Going Direct: What To Make Of The Drugs In Roy Halladay’s System

Hard questions about letting it all hang out, our responsibility to aviation and informed consent.

As you’ve doubtless heard by now, the former baseball ace Roy Halladay, who died in the crash of his Icon A5 in the shallow Gulf of Mexico waters last year, had drugs in his system when he hit the water. Those drugs included some that are hard to explain away as the traces of the kinds of medications used to treat the kind of chronic pain retired athletes often suffer.

According to the medical examiner, Halladay had morphine, amphetamine and an insomnia drug in his system when he crashed.  Just before the accident Halladay was captured on video flying aggressive maneuvers close to the water’s surface. The ex-Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies star died of trauma and drowning.

It’s hard to stand up for Halladay in the wake of the crash. His going flying under those circumstances was inexcusable, period. And the results were frighteningly predictable given the circumstances.

In his piece in AvWeb’s newsletter this morning, aviation writer, colleague and friend Paul Bertorelli, who is one of the most contrary and engaging writers in all of aviation, went out on a limb on this subject. His goal, and it’s a laudable one, was to question the aviation community’s usual response to such tragedies. Whether you agree with his opinion or not, it’s really refreshing to hear a dissenting voice from time to time.

One of the common reactions Bertorelli writes, is that pilots who fly foolishly sully the name of aviation and endanger the good standing of our activity.

The truth is both that they do and it doesn’t matter much. Halladay’s crash makes us all look bad, though the general public’s attention span in this day of being bombarded with news of all kinds is woefully short. Besides, there are more important things for the public to be concerned about. (Isn’t there a royal wedding coming up at some point?) So regardless of whether it’s true or not that Halladay made GA look bad, the net effect is negligible.

Another point that Bertorelli made was that Icon shouldn’t be held to account for the way it presented the kind of flying its little LSA amphibian is meant for. Low and fast and close to the water and the terrain is how the A5 got shown in photographs and videos again and again. Bertorelli’s point is that purchasers are grown ups and what they do with the plane they buy is what they do with it.

That’s both somewhat true and I suspect purposefully myopic. For the viewing pleasure of experienced seaplane pilots who understand the nature of the risk they’re accepting, Icon can show the A5 racing through pylons of fire for all I care.  We know what the risks are, and if we choose to take those risks, we have no one but ourselves to blame. And few of us will take them without careful reflection.

There are two huge caveats here, though. First, new pilots—and Icon specifically targeted new pilots for their plane—can’t give meaningfully informed consent. That’s my opinion. I know that when I started flying, I was blind to many elements of the risk I was assuming.

Second, when you’re flying with someone who doesn’t know what those risks are, you need to give them an excruciatingly boring middle-of-the-envelope ride. You owe them minimum risk. And people who aren’t familiar with light plane flying, even smart ones, by definition don’t understand the nature of the risk. No one has the right to expose people to high levels of risk when they are unaware of that risk. That’s the very nature of informed consent.

Halladay was flying solo, of course, so that wasn’t an issue. Did he endanger people on the ground? Not really. For all the airplanes that crash every year, hardly anybody on the ground gets hurt. Your chances of being struck by lightning are literally greater than being killed by a plane coming out of the sky.

In my view, the real tragedy of this was the thoughtless risk that Halladay exposed his family to by flying, according to the medical examiner, in a condition that no one should be in when they’re at the controls of a plane. I’ll leave it to you to make your own judgments on his culpability in that regard. I’ve already made mine.


If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

13 thoughts on “Going Direct: What To Make Of The Drugs In Roy Halladay’s System

  1. He had a fatal disease. Very sad. This desease leads to one or more these three outcomes:
    Jail
    Insanity
    Death
    There’s is a solution.

  2. There is no considered response to this. And it does not really have a lot to do specifically with GA. The regs say that you do not fly under the influence of drugs. If Halladay was, then he broke the law. And, if he was flying impaired, he joins a segment of the population, regardless of activity (flying, driving) or occupation, who exercise poor lifestyle judgement(s), and whom occasionally kill themselves by doing so. The net result for Halladay would have likely been the same if he had piloting any (other) type of aircraft under similar conditions. Drugs are a costly form of fun and entertainment.

