB.

So, here we are with another tragic accident in San Francisco. My heart aches with every major air disaster. I’ve read the articles, obviously, but I want to hear from my pilot friends. What is your analysis of the Asiana Airlines crash?

** Update**: Since I wrote this post, the analysts are saying too low and too slow. Also, the experience level of the pilot is being called into question–43 hours piloting 777s and never landed at SFO. I’m still curious as to your thoughts.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Always glad to read of another aviation fan who also loves Gravelly Point!

    “Too low, too slow” is what I have read as well. Although we’ll have to wait for the investigation for the final word, it seems as though the pilot may have realized (too late) that the aircraft was going to touch down short. As a result he throttled up sharply but that likely brought the nose up and the tail down… and the tail struck the sea wall or the runway and broke off. That left the pilots without control so the aircraft ended up on the runway.

    If you’re interested, you may want to read a chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” which discussed how culture has contributed/caused airline crashes multiple times in recent history. Apparently being extremely deferential to elders/seniors kept some junior officers from clearly communicating errors/problems to the captain.



    1. historywino says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’ll definitely check out that chapter. I appreciate your suggestion.


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