There’s an old ethos in flying that pilots should never speculate on the cause of aviation accidents, especially when a high-profile crash hits the news. Some folks are vocal and passionate in sharing their feelings about this unofficial rule, which they often see as an almost religious absolute.
But the world has changed, and with it, aviation. And some of the most important reasons that anti-speculation gatekeepers give for onlookers keeping mum simply don’t make sense anymore, even though admittedly, there are a number of really good reasons to temper our views anyway.
When an aviation accident occurs, pilots understandably want to know why it happened. There are a lot of aviation accidents, too. Too many. In the last calendar year for which the NTSB published end-of-year statistics, there were 1,233 accidents. Of those, 203 were fatal, with 331 lives lost. Safety in this segment, mostly personal and self-flown business aviation, is getting better, but 1,233 accidents are far too many no matter how you spin it. At the same time, pilots understand that we will likely never completely eliminate aviation mishaps. It’s part of the nature of human bodies going very high and very fast in complex machines.
With few exceptions, pilots understand—how could you not—that there are risks associated with what we do. And almost without exception, pilots want to better understand the nature of the risks we do face, not out of morbid curiosity, but rather, so we can do things to cut that risk. And there are real steps we can take, whether it’s improving our planes’ safety gear, perhaps by installing improved restraints in an older plane, or by signing up for non-mandatory recurrent training, maybe an IFR refresher course.
So understanding why accidents happen in general, and why specific accidents happened, is simple survival instinct. Even though the non-pilot population is also keenly interested in aviation accidents, their interest in most cases is fundamentally different from a pilot’s. As is their understanding of the variables. Suffice it to say that aviation is very complicated, so it’s unreasonable to expect non-experts in aviation matters to possess a high level of understanding of the nature of the risks we face on various fronts, including weather, mechanical uncertainties, pilot performance and other factors. Much of what we do as lifelong aviation learners, which all pilots must be, is to better understand the factors that go into the many ways a flight might come to harm, which is often referred to as “risk assessment.” We do this every time we fly, or at least we should. We also do it by studying mishaps.
So when a high-profile accident happens, such as the crash of a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that claimed the lives of nine people, including global basketball legend Kobe Bryant, in Southern California in January, there’s no shortage of interest, some of it practical, some of it that seems more related to less honorable motives.
People love a mystery, and human nature being what it is, the more tragic the tale, the more gripping the search for answers. This is nothing new. Over the years, the most popular books, right behind romances, have been mysteries.
And these days the hottest segment isn’t fiction at all, but true crime. Movies, television series, documentaries, books and podcasts that deal with real-life bad guys, proven or merely suspected, are popular beyond easy explanation. The more seemingly impenetrable the mystery, the more boundless the public’s fascination with it becomes. Who committed the Burger Chef murders? What happened to Susan Powell? And who’s responsible for the Austin yogurt shop killings? For each of these cold cases, there are active online communities, armies of amateur sleuths who spend untold hours speculating and, in some cases, researching the crimes.
In aviation, we have our own mysteries, though our fascination with them is tempered, to a degree at least. The list of long-lasting mysteries include the loss of Malaysia Flight 370, with 239 lives presumed lost; the disappearance of U.S. Representatives Hale Boggs and Nick Begich and two others in Alaska in 1972 on a campaigning trip; and the biggest of them all, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan over the Pacific Ocean on the penultimate leg of an ill-fated around-the-world flight attempt in 1937.
While these mysterious mishaps have captured the imagination of the mainstream media and non-aviation onlookers, there are many accidents that get only local attention, if that. A Cessna 150 that went missing near Brownsville, Texas, with one dead. A Luscombe 8A that crashed, killing the sole occupant while en route to somewhere, claiming the life of the only person aboard. A Cherokee 140 that crashed on takeoff from Canon City, Colorado, killing one of the three aboard the plane. In many of these accidents, the cause remains unknown or, as the NTSB puts it, “under unknown circumstances.” Some of these accidents will eventually get statements of probable cause—an NTSB investigation typically takes more than a year. Others will remain mysteries.
As far as the public’s fascination with aviation mysteries…that’s a very old story. Stories that generated enormous amounts of media attention included the 1938 trans-Atlantic flight of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan; the 1947 disappearance of BSAA Avro Lancastrian “Stardust” in the Andes; and the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in the crash of a Beechcraft Bonanza in 1959. The fascination with the Kobe Bryant crash is nothing new. People have been speculating on crashes for as long as there have been crashes.
The biggest difference between mysteries of yore, even unsolved accidents a couple of decades ago, and today’s mishaps is that we have tons of data on which to base our theories. If anyone doubted this fact, the Kobe Bryant crash hopefully disabused them of it. After it was revealed that Bryant had been killed in the crash, within hours we had a moment-by-moment track and altitudes of the flight, and recordings of the interactions between the pilot and air traffic controllers as the flight progressed.
With the advent of ADS-B, we’ll soon have access to even more data. And at some time in the not-too-distant future, who knows, we might have real-time video of the pilots doing their thing, as well as the plane’s flight data.
One of the main reasons anti-speculation adherents give for their stand is that the NTSB might have information that we don’t know about. They might, true. But the point is that even before the NTSB arrives on the scene these days, we know a lot of the details associated with the mishap. This is not to say that there won’t even be mysteries waiting to be discovered by professional investigators…there will be. And it’s not to say that some mysteries, like Malaysia 370, won’t remain unsolved, or, like TWA 800, contentious. TWA 800, of course, was the Boeing 747 that exploded over the Atlantic in 1996, which some contend was an accidental shoot down.
With the Kobe Bryant crash, the facts early on pointed to continued VFR into IMC, which more than ever looks to be the case. So, does the NTSB have information outside observers don’t? Yes. But that special information is often not particularly relevant in a segment in which a handful of common accident causes continue to cause tragedy. Finding out that the pilot who flew into a thunderstorm was taking an over-the-counter antihistamine sheds zero light on that particular accident cause.
We should avoid reckless speculation. We should avoid floating theories about the skills of the pilot or the condition of the aircraft, that is, unless there’s ample reason to believe that the theory is a reasonable one.
Another thing is, we need to leave names of victims out of it until officials have released those names. In the Bryant crash, there were several victims falsely named, leaving loved ones to believe they had perished in the crash.
Finally, as much as I sympathize with the desire to enforce an ethic of conservative discourse when it comes to aviation accidents, the truth is, the internet, and the behavior of people on it, many of whom are anonymous, is for all intents and purposes impossible to control. The best we can do is spread the truth as effectively as we can, expose irresponsible theories and statements for the junk they are, and hope that over time the truth will emerge, which, almost without exception, it eventually does.