Going Direct: The Aviation Culture Wars Are Here, Thank Goodness

Savannah Raskey
A new generation of pilots is emerging, one that's social media savvy. Here, Instagram star Savannah Raskey is doing aerobatics training in a Super Decathlon in Utah.

Last month, Plane & Pilot eNews published a story about the successful forced water landing of a Beechcraft Bonanza off the Pacific Coast in central California. The emergency landing came after the plane’s engine failed outside of gliding distance off shore. The pilot of the Beechcraft, David Lesh, executed a perfect ditching, which was captured on video by an occupant of the camera plane above. After the Bonanza came to rest, Lesh and his female passenger successfully escaped the sinking plane, leaving the pair treading water while awaiting rescue as the camera plane continued to orbit above them. 

Forty-five minutes later, a Coast Guard helicopter, which luckily had been doing practice runs over the bay, picked up the pair and flew them back to dry land. It was, however, a long, cold 45 minutes in the Pacific for Lesh and his passenger, both of whom reportedly sustained numerous jellyfish stings and suffered from hypothermia by then. 

It was a great story, right? And by all rights, Lesh should have been lauded as a hero for his textbook ditching job. And he likely would have, had it not been for what else transpired.

Lesh, you see, a good-looking 30-something blonde guy with oodles of Instagram followers, videoed everything, starting, remarkably, when he and his companion were treading water awaiting rescue. For many viewers, myself included, it was a surreal sight, to see the pilot who had just crash-landed his plane in the cold Pacific, and whose fate was still far from certain, streaming the entire event. And providing color commentary, too, freely sharing his thoughts about the probable causes of the loss of engine power (contaminated fuel was his first guess). Even after he was rescued, as he sat waiting in the helicopter for his passenger to be lifted up, he continued the video feed.

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Online, Lesh got a chilly reception. Viewers were put off, I think, not by the crash itself but from the way Lesh documented it and his seemingly casual attitude about it. It just didn’t seem as though he understood the gravity of the situation.

The misapprehension likely had more to do with the cultural gap that aviation and the larger world are experiencing today, one in which the young pilots coming up through the ranks see life through a whole different way than their parents. In many ways, experience seems validated only by the (often-playful) documenting of that experience. Without a Snapchat post, could a tree really claim to have fallen in the forest? 

The effect is widespread, including among young people who lead remarkably conventional aviation lives. It’s especially true with young professional pilots, especially women, who carefully curate their online content lest the audience find their antics at best frivolous or even hazardous, though there’s no evidence the latter is an issue with selfies aloft.

One recent example I ran across was an inflight cockpit selfie of two young women aviators, a newly minted Instrument-rated pilot and her friend, a CFI, flying along with big smiles on their faces. Oh, and they had bear noses and bear ears, too. The added features were superimposed, of course, by the magic of digital filters. It was silly and fun—at least it was for them. I smiled, too.

But the pilots didn’t post the pic publicly. Instead, they prevented the sharing of it, just posting it on a members-only forum where the audience ate it up. It’s no mystery why young pilots like this are being so careful. They don’t want the photos to be used against them by potential employers. I’ll add that one such pilot pointed out that such employers would have no one to hire if they held such innocent posts against applicants.

These are two very different examples, of course. You might be fine with furry flying fun but not with the livestreaming a water rescue. Regardless, both are examples of younger pilots being increasingly creatures of the internet, which more and more means social media.

I would argue that this social media-centered existence has already affected the aviation world in one positive way. Young people (and more than a few not-so-young ones, too) have a huge built-in support network of like-minded fellow pilots. These online friends might not know each other personally, but they care about each other nonetheless, offering kind words after a bad stage check, encouragement when eights on pylons seem unconquerable, and tips on getting along with a difficult CFI. These examples are real interactions I’ve witnessed, and, yes, participated in, online. I wish I had that kind of support when I was learning to fly. Who wouldn’t want that?

There’s one other thing, too, that I shouldn’t need to add but will. These young pilots aren’t silly or careless in their attitude toward flying. They are, in fact, remarkably bright, well-read and knowledgeable about flying. Even more, they’re always seeking to learn more about what they’re doing. If they don’t know, they do something remarkable: They ask. And more often than not, they get great answers to their questions.

If that’s the kind of future generation of aviators you get in return for some of us having to endure a few extra selfies aloft, I’ll take that deal...with or without bear ears.

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