  3. Hmmm…. Car commercials do the same thing. Aggressive maneuvers (through snow, climbing rocks, 360 degree turns) and in miniscule type state “Closed course, professional driver, do not attempt”.
    Buy this car and YOU can do this ! Many times I’ve seen 4-wheel drive vehicles overturned in the median or side of the road in snow conditions. As you quote ” Bertorelli’s point is that purchasers are grown ups and what they do with the plane they buy is what they do with it.”
    Some people will nevr grow up.

  4. I know some pilots said the Icon is a dangerous aircraft which hasn’t had a great safety record. So me call it underpowered too which of course neither of these where factors in this crash. I guess the publicly around this crash was mainly he was a ex baseball player. But I also wonder how did pass his medical for his license if he was in so much constant pain that he needed so many drugs ? The fact he flying low level close to water didn’t exactly help doesn’t what drugs you are on. We was inexperienced that is what killed him not the drugs in his system.

  5. I was a little younger than Mr. Halladay when I took a chance on mixing 5 Jack and waters with airplanes. I did it once, at the age of 24, right after getting my license… Almost killed 4 of us. Seriously! Yes, a Grumman Tiger does stabilize in a spin, and God only knows why I’m able to type this response. I never got near a plane with less than 24 hours, or longer, recovery — from even 1 beer after that lesson. I refused to fly another passenger until I learned how to get out of unusual attitudes. I went out and bought a Bellanca Super Decathlon to figure most of it out. Now, even after 41 years of flying, and lots of aerobatics, and a few thousand hours PIC, I still take less chances than most pilots. Like many of us old dudes, I know several dead pilots that knew how to fly way better than me. I have a hunch that there are some people close to this situation who aren’t surprised with this outcome, but were caught up in Roy’s stardom and exuberance.

  6. Why do these wealthy druggy sports people, who learn how to fly, assume physics is cancelled because of who they are?

    It appears to be the “10 foot tall and bulletproof and I’ll never die and my name is “Sky King” and lift and aircraft control is generated by my stature in life” syndrome kicked in.

    Funny how alcohol, drugs, and generally being a moron does that to everyone.

  7. A problem with prescription pain medications is that they lend a person a reprieve from pain, chronic pain. A sense of normalcy overtakes what was once excruciating pain. Did the victim not mentally compensate for the changes to perception? We will never know, will we.

  8. As a physician, I find it hard to understand why so many humans abuse their amazing bodies with drugs. Our culture refuses to acknowledge how wonderful we really are. There should never be a question of lack of self-esteem if people really knew who they are, and then there would be no need for drugs.
    In this case, no one will ever know what control Roy had over his body when he made the decision to go flying. I have taken thousands of passengers up in the air, and it is better than any drug. So please choose, either drugs or flight.

  9. Hello Robert, I was very pleased to see your balanced and fair opinion on the Icon crash involving Mr. Halladay.
    Yours is the kind of comment that shows consideration for the crash victims but still tells it like it is. We need that in Aviation. Common sense approaches to the problems we face as
    Aviators will do more for safety and the way flying is seen by the general public than the simplistic defence of a downed Pilot without addressing the facts. Well done, as usual.

  10. I remember seeing the video of him on Icon’s website about two weeks before he died. I remember thinking, “Bad idea, Roy.” I was crushed when I saw the report of the accident and his death such a short time later. Now I’m even more crushed – not for him, but for his family. I’ve been with a woman who lost her husband in a plane cash for 15 years, and I know the pain never goes away. What he has done to his family is unconscionable.

  11. This accident is sad on multiple levels
    Without any given order the family, Icon especially the first delivered unit, the LSA community, Seaplanes on a whole ,Pilots as a group, and the state of our society when and where drugs are always a part of the tragedy . Fortunately as was stated this accident is already probably forgotten by most of the general public. Lets just thank God it was only one life and one plane too bad that’s just one too many.

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