For years, flying was bliss. I flew from a friend’s grass strip near Atlanta, and I was on the insurance for everything in the hangar. I could go somewhere in the Mooney that is now my Mooney. I could go nowhere in a Cub that remains a project. When the spirit moved me, which was often, I could dance across the sky in my choice of two Zlin 526 Akrobats. It really was a champagne life on a tap water budget, which is handy because tap water was about all I could swing back then.
When I wrung out the Zlins, I had the solitude of an aerobatic box over a giant pine tree farm, and with no houses directly below, it was easy enough to imagine that it was just airplane, sky, ground and me. As I alternately sagged and floated in the seat through the countless rolling circles, I tuned out all distractions, along with any idea that someone might be watching.
The illusion vaporized one night at a dinner gathering. I was talking to a friend of a friend, who lived just north of the airstrip. Once she discovered I flew there, her eyes lit up. “That red plane is you,” she declared. “I absolutely love watching you fly!” I smiled, and we became friends. I took her flying once or twice, but that statement shattered my solitude, and I never again harbored any belief that I had the world to myself when aloft.
Once I began to burn jet fuel, the eyes grew more numerous. Any time we declared an emergency, several folks in back would inevitably have video rolling as we landed uneventfully, even before personal electronics were allowed below 10,000 feet. Then, having met a few plane spotters, I started looking closely and often spied a few long lenses pointed my way as we came down final at certain airports. In fact, I’m surprised that one particular landing I’m less than proud of never made it to YouTube. Someone else must have done a poorer job of judging the gusts in Montreal that blustery afternoon to have saved my arrival from being the showcase feature of the day.
And then the age of the GoPro was upon us, and many pilots became streaming stars online. Steve Henry’s antics in a Highlander as he defied gravity with his dead-stick takeoff and numerous other flights put a spotlight on backcountry flying, a trend that has continued with countless videos by pilots like Trent Palmer. These “Flying Cowboys” publicized a kind of flying previously ignored by much of the pilot community.
Their breathtaking exploits in rugged environs inspired many of us to dream, even some pilots who’d been long insulated from anything that wasn’t certified, standardized and thoroughly scrutinized by our friends in Oklahoma City. Sales of backcountry-capable aircraft skyrocketed—just call up and ask what the lead time is on a Kitfox or Highlander kit these days. You’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that the prevalence of affordable video equipment had no hand in that phenomenon.
But what happens when things get ugly? Atlas Air’s Boeing 767 that crashed on approach to Houston was captured on multiple doorbell cameras as it smashed into the water at a speed that made the videos look like a time-lapse video, giving investigators, both official and the armchair variety, ammunition to fuel statements that something was horribly abnormal in the moments before that crash.
An Air Niugini Boeing 737 in Micronesia plunged into a lagoon on approach with an engineer riding the jump seat recording the flight on his phone all the way to impact. His video, investigators said, was a key part of their investigation as they castigated the captain and first officer, who survived (along with 46 of the 47 others on board) for descending well below approach minimums—hitting water well short of the runway as a result.
Airport security cameras have captured dramatic video of numerous engine failures on takeoff, including a King Air in Addison, Texas, and a Beechcraft Duke at Fullerton, California. One may argue some value of using these as training aids to illustrate the seriousness of a Vmc rollover, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the millions of views racked up online outnumber the pilot population. They are mostly viewed by those who will never touch the controls of an aircraft, much less know the stress of a failure that requires solid aviating and quick decision-making. To the non-flying public, these dramatic captures may be little more than aeronautic-themed snuff films.
“I can’t even imagine the shame of knowing that you’d just busted up a perfectly good airplane, with 4k video of the whole event for investigators to use as they assigned blame, and that it would invariably make its way to social media.”
Flight schools offered a huge opportunity for video capture. With cameras mounted on Cherokees, Diamonds and Skyhawks, instructors gained additional tools for training, schools perhaps found additional value to justify higher rental rates, and students had a hero video as a keepsake from their first solo, as long as no metal got bent. But when metal met metal, dirt, or asphalt in ways not intended for an aircraft to come to rest, many times we saw the first thing a student did after killing the ignition and battery master switches (sometimes even before) was to turn to the camera, mash the button, and wait for the red light to go out. Often uninjured, they got a pained look in their eyes that was already evident.
I can’t even imagine the shame of knowing that you’d just busted up a perfectly good airplane, with 4k video of the whole event for investigators to use as they assigned blame, and that it would invariably make its way to social media. These videos are painful to watch as the video rolls and the planes drift while taking off or landing in a stiff crosswind, the early action telegraphing the series of events ahead long before the flight has reached the point of no return. That such video footage has been published with foreign students or females at the controls only made bad things worse, as many pilots fanned the flames with statements about flying skills being directly related to one’s nationality or gender.
While admittedly late to the bandwagon, I finally mounted a camera or two onto the Mooney and recorded a recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” for my church’s online worship services. They’d solicited recordings of prayers, and portions of the worship service delivered by us as we went about our lives. I figured that if I crashed with cameras rolling that day, maybe at least I’d have the creator on my side.
So, the cameras are everywhere, and we can’t put that genie back into the bottle, unfortunately. But the last thing anyone wants is for our final moments to be captured in a less-than-dignified scream of fear as we brace just ahead of impact. Maybe you’ll be the next YouTube star and enjoy many incident-free flights as the world rides along.
Or, if things go poorly with cameras running, may you have the integrity to stand up and offer us a valuable lesson, as a couple of the high-profile media types have done after bending an airplane. I’d venture to say that most of us would hit the delete button and offer “no comment” as our only words after an embarrassing mishap. Pilots have developed such a habit of clamming up post-incident out of a fear of being violated that there’s precious little to be gained out of what we used to call “teachable moments.” Maybe we need to rethink our defensive attitudes and be ready to fess up, grow as a pilot and a person, and help the bigger community.
But I can’t even pretend to be the guy to lead that charge. With a face fit for radio and a voice suited for print, I’ll avoid cockpit cameras for the most part and leave the video channels open for those with more exotic planes, Hollywood looks and thick enough skin to handle the criticism that comes with the fame. To all you video stars out there: Good luck. We’re all counting on you.