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Going Direct: On Disrespecting Pilots Who Die in Crashes

Providing accident analysis is a critical part of what we aviation journalists do. We try to be objective, but sometimes we’re just human.

On an earlier flight, the Atlas Air Boeing 767 that crashed into Trinity Bay in Houston in 2019, killing all three aboard. Credit: Nathan Coats, via Creative Commons.
On an earlier flight, the Atlas Air Boeing 767 that crashed into Trinity Bay in Houston in 2019, killing all three aboard. Credit: Nathan Coats, via Creative Commons.
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I won’t go into the details here, but a reader and onetime contributor to Plane & Pilot lashed out at us, and me, for what they said was an inappropriate tone in an “After the Accident” story written by Peter Katz about the crash of a Baron in Kerrville, Texas, that killed the pilot and his five passengers. The poster’s other complaint was that there were numerous errors, including that we didn’t know the difference between a 58 Baron, which was the accident aircraft type, and a 55 Baron, the only Baron for which we could find a good photo at the time (and pointed out in the caption that it was not the same type, but was similar to the accident aircraft type). Which seems to me definitive proof that we did indeed know the difference between the models. Lastly, they said that the story was filled with errors.

Lots of people came to P&P’s defense. After all, they wrote, the guy ran out of fuel on a short flight and six people lost their lives as a result. Still, I toned down the intro some. It was a little flippant. In our defense, it’s maddening to see a preventable accident take so many innocent lives. The pilot-in-command is the pilot-in-command, and with that privilege comes grave responsibility. That pilot failed in upholding his end of the bargain by keeping his passengers safe. That’s not me: That’s the NTSB’s assertion. I just happen to agree.

Still, the people we write about in our After the Accident column, now being written by new Plane & Pilot columnist Dave English, are real people with friends and families, and those people don’t want to read disrespectful things about someone they care about.

I didn’t know the pilot in the Baron crash, but I’ve since found out that he was well known, highly respected and, by all appearances, much beloved by his pilot community. The poster who took our writer (and myself) to task was, you’re probably figured out by now, someone who knew and cared about that pilot. They were lashing out, clearly, and somewhat understandably, too.

The complaint about the Baron photo being proof that we didn’t know our airplanes wasn’t fair, as described above, so I dismissed that one out of hand, but the complaint that the story was filled with mistakes greatly concerned me. I messaged the poster, who was appreciative of the new tone of the piece, and asked them to help me find the errors that they’d mentioned. Actually, they wrote, there were none. The rest of the story was fine, they said.  

So, the only real complaint was that our story was disrespectful. Like I said, I get that. The part about there being errors, however, wasn’t true, and they apparently knew that it wasn’t. Many of the hundreds of people who read that original post, however, were left with the impression that there were mistakes, so this piece is, in part, a clarification for that intentionally misleading statement in the original post. There were no errors in the story.

With that out of the way, the issue of how we talk about pilots who are in accidents is another subject altogether. As you doubtless know all too well, the leading cause of small-plane accidents, like the Baron crash, is pilot error. The NTSB found that the cause of that accident was, indeed, pilot error.

The pilot who made the mistake, from all reports we’ve heard, was an excellent one—smart, committed to making aviation safer, involved in the community and nurturing to pilots getting started with their training and their flying careers. That’s wonderful stuff. We should have more pilots (and more people) like him. He did, however, make a terrible mistake, according the NTSB’s assessment, with which, once again, I’m in total agreement. The pilot, who was the pilot-in-command, bears responsibility for that mistake.

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How did such a thing happen, though? How did a pilot with many thousands of hours in his logbook, ratings galore and a lot of time in type, run out of fuel? He made mistakes, the NTSB found, in calculating the amount of fuel he had on board. Could such a thing happen to me or to you? Statistically speaking, the answer is yes. Such mistakes are the leading cause of accidents and fatal accidents in small planes.

Then there are the pilots who cause accidents who were none of the things—competent, well trained, or highly respected—whom we write about, as well. In its report on the crash of an Atlas Air Boeing 767 into Trinity Bay in Houston, the NTSB called into question the first officer’s qualifications and competency, determining that “the probable cause of this accident was the inappropriate response by the first officer as the pilot flying to an inadvertent activation of the go-around mode, which led to his spatial disorientation and nose-down control inputs that placed the airplane in a steep descent from which the crew did not recover.” 

It goes on to say, “Also contributing were systemic deficiencies in the aviation industry’s selection and performance measurement practices, which failed to address the first officer’s aptitude-related deficiencies and maladaptive stress response. Also contributing to the accident was the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to implement the pilot records database in a sufficiently robust and timely manner.

The Board essentially says that the first officer not only screwed up but that he wasn’t a good pilot to begin with, implying strongly that he never should have been on that flight deck, and had he not been, there would have been no accident.

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There’s another After the Accident column in the coming edition of the print magazine in which the low-time, non-instrument rated Private Pilot takes off in a non-IFR equipped sport plane into widespread conditions of low IFR, with predictably tragic results. His wife, by the way, died in the crash, as well.

My point is, it’s hard not to have some disdain for pilots who make bad mistakes that cost them, and their passengers, their lives.

It’s also important to remember that the NTSB doesn’t name names, and neither do we. In most cases, we don’t even know the names.

The question remains, however. Is it ever okay in a written analysis of an aircraft accident to discuss the pilot at fault (when such is the case) in ways that are less than fully respectful, knowing that people who knew them might be hurt or angered by those words? I don’t know. While it’s best to err on the side of respectful language, I feel as though sometimes the answer is, yes, it’s okay to discuss the pilot’s role in ways that are angry and frustrated and helpless. We can’t do anything about the accident now, but it feels so bad to know that so many of them could have been so easily avoided.

Besides, taking responsibility is part of the deal we accept when we assume the role of pilot-in-command. The buck stops with us. That means taking responsibility for mistakes we make. Even when we’re no longer around to defend ourselves.

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