I’ve struggled with writing about this tragedy for a long time. I wanted so much to give other pilots a glance at this image, hoping a few might take a moment before a flight to see if there were any gotchas they missed amid their haste and distractions. But I recoiled against the prospect of telling a very personal, painful, and graphic story about a good pilot buddy. Finally I decided to just start writing rather than let this opportunity die along with him, though I must protect his anonymity. I’m certainly not a writer, nor have I ever written anything for public consumption. I may never again. This is straight from the heart.

Hundreds and hundreds of people. Family, friends, business associates, and employees. Every seat in the large church sanctuary filled. Others standing along the walls. The foyer and hallways so crowded that more stand around outside, roasting in the sun, straining to hear the memorial service being broadcast on speakers. All the parking lots filled, with illegally parked cars choking the roadway for hundreds of yards in both directions. No dry eyes. So many lives so profoundly impacted. So many futures changed forever. If only…

My friend and his passenger died in an airplane crash.

I’ve seen turnouts like this before, when young men die suddenly and violently while living life to the fullest. These gentlemen were well known and respected in their community and businesses, and served others for most of their time on this earth. They were humorous, articulate, and responsible. They loved and provided well for their families, friends, and employees. In our busy age it’s a great tribute that so many have made the effort to pay their respects and offer comfort and condolences to the suffering families as they start dealing with their own grief.

This has become a far too frequent occurrence for me, and I’m getting a little tired of it. I’ve lost sixteen friends and numerous acquaintances in aircraft mishaps. So far. Of my friends, four died in military training and combat, and all the rest in general aviation. Nearly all were highly skilled, with decades of experience in all sorts of aircraft and conditions. And I miss these good men and women every single day.

Oddly enough, I don’t personally know anyone who survived a GA crash where others died. This might be due to the nature of flying in a part of the country with very challenging terrain and weather. But records show that terrible, life-altering injuries are frequent. A common trait among pilots is a highly developed sense of responsibility for protecting our passengers. I can’t begin to imagine the lifelong load of guilt a pilot must have to carry after killing or maiming people who trusted their lives to them.

So how do qualified, well-trained pilots lose their lives? My friends perished due to various causes: continued VFR into IMC, midair collision, severe turbulence in mountains, flight control malfunction, low altitude stall/spin, descending below approach minimums in IMC, flying up blind canyons, attempting a go-around from a one-way strip, and catastrophic engine failure. There was no hotdogging, buzzing, or overt recklessness involved. These all should’ve just been normal flights.

Come to think of it, I’ve only known one person who died in a traffic accident, and he was on a motorcycle. Anyone who tells you that flying is safer than driving is probably talking about airline flying. Either that or they’re misinformed. And in this instance at least, the old flying adage holds true: “… if you crash because of weather, your funeral will be held on a sunny day.”

Please don’t get the wrong impression. I love aviation. I’ve been completely passionate about it since I was a toddler. In fact, the first thing I want to do after coming home from work (if you can call it “work” — I fly for a living) is go flying in little airplanes. Hey, I’m sick! I need help!

But these losses have changed me. I find myself double checking so many mundane things, and kicking myself if I discover anything I’ve missed. Much of the time that I used to take to enjoy the view is now crowded out by going over the “what ifs.” I experienced an engine failure a few years ago, and now I hear my inner monologue saying things like, “There’s a good place to deadstick it in! There’s another! And another!” But I know that I can’t possibly account for everything that could bring me down.

This nagging understanding makes me refuse to take the chances that I might have in the past, like taking more than one grandchild up in my airplane at a time, or trusting that the destination weather will improve by arrival time. It also makes me less willing to fly hard IFR when I’m not at work. That’s too much like work, anyway, and I bought my airplane for blue skies and beautiful days. Most of all it makes me realize that I’m not invincible. But if this risk aversion makes me a safer pilot, then it’s all worth it.

We’ve all read the accident reports, full of terms like “high degree of energy dissipation upon impact” and “rapid descent into terrain.” But this kind of cold, clinical language disguises the real aftermath: the disrupted, often destroyed lives of loved ones, the hardship and loss experienced by those left behind, and the horrors they can never forget. These reports seldom let us see through that veil, but we MUST look beyond and understand the massive consequences our actions or omissions might bring.

