When I posted to my personal Facebook page a link to my story on longtime Flying magazine columnist Martha Lunken getting her pilot certificates revoked as punishment for her having flown under a bridge last year, I expected some comment, but nothing like what I’ve since seen: widespread havoc! Okay, well if not that, then at least some spirited disagreement among my friends, some of whom, most of whom I’ve known for the better part of two decades, or longer.
The one I’ve known the longest is my brother Roger, who’s a few years older than I am. He mentioned that our father had flown under a bridge, the French King Bridge, with Roger in the back seat of his North American SN-J, the Navy version of the AT-6 World War II-era advanced trainer. And in all fairness, I do remember my dad talking about flying under bridges back when I was very young. He seemed to think it was a pretty exciting thing. I don’t remember being very impressed by it. Bridges are huge and airplanes are pretty small. Right? But I was happy that he was happy about it.
But I was unprepared for the way that people piled onto Martha for the bridge flying stunt. You’d have thought she’d done something very dangerous. And generally speaking, in terms of risk exposure, there are so many things pilots do on a regular basis that are way, way riskier. As they do with other usually non-hazardous activities, people can be stupid enough to pick a really bad bridge with unwelcoming terrain around it and really screw things up for themselves and others. People’s capacity for stupidity is just about endless, as the internet regularly reminds us. But if you pick a tall bridge that you know, and there aren’t any obstacles or terrain on the way in or the way out, your chances of hitting the bridge are pretty slim. Maybe pilots have accidentally hit bridges while attempting to fly under them, but I’ve never heard of an instance.
And, for the record, I’ve never flown under a bridge, and I am not encouraging it or recommending it. It’s a stupid thing to do for a variety of reasons. But doing it doesn’t make you an axe murderer. It makes them someone who decided to do something against the regs that probably had some degree of higher risk than run of the mill flying, which, for the record, seems like insanity in action to many non-pilots. And let’s not forget that we all love watching pilots wringing it out at Reno every year at 300+ mph and at just above cactus level.
Then I remembered something that happened when I was in my 20s. I’d gotten a ticket for going 65 in a 55 zone. The officer seemed pretty judgmental about it, too. Like I’d done something horrible. I was baffled. Like just about everyone else in Southern California, on the freeways I always drove between 5 and 10 mph over the speed limit, because it was dangerous not to. In fact, the very stretch of freeway on which I got the ticket had until recently been a 65-mph zone, and a couple of years after I got my ticket for going 65 mph on that same stretch of concrete. How, I wondered, was my misdeed one day the height of legality the next?
Of course, the answer is, it wasn’t any more or less dangerous. The rules had changed. Yet, when I made that argument in the silly $90 avoid getting the ticket on your permanent record class, the way my fellow speeders and stop sign-rollers reacted you’d think I’d just advocated, again, axe murdering or something. My arguments fell on deaf ears, as far as moral understanding was concerned. I just didn’t get that we were arguing at cross purposes. The degree of risk it entailed wasn’t the point. The point was that it was against the rules and therefore bad. I even brought up the question—oh,it was a great digression from the regular class content—of unjust laws. The consensus on that was, you follow them anyways. I gave up.
And I’m kind of giving up on fighting this fight. The consensus is, Martha flew under a bridge. It was against the rules. She got busted for it. And that says everything we need to know about her character, though she’s probably not quite as bad as an axe murderer. But same neighborhood. Besides, there are a lot of people that really don’t like Martha for all the reasons I and thousands of others really do. She’s a hoot and a live wire, and she is one talented writer, too. Some folks probably hold that against her, too.
Whether the bridge stunt was really dangerous or not isn’t the point. She broke the rules, got caught and that’s all there is to it.
And I get that the FAA’s philosophy is to deal with enforcement as though infractions are black and white and not hundreds of scales of grey. And to be honest, this one was blatant and not open to interpretation. But the severity of it is. I really wish the FAA had given Martha a suspension instead of a revocation. They certainly had the power to do that, but they chose to go nuclear instead. That’s the problem with breaking the rules. Martha knowns that.
The best approach is, follow the rules and fly safe, at least unless there’s a compelling reason to deviate from that plan. And sometimes, there is. It just wasn’t the case for Martha the day that bridge called her name.