BLUE SKIES, VICKI CRUSE. Since 2005, Cruse had been president of the International Aerobatic Club; she became U.S. National Unlimited Aerobatic Champion in 2007. Sadly, Cruse died following a plane crash at an air show in England in late August.
It’s no news to most pilots that we recently lost Vicki Cruse, president of the International Aerobatic Club. What was almost certainly a control failure caught her in the worst possible position, and I can’t get her out of my mind. There but for fortune go most of us, aerobatic pilots or otherwise. The risk factor in aviation is never absent; the consequences seldom small.
Pilots love to talk about the beauty of flight and the freedom that can be found in few other places. We indulge in endless conversations about this piece of hardware or that. But even though we all have had safety procedures drilled into our heads, we still have a fantastic ability to turn a blind eye to risk. The “it can’t happen to me” syndrome runs deep in such high-risk ventures as aviation.
Okay, so it’s not that high risk. But just as the sea is an unforgiving mistress, so is the sky. It sings the same kind of siren song, tempting us to trade the relative safety of the ground for the opportunity to see and be something special. And so we all judge the risk worth it. It’s not as if Vicky didn’t know the risk. It’s not as if we don’t know that every single time we leave the ground, our return stands a chance, however small, of being somewhat less than orderly. But it’s there, and we accept it.
Actually, do we accept it? Or do we ignore it? Like many Southern Californians, for instance, who must live with the risk of a runaway San Andreas Fault incident, do pilots develop a mental armor without which they couldn’t continue? The answer is yes and no, depending on the individual.
There’s a big difference between living with the possibility of an engine quitting and worrying about “the big one.” You can give some thought to what you’re going to do if an earthquake decides to shake your world, but there are so many imponderables involved, you can’t really train for it. Prepare for it? Yes (by stocking up on food, water, emergency supplies, etc.). But train for it? No.
In aviation, you can train for the risks because, for the most part, you know exactly what they are. And we pilots do train our little butts off. But after all that emergency training, do we practice it? Do we prepare for potential risks? Are the possibilities of something going wrong at the forefront of our thought processes? Or are we hiding behind the calculated probabilities and saying, “It’s not likely to happen to me, right here, right now, so I’m not going to worry about it.”
Your odds of getting hit by lightning are much better than your odds of winning the lottery. Still, no matter how long the odds, almost every week, someone does win. So, yes, the possibility of something going wrong in the air is miniscule, but bad things do happen. If you aren’t willing to accept risk and do your best to gird yourself against that risk, then you have no business being in the air. That’s why pilots need to do everything humanly possible to first minimize the risks, and second, train for dealing with those risks.
You can minimize risks through a couple of very straightforward techniques. Number one, don’t do something that you know is stupid. No buzzing, scud running, etc. “Watch this!” is a phrase that should never be heard or uttered in the cockpit. Ditto for “I think I can make it through.”
Another risk-minimization technique is to get as good as you can possibly get at the art of aviating. This doesn’t mean just getting the airplane up and getting it down. It means immersing yourself in the skill, and treating that skill as a living, breathing entity that you have to continually feed and nurture for it to thrive and grow. “Good enough” is another phrase that should neither be heard in the cockpit nor cross a pilot’s mind. When it comes to your skill as an aviator, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” That kind of thought pattern increases the risk factor.
And then there’s training for the risk. Have you located places on the ground where you can put the airplane down in case the engine quits? Have you practiced emergency procedures for every possible kind of emergency in every regime of flight? Have you done something as basic as driving down the roads around the airport to see which ones have wires crossing them, or other obstacles that would snare you if you tried to land on those streets or fields in an emergency?
And then there are the risk factors for which there’s no prevention and no training. Assuming there’s a definitive answer about the cause of Vicki’s accident, it’ll undoubtedly be that a rare mechanical glitch caught her at exactly the wrong time and place, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do about it. So, yes, there are some elements of risk that are totally unavoidable. You just have to turn a blind eye to those because the only way to avoid them is to avoid the environment that generates the risk and not fly at all. To most pilots, however, that’s unacceptable. Without the managed risk that’s at the core of adventure, life would lose its color, taste and texture. Subtle adventure is the salt and pepper that flavors what could otherwise be a bland life.
So, Vicki, you were always one of my favorites; I admired your energy, commitment and your steel backbone. You can rest easy knowing you made a difference in a lot of lives—and you’ll certainly not be forgotten.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.