We’ve all seen or heard of bad examples of airmanship, ranging from ignorance to foolishness to false bravado. But in dealing with all my personal aviation tragedies, I’ve found some things common to most: complacency, overconfidence, inadequate planning, lack of qualification or competence, and lack of preparation. But the biggest contributor to my buddy’s fatal crash: very poor judgment.

This is a difficult thing for me to say about my pal, especially since I had been something of a mentor to him. But I have to put it right out there in the hope that it might save a life someday. Besides, who among us hasn’t displayed poor judgment at one time or another, especially when acting as a pilot?

Get-home-itis was the biggest link to the faulty judgment in this tragedy. It is a powerful force, so powerful that both men aboard were willing to risk single-engine flying over unlit mountainous terrain. In the middle of the night. Without a discernible horizon or an instrument rating. In smoke, clouds, and turbulence. With the moon adding all sorts of visual illusions. And with embedded thunderstorms along their route.

This combination of factors produced very unsurprising results: classic spatial disorientation followed by the inevitable graveyard spiral and final dive, terminating with high-speed vertical descent into terrain under full power. There was no in-flight breakup. The impact was so powerful that body parts were scattered up into surrounding trees, according to the sheriff’s report. This ghastly image haunts me still, and I wasn’t even one of the poor souls who had to clean up the mess. Human remains were so fragmented that no one could determine what belonged to whom. Even the credit cards in their wallets were shattered. And undoubtedly those who responded to this disaster will never be able to unsee what was laid out before them.

What haunts me even more is imagining what those last moments in the cockpit were like. I can hear the shrieking of the air rushing over the airframe at well over 200 knots, feel the disorienting g-loading, and sense the overwhelming terror that they must have experienced in the eternity of the last few seconds of their lives as they plunged into the blackness. I can only imagine how the thought of this must sicken their loved ones. The only upside? It didn’t hurt for long.

Disasters like this are far too common in general aviation. Some 40% of GA accidents are caused by spatial disorientation, yet it is not commonly understood. Remember JFK Jr? Ever hear of “The Day the Music Died?” What about Patsy Cline? Kobe Bryant?

As a matter of fact, my friend did call other pilot friends that night to get their advice, which he quickly disregarded. They begged him to spend the night and come home at first light. Now they will be forever plagued by thinking that they could have done more to convince him. But obviously he had his mind made up, and was only looking for affirmation. After all, both victims had nonrefundable reservations for their families’ vacation together starting the following day. If only…

Calling a “knock-it-off” would have cost them this vacation. Well, so did pressing on.

If only my buddy could have been given even a tiny glimpse into the future, he could have avoided the horrible results of his decision.

The real tragedy is that he did have the opportunity for that glimpse.

This outcome was foreseeable. His actions under these conditions had predictable results. But here’s the worst thing: He had just come through these conditions on the same route as his ill-fated return flight, and he KNEW what was ahead!

Much of airmanship is managing risk. Of course, awful things just happen sometimes (i.e., catastrophic structural failures), but this disaster was caused by easily avoidable and well-known risk factors.

I plead with any of you who face the host of decisions that comprise every flight to take one moment and play the pessimist. I know we all hate to think about this, but how high will the cost be if not everything goes your way? Look at how all your people would be affected if something life changing, or life ending, were to happen on your flight. Think about how overall risk jumps when a few bad little things happen at about the same time. Have an escape plan for when things do go wrong. Can you divert? Is there landable terrain below you if you have to put it down? Are you properly equipped to survive the aftermath of a remote landing? Can you see well enough to land there? Can you flip a “U-ey” in time to get out of a bad situation? Where are the rocks? What about going tomorrow (or next week) instead? Always leave yourself an out.

Better yet, leave yourself lots of outs. Here are some examples: before you push up the power, take an extra minute to consider the worst case. Double check weather and NOTAMS. Consider your gross weight and performance. Ask for advice. Know where your possible divert fields are. Think about the true priorities. Learn about spatial disorientation and how insidious it is. Beware of overconfidence and complacency. Assess and manage your risk. Take your solemn responsibility for your passengers seriously. Realize that even if you’re solo, you are risking the lives of your loved ones. Don’t get in a rush. And never let yourself start thinking that you’re bulletproof.

There’s already plenty of risk in this life. Aviation brings more, whether we like to admit it or not. Manage it well and you can enjoy a lifetime of fun sharing this great gift of flight!