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.