The ultimate responsibility: thoughts on family flying

Pilatus crash plane
The track of the airplane that crashed shows a sharp right turn before it crashed.

After the tragic crash of the PC-12 in Florida, Pete Bedell wrote on Facebook that he was flying over the top of this accident on the way back from Costa Rica at FL390. (Pete flies for United.) He heard the pilot and controller discussing weather but Pete said that, from his lofty perch, he didn’t see any weather down at Flight Level 250, where the PC-12 was flying, that appeared hazardous.

That crash took the lives of a couple and their four kids, as they were returning from the Bahamas and heading toward their Junction City, Kansas, home. Pete’s mention of it was especially pertinent to me because of a long history of Collins and Bedell family flying. In fact, we first met Pete 42 years ago when he was only weeks old. His parents, Rowland and Julie, loaded their four kids up and flew to visit us in Little Rock.

When I looked at the heartbreaking pictures of the Bramlage family on the web, I reflected on how wonderful it was to be able to load our three kids in the airplane while the Bedells did likewise with their four and we took air trips to watering holes around the country.

One particular time stands out in my memory. We were in Hilton Head with the Bedells and the restaurant had an orchestra and dance floor. After dinner we, adults and kids alike, danced the night away. It is a wonderful memory, made possible by family flying.

It will be a while before the NTSB determines why the Bramlage family trip ended tragically. From what is known now, it almost has to have involved a high speed loss of control. The right wing of the PC-12 failed in flight. That is a robust airplane and it is hard to see how the wing might have failed were the pilot in control of the airplane.

The FlightAware log of the fight supports the loss of control theory. At 12:33 the track reversed course, from west to east as it climbed through FL250 for FL260. At 12:34 it was headed northeast at FL260 and the groundspeed had dropped from 147 to 68 knots. At 12:35 the groundspeed had dropped to 60 knots. At 12:36 the groundspeed had increased to 255 knots and the last hit, at 12:38, showed it headed west again and descending with a groundspeed of 255 knots. Clearly, something really fast and bad had happened.

Pilatus crash
The Pilatus crashed in a swampy area of central Florida, killing the entire family on board.

Airlines are held to a higher degree of care as they take people’s money to fly them around.  Be that as it may, I always tried to a hold myself to the highest standard when flying my family around. Folks who hire air transportation, whether by the seat or the airplane, do so voluntarily. It doesn’t work that way with our kids. We take them flying. In most cases, they don’t have a choice. Given that, we owe them big time.

One of the reasons I became such a weather geek over the years was if I was going to fly my family in clouds, I was going to understand everything there was to know about those clouds. If they were bumpy, I always knew why and knew exactly how bumpy it was going to be. Likewise, I knew how to recognize busted forecasts and inaccurate weather observations and how to deal with them.

The weather wisdom I developed served me well when my family wasn’t in the airplane. I’d be the first to confess that I did things solo that I wouldn’t do with my family but when I did, I had an almost total understanding  of the risk that I was taking. That was quite useful.

We were headed west one day, toward the central Colorado area. We were in a turbocharged 210. The surface wind was quite strong. We were flying pretty high, all five of us sucking on oxygen, when the air in the Flight Levels got all nervous and I realized that I didn’t have a clue about what might come next. My Rocky Mountain flying experience was limited. Everyone enjoyed the evening in Colorado Springs. Had I been alone, I would have kept going, exploring the condition as I flew into the heart of the Rockies.

Accidents do happen even when you are being careful. There will always be an underlying element of risk in flying. But for my money there is no such thing as being too careful when there is family on board. Do you approach flying differently based on passengers?

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39 Comments

  • Some time in early 2000s, a Suburban went down the grade on I-580 eastbound, east of Altamont, just short of the railroad bridge. Everyone died (5 kids). Did anyone post an article on the ultimate responsibility of driving? Sorry, rethorical quesiton.

  • I absolutely agree. I always feel a significant increase in the burden of responsibility with family or friends on board. I always try to be safe when flying alone but hold myself to a higher standard with passengers.

  • I would extend the thought in that I believe I tend to be more cautious when flying any passengers, not just family members. And I believe there is an innate sense of responsibility to do that for most pilots. However, all said, in this new age of “nothing, if not safe”, the beginning question to be answered is just how safe one wants to be. One could question the need for a family trip 1000 miles away and, instead, stay home and garden or watch TV for maximum safety; or ride the airlines. Or for maximum family excitement, ride Ninja motorcycles to Florida for Bike Week. Lots of choices and as long as we are free to make them, it’s cool.

  • I’m going to argue to have ONE level of safety… not a double standard. If one feels like they need to fly like a professional with the family on board, then adopt that standard for ALL flying.

    Now, if it relates to comfort (and clearly not a safety issue), I could argue to alter flights for passenger comfort that we may be willing to take ourselves….. bumpy air, hot/cold weather, whatever.

