I’ve been struggling with a story I’ve been working on recently, namely, the news of the disappearance of Kelsey Berreth, a young flight instructor and mother from Colorado. There are no clues to where she went or if she’s okay. At this point, this story's arc will likely not be related to aviation, although I became interested in it because she's a flight instructor and because investigators were looking into the possibility that she might have gone missing while on a flight. Once I was caught up in it, well, I stayed concerned. It's an occupational hazard.
This sadly doesn't mark the first time I’ve struggled with writing something that’s hard to even think about, never mind to research and ponder. Aviation is an activity, sadly, that has more than its share of bad news. Some of it is horrifying to contemplate, too.
The sad fact is this: small planes crash quite a bit. The old saw about the drive to the airport being the most dangerous part of the trip is only true if you drive it on a motorcycle at high speed in traffic. Smart pilots do a lot to cut their risk, but the risk remains.
How I wish it weren’t so. Being from an aviation family, and one that ran airport businesses, I was around airplanes from the get-go, and I remember bad news early on. When I was eleven years old a B-25 owned by a group of warbird collectors known as the Damn Yankee Air Force crashed at an airport in Orange, Massachusetts, not too far from where we lived. The guy flying, a former WWII Mitchell bomber pilot named Roger Lopez, got killed when he tried to go around and the airplane was destroyed. He was flying the airplane solo and hadn’t had any time in type in eleven years. Sometimes we pilots don’t mitigate our risk.
And there were others. When I was a teenager an employee of our family run business, and a family friend as well, Cindy Rucker, got killed when she crashed when she spun the Decathlon she was flying into the ground during an aerobatics routine at an airshow. My parents were there when it happened, and I would have been too, had it not been for another commitment.
I could go on for several pages about the people I’ve known or been close to in other ways that have died in airplane crashes. All of us pilots are affected by it. We’re a close family. And everyone handles it differently. People grieve in their own and we need to let them do that. Sometimes we hurt when accidents happen that have nothing to do with us. And it’s hard to know how you’re doing to react when bad news does hit. I wish I had some way of knowing, but I don’t. And even looking back after the fact, it’s largely a mystery to me why some accidents hit me hard and others I take in stride.
As an aviation journalist, it’s tougher than it is on most people because I write about crashes as part of my job. And I hate doing it. I hate that people crash and get hurt and get killed. But it happens. In 2017 347 people were killed in general aviation plane crashes in the United States in 209 fatal accidents. It’s a part of the story of aviation.
Luckily it’s a story we’re changing. Last year was the safest year in GA history. But that news is hard to get too excited about because the numbers are still way too high. How many fatalities in GA is too many in a year? One. And 347 is 347 too many. So I wind up writing stories about fatal crashes of pilots who didn’t deserve it, which is every one of them regardless of what the details of the crash might be. Every single word I write is hard.
Thankfully, I also write about ways we can fly with reduced risk and greater awareness, and that matters. I’ve saved lives. I have no doubt about it. Every aviation journalist I know has saved lives as well. Those numbers are impossible to record, because, well, how do you count up things that never happened.
I have no details. How many lives have I saved? I have no idea, but I do know that it’s at least one, because I’m still here to write this piece. And I celebrate the fact that you’re here to read it. Let’s strive to keep it that way until we all get very old and very gray.
Getting back to my original question, why has Kelsey Berreth’s disappearance affected me so strongly? In part, it’s surely because I fear for the worst. For every day she stays missing the chance that she has come to harm increases. And while there’s nothing that indicates her disappearance was aviation related, she, like us, is a pilot, and we stick together. I’m rooting for her just as much as I’m rooting for us all.
Fly safely, friends.