Those of us who’ve been immersed in aviation for any length of time know what it is to lose someone you know to an airplane crash. It sucks, and there’s no getting around it. The thought that they died doing what they loved to do is little consolation, especially since it’s not true. Flying is what they loved to do, not crashing.
The death of Roy “Doc” Halladay in an Icon A5 on Tuesday was a punch to the gut for pilots who know what it’s like to lose someone close to you. I never met the pitcher, who’s a good bet to make the Baseball Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible for that honor in 2019, if that date isn’t moved up following his tragic death. But I’m a baseball fan, and I hated Halladay, because, as a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays for many years, he was the nemesis of my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. I hated it when we went up against him because I knew our chances of winning weren’t very good. So the truth is, just like I hated Derek Jeter of the Yankees and Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles, the hate was the deepest expression of appreciation and respect there is in baseball. He was a great pitcher.
As grownups, we know we won’t live forever. We just want to be a lot older when we do go and to have had some amazing experiences along the way. So every time we go flying we’re accepting a level of risk that, like it or not, is many times greater than the one we accepted when we hopped in the pickup truck and drove to the airport. That’s just a fact. Of course, smart pilots do what they can to minimize the risk, but it’s still there, and pretending it’s not is a mistake. Number one, it won’t keep you from crashing if things go really bad, and, two, the attitude will make it far more likely that you will crash because you’ll take risks you otherwise wouldn’t.
I’m not saying that we all need to fly smack dab in the middle of the envelope all the time. I don’t. I love flying off of small grass strips, flying homebuilt airplanes, flying formation and tooling around in antiques, too. All of these activities ratchet up the risk, and I accept that as part of the deal, sure. But I also do everything I can to minimize the risk that I can mitigate.
That means being conservative with what risks you do accept and which risks you leave on the table. I recently went paragliding for the first time, and I’ll do it again. Is there risk involved with that activity? You bet, but I accept it and am educating myself as fast as I can and as best I can about what the nature of that risk is and how I manage it. Wingsuit flying, on the other hand, is right out. I’m happy that people love to do it, but the risk is too great for me. If I die of old age never having gone wingsuit flying, I’ll be okay. That’s my call. And that calculus will change from person to person, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the pilot understands the risk and knows how to minimize it.
What does all of this have to do with the tragic loss of Roy Halladay on Tuesday? Nothing...and everything. I don’t know the details of the crash and I wouldn’t presume to speculate on them. But I do know that the horrible news got me thinking about the risks I take and am planning to take as a pilot, and it’s made me even more committed to learning as much as I can about every kind of flying I commit myself to. Will it keep me perfectly safe? Of course not. Hopefully it will keep me as safe as possible, and if it doesn’t, the conclusion is either “my bad” or “those are the breaks.”
That, like it or not, is the deal we all accept every time we going flying.
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