    However, safety has one level. We should strive to be the best in that category.

      • John: There’s weather I’m perfectly willing to fly in that my wife and daughter would find too bumpy, and there’s weather I’m happy to fly in, learning about, that I would be less capable of flying in with the distraction of passengers.

        I don’t see having two standards as being unreasonable, as long as you’re not taking unreasonable risk because it’s only you and the airframe that are on the line.

  • Sadly, I am familiar with what sounds like a similar situation. Cessna TR182, Mother, two kids in the back and the “instrument rated” pilot at the wheel. With IMC and a serious lack of competency, the family was gone in a grinding flash. Similar to this, the airframe dismantling itself on the way to the ground.

    I never found out whether this guys was a “weekend wonder” instrument pilot or had done it the way I did…dug out over time with gains made slowly and carefully.

    Clearly, an instrument ticket is not a ticket to immortality…Rather it is permission to waive part of your safety margin in exchange for a higher level of skill. No shortcuts here…either you can do it or your family can pay a deadly price for ineptitude and bravado.

  • I fly an aircraft that took me three years to build in my garage. I am very pleased with my final results … it is everything I had hoped it would be. Yet, my grandchildren who are 2 and 5 years old have been told by me they can fly with me as soon as THEY are on Medicare (I’m 66 years old). My two daughters and my two son-in-laws have never been invited to fly with me … and if they requested a ride, I would politely decline. My wife and I love to fly … and that’s good enough for us. We weigh the inherent flying risks against our love and excitment of flying our own, homebuilt aircraft and allow our kids and grandchildren
    to discover on their own what brings them pleasure. And yes, if I owned a factory built, certified aircraft, I would feel exactly the same way.

  • Richard,
    For an entire family to perish in a private aircraft is tragic and a great lesson to all of us. Ideally, we would fly to a single high standard, but in reality, it seems likely that most of us will do things when flying alone that we would not do with passengers. At my age, flying an ancient airplane under the Light Sport rule, I will not take up anyone not competent to land the airplane should I crump aloft. It would not be fair to them, their families, or my estate should there be a serious crash.

  • The fact is there should be no diference. Just like landing the plane. Same speed turning base, same speed on final (for the same situation) Just because the wind is 12K straight down the runway you should not vary. Why? Because then safety is built in not added on

  • I agree there should always be a very high level of safety when flying period. However, I do feel a much higher level of responsibility and stress when flying with passengers and especially family. I am now responsible for other lives, and the only one in control of the outcome of the flight.
    I consider this akin to driving alone vs. on a family road trip… On the family road trip, you ensure the tire pressures are good, oil changed, all bags secured, all gassed up and ready to go… Do you all do this before you hop in your vehicle before your daily commute? I don’t think so…

  • From a bit different perspective here. Disregard flying for a moment, and just consider Life in general. It may take some of us guys a while, but as we hold our kids, watch them play as we did as kids, have them come running to greet us, etc. we begin to realize that we have created something pretty darned special here – a child. From that moment on, we start growing up.

    When we take them canoeing, they have to wear life jackets. In the car, they have to strap in. We teach them to look both ways – and look again – before crossing the street. We’re careful about who is their teacher or scout master or swimming coach. In general, we become a parent in behavior as well as in genetics.

    Flying is just another place where we think things through a bit differently if our kids are involved.

  • I learned to fly in the early 60’s, flew C130’s for 5 years in the Air Force and many different types in the 32 years I spent flying for Delta. Without exception, I treat every flight I embark on (yes, I’m still flying) as if it were a checkride. I treat them all the same because the stakes are always the same. This thought always goes through my head before I fly. You are never as good as you think you are and you never know as much as you think you do. Never let your ego get in your way.

  • Yes, as an example – I recently earned my instrument rating. After getting the rating, I read a lot of books about IFR flying (Collins IFR flying and Buck’s weather flying were most helpful) and racked up about 8 hrs solo time in actual before I felt comfortable taking passengers in the clouds.

  • In Pilot magazine (I think) there used to be a series ‘I learned about Flying from that’ That was always near my awareness during many hours flying in East Africa and UK. Once the airworthyness of the aircraft was confirmed, weather became the main issue except that in E Africa before satellites navigation could also be a major concern on long flights up country. Long flights tended to be with passengers – in close proximity in C182 CH180 etc so even showing concern about location or weather could be disturbing. So the max possible pre flight planning was essential – and my own safety was as important a driver as the safety of passengers. However, if wing is to fold in flight there’s not much the pilot could have done in advance and sometimes we maybe must accept that only in such a (rare) situation can private flying be regarded as dangerous and there is not much the pilot can do to spot the risk in advance.

  • Reading the comments so far I find that most of us feel the same way about all passengers, not just family. When someone puts their trust in me, to get them back on the ground safely, it makes me aware of personal responsibility in a new light. It’s helpful to have that experience because it can be related to other areas of daily life where trust is important.

