Going Direct: Roy Halladay, Risk And The Calculus Behind It

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.

Irrespective of his baseball talent, it’s sad to see him, or anyone, die in a crash. And to be gone so young, and to be gone in a way that was mostly likely totally preventable. It’s wrong on every level.

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.

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

7 thoughts on “Going Direct: Roy Halladay, Risk And The Calculus Behind It

  1. Saying you ‘hated’ Doc Halladay is a very strong word and only because he was so accomplished at his profession. Just ‘saying’.
    May he RIP

  2. Excellent commentary. It takes time and flying maturity to assess and mitigate the risks associated with ones’ style of flying. It has been my observation that the potential consequences are not adequately assessed. It took me quite awhile to recognize that should I perish as a result of a flying accident, the aftermath to my family would be severe both financially and not being there for them. Insurance helps to mitigate the financial impacts but there is not much mitigation for not being around anymore. I’m much more conservative in my flying now than I was 20 years ago.

  3. My flight instructor had over 10,000 hours flying various aircraft. His aviation career spanned 60 years as his first flight was in a barnstorming Jenny. He flew in WW 2, Korea, and Vietnam military…(he spoke little of it…I didn’t ask) the list is long and varied…he then began wheeling and dealing in classic aircraft and warbirds and everything else that would lift off a runway……and enjoyed himself immensely. He was “elderly” when I met him at an air show, as I was the crew chief of a friends airshow aircraft. We became friends and he was my aviation mentor. I nic-named him “The Albatross”. He called me “Stall Master”…………

    I knew how to fly…but he taught me “how” to fly. He instilled in me the same thought he had and would voice every time he…and we… became airborne……”now…the learning begins”. He stated every flight he takes is a learning experience. I adopted the same practice.

    He passed away in the 90’s and I miss him. I am a much better pilot because of his “to the point demanding instruction”……it was applied with calm and direction and results based dissection of what occurred……he never intimidated or made fun.

    My point is that after all of this, I’m still prone to auger it in…….we all are. What we must do is approach each flight as “now…the learning begins”. If you’re not a little nervous prior to your flight, and during your flight (nervous meaning alert/excited/aware) you should not be flying. The more “alive” you are…… the more you’ll avoid being that lawn dart………..

  4. I knew two pilots who were close friends and died taking some huge risk. The risk they took were not only deadly, but way out of character. One, a retired fighter squadron leader with over 30,000 hours. The other was a CFII with over 4,000 hours. They were both better pilots than me, and yet, I’m still typing. And, flying (41 yrs). All told, I personally know, and were friends with, a dozen pilots who were killed — all due to pilot error. The CFII mentioned above bought my first airplane (Decathlon) from me, and both he, and the plane, came to a fiery end. That one hurt the worst. Yes, I have given myself a few thrills that I was lucky to live through. Seeing someone like Roy Halladay get killed, is like watching Steve Jobs die from cancer. If it can happen to them, it can easily happen to me.

  5. Robert, you wrote a thoughtful and important message summing up what many of we pilots think when we contemplate the dangers of flying. Any movement through three dimensions has risk, so flying is never an absolutely certain activity. However, we all know that with precautions, fresh skills, and well-maintained equipment, it _can_ be done safely.

    My heart goes out to the family suffering this personal loss as it does to the Icon team that is surely grappling hard with the loss of their beloved test pilot earlier this year and now this loss.

  6. An accident of this magnitude is usually caused by a ‘chain reaction’: I don’t believe Halladay had aerobatic ‘savvy’, perhaps didn’t have a wealth of emergency maneuver training and flew maneuvers too close to the water at high speed. I hate to say it but it was probably the old and dangerous cliche ‘Watch this!’ What is a shame is that as the author states, the accident was preventable. When I did EMT in an aerobatic airplane (a Citabria) with an aerobatic instructor we were over 3,000 ft AGL and he could get the plane flying again if I got into too much trouble. There was risk but it was somewhat mitigated.

    I saw Roy Halladay pitch a masterpiece a few years ago, everyone on his teams and community said he was a super guy, was a good family man, and that makes this so hard to bear.

  7. I understand the comment about athletic “hate” which is definitely not hate. I understand the “hate”between fans whether it be professional or amateur sports. If there was ever a guy who loved to be “hated” by Red Sox fans it was Roy “Doc” Halliday and I’m sure his family would all laugh and agree.

    This is such a horrendous loss and needless tragedy! I’m very disturbed by the marketing and promotional tactics of a manufacturer who describes flying an airplane as casual fun like riding a jet ski. A company that promotes ”low and slow” steep and tight turns at 300’, and even at 100’, should seriously consider the contribution to the deaths of men who would be alive today had they not taken these approved and encouraged maneuvers suggested by the manufacturer. Now, not only will Icon become a synonymous icon of risk and death associated with general aviation, the public will likely become even more cynical with light airplanes. And, maybe they should, if published and suggested operations of this airplane remain as they are today.

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