  • I fly with one level of safety, but with multiple levels of passenger comfort. There are things that are perfectly safe, but which scare the Hell out of passengers, and/or result in an unsatisfactory level of discomfort. I always want my passengers to say “when can we fly again?” – NOT “I’ll never do that, again!”

    • Tom, that’s a great way of saying it. We often confuse safety and comfort–no pilot wants to be unsafe, even if solo. But I do “wimp out” a lot more with passengers, especially new ones.

    • Well said. I make decisions based on passenger comfort. I also value my life and don’t wish to perish in an airplane accident as much as family/other passengers don’t!

    • I fly with my family only if we are all together. I would not fly only with my wife because if something happens, then my young kids would be alone.

  • We did not know Bill or his family, but they sound a lot like, well, me and my family. We use our vehicles for traveling. Sometimes, we use our car. Sometimes we use our motorhome, sometimes we use our airplane. We have never agonized over risk in any of these vehicles. Yet they all have risk. Cars kill whole families daily. Motorhomes much less so, but still not zero. Airplanes have a whole lot more opportunities to hurt us, we understand. So we maintain ours well, we work hard at skill and weather understanding, and we go. We could stay home. But we don’t. The rewards outweigh the risks. So far we have been quite successful. And we have lived a family life rich in experiences that wouldn’t have happened if we allowed ourselves to be paralyzed with fear.

    I hate to let the cat out of the bag, but commercial airlines are not risk free either. Pretty good. But not risk free.

  • I agree with the general flow here, and gave two thumbs up to a single level of safety, multiple levels of comfort. I take exception to the absolute of never having the whole family fly in the same plane (and I presume at the same time). While flying is anything but risk free, I feel better about flying my family to my standards than having some of them fly with someone else. Unless that means some fly, and some drive, or some stay home. Suddenly, the utility and advantages of flying to a family vacation at a destination not practical to reach by car disappear. Which is why I learned to fly in the first place.

  • Great article. I hold myself to high safety standards (not required anywhere) when flying alone and with friends and family. I feel more relaxed to fly alone, as looking at worse case scenarios are those I rather be alone. As Dick says “kids don’t have a choice” and you owe them.

  • I am a private pilot, instrument with 5000 + hours. Flying in Florida thunderstorms requires experience and skill – use caution. A pilot from the mid-west probably had never seen a line of tropical t-storms imbedded in the clouds. Experience taught most pilots to never penetrate a cell on instruments. Too bad!

    • Stewart,
      Im a Florida boy, too, but the TRWs here have little difference that TRWs in the mid west. They are all worth avoiding. Fortunately, most of ours are flyable…. that is, easy to get around.

      However, I strongly feel that TRWs were not a major factor in the accident that prompted this thread, but the final report may tell. The really nasty stuff was over 50 miles away.

      As for one standard, I’ll stick with that. And one “could” argue is one is in the 135 or 121 business they are held to a higher level, and that’s reasonable.

      For the rest of us, fly our SOPs the same for every flight…. and adjust flights as necessary for comfort. Works for me.

  • How would it not hurt my family (and many others) if I died and they lived? Best to always fly as if they were in the aircraft.

  • Our adjustment was not so much in our flying skills – we (my husband and I) tried to keep skills high – but in equipment. Flying our three children from Idaho Falls east to see their grandparents, we switched to a twin (Apache), turbochargers, oxygen system, updated nav and com, and, of course! dual pilots.

  • As a very new student pilot (Pre-SOLO, about 11 hours in) I have given much thought to this subject. I have a 9 yr old son and have toyed with the concept of If I am going to take him up once I get the private pilot license and have decent time built. I still haven’t decided if i would take the chance. But maybe a short ride on a great light wind VFR day around my base airport would be ok? Thoughts?

    • Rob, I would absolutely do it. Flying with family is one of the most rewarding things you can do with a pilot’s license. I don’t think you should change your approach all that much. Plan for comfort, but safety is safety. You’ll have a lot of fun.

  • Commercial airlines use two pilots for a very good reason…if one kicks the can, there is someone else to land the plane.

    For me, this rule will always apply when flying with my family. If we’re flying VFR, then one of them will need to know how to get that plane back on the ground safely. No exceptions. None. And if in IMC (I’m not an instrument pilot), the same rule would apply. If not someone from my family then another qualified instrument pilot would need to come along.

    God can choose to take me at any moment. So for me… gotta have a backup when the family is tagging along.

  • Great comments, as a student pilot as well – i’m for the 1 level of safety and multiple levels of comfort, even though i’m not sure what quite means yet, haha.

    I’m divorced, so the “family” model has changed a bit. I have to get my kids’ mom to OK the flight, but I may have to convince her first. Any suggestions on that?

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