(Note: The names of people and places in these true accounts have been changed.)
Two case histories
Case 1. An In-depth Postmortem of the Inevitable
A few years back I was changing the oil in my Super Cub when a couple of pilot friends drove up to the hangar.
“Did you hear about Dixon?” Tom asked.
“No, what happened?” I said, draining the last quart of oil into the ﬁller neck.
“Flew his Mooney into a mountain in upstate New York. Killed his girlfriend, himself, and that German Shepherd he always took with him.”
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Bill, the other pilot. “He was an accident waiting to happen.”
An accident waiting to happen. Anyone who has been ﬂying a while has heard that chilling description of a fellow pilot. It is most often concluded with a shrug, or shaking of the head as if to say, “…but there is nothing I can do about it.” But there is always that lingering question: is there anything we could do about it? Is there anything we should do about it? Is the fear of offending someone preventing us from saying something that might perhaps save a life? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? Would it make any difference even if we did?
Kurt Dixon, a successful, middle-aged business man learned to ﬂy three or four years before the accident, and ﬂew out of my home airport. The closest I came to meeting him was on unicom one day after he had made an awkward landing in his new Mooney.
“Hope you didn’t see that landing,” he said on the radio, taxiing past me on the ramp. His dog was in the right seat.
“Which one of you was ﬂying?” I asked.
“The dog, like always.”
Nice guy, I thought. His landing was no worse than some we all have made. Beyond that, I knew nothing of his ﬂying abilities. My friends at the hangar, however, were well aware of Dixon’s history.
“What do you mean, an accident waiting to happen?” I asked.
“Well, he wasn’t too sharp on skills, ” Bill said. “Once he ran his Cherokee off the side of the runway because of his crosswind technique, or lack thereof. It wasn’t even a bad crosswind. Dixon goes into the airport ofﬁce afterwards, happily pays for the runway light he smashed, and that was the end of it.
“And his judgment–you probably heard about his buzzing the yacht club at 200 feet. He got reported for that. Then there was the time he took off with three passengers when the ceiling was 500 feet at most. He got into the clouds–no instrument rating, you know–turned on his autopilot and somehow got back to the airport.”
Tom added, “And it wasn’t just his ﬂying, either. Hunting friends of his said he was a great guy, life of the party, and all of that, but he made them nervous because he handled his guns carelessly. That’s the way he was. Anyway, talk to Leslie Lockhart if you want to know more about the accident. She’d just returned from Dixon’s intended destination a few minutes before he took off. She was the last one to talk to him.”
If everyone thought Dixon was an accident waiting to happen, did anyone tell him? And if he was a marginal pilot, how was he signed off in a high-performance airplane like the Mooney? Disturbing questions, and they wouldn’t go away.
I had known Leslie for years. She was an excellent, instrument rated pilot who ﬂew her Mooney well, and kept her skills sharp with regular recurrent training.
“The funny thing was that I had just returned from Saranac Lake a few minutes before Dixon took off for there,” Lockhart said when I called her. “The weather here was CAVU and forecast to remain so, but Saranac Lake was 2,500 broken which meant the higher terrain was obscured. It was an easy IFR ﬂight, but pretty marginal for VFR considering the mountains.”
Right after landing from that trip Leslie spotted Dixon on the ramp and went over to say hello.
“I’m late, really late,” Dixon said, climbing into his airplane.
When she learned he was going to Saranac Lake, Leslie warned him of the weather knowing that Dixon was not instrument rated.
She told him, “If you’re going, stay high. Go over the broken layer. Then if you don’t ﬁnd a clear area big enough to let down, you can ﬂy back to good weather. Remember, there are mountains up there.”
“I like to ﬂy low,” he said, leaving.
“I just had that awful feeling,” Lockhart told me. “Sometime earlier I had said to my husband, ‘This guy is an accident waiting to happen.’ He was nice, but always late, always in a hurry, and relied heavily on the autopilot. He once told me his life’s ambition. He said, ‘I’ve made a lot of money. I’d like to die without a penny left.’
“I’ll never forget the image of his girlfriend looking at me and smiling before she got into the airplane.”
Two hunters saw Kurt Dixon’s Mooney smash into the steep mountain slope about 300 feet from where they were standing. It came out of the low clouds ﬂying straight and level crashing into the 4,621 foot mountain just below the summit without making any evasive maneuver. The MEA for the nearest airway to the accident site is 6,500 feet.
I wanted to learn more about how an accident waiting to happen ﬁnally happens.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he was ﬂying through the clouds on autopilot,” said Ray Harris, Kurt’s former partner in a Piper Arrow. “I know he did it several times before. He told me, and I chewed him out for it. One night he was ﬂying his kids back from Martha’s Vineyard at two a.m. The night was dark with no horizon, and over the water the airplane got away from him. He turned on the autopilot just in time and leveled out. That wasn’t the end of it, though. When he got back here there was ground fog, but looking down he could see the runway lights through it. That’s a real sucker trap as everyone knows. On the fourth try he made it. We almost came to blows over that. I’d had it with his ﬂying. Then he bought the Mooney.
“He was a nice guy, but he was a low time pilot, maybe 200 hours, he didn’t practice, and he didn’t take criticism well. Maybe with all his business success he thought he was invincible.”
I asked Ray how he got through the training system without getting weeded out.
“You ought to talk to two people: Jim Remnick, who sold Kurt the Mooney, and Jack Shale. Shale was the instructor who refused to sign Dixon off.”
Jim Remnick has been selling airplanes in our part of the country for many years. He said he ﬁrst met Dixon when he came to take a demo ride in a new Mooney.
“He seemed mainly interested in learning about the autopilot. I said, ‘Don’t worry about that now, just get familiar with the airplane,’ and I ﬂicked off the autopilot. He was a very nice guy, but you couldn’t tell him anything. Anyway, he liked the airplane, and bought it right then.”
I asked Remnick about checking out Dixon in the new airplane.
“I’m not an instructor, but a couple of the free-lance instructors I use ﬂew with Dixon and told him he would need a lot more time in the airplane to get checked out. They would not have signed him off at that point. But Dixon had his own instructor who was going to ﬂy with him to satisfy the insurance requirements.
“Another thing that was kind of interesting,” Remnick continued, “was that after Dixon had the airplane about a week, he brought it back and was very upset. He said the autopilot didn’t work. Instead of ﬁxing it, he traded his airplane for another new Mooney we had just ﬂown up from Kerrville. It had a different brand of autopilot.”
Whether it was Dixon’s instruction, his lack of ability, his attitude, or a combination of all three, he was not making great progress in the Mooney. Sometime after the purchase, one of Remnick’s instructors delivered Dixon’s airplane back to him after routine maintenance, and Dixon ﬂew the the instructor back home.
“Our airport has hills nearby, and Dixon entered the pattern way too low,” Remnick recalled. “The instructor got out of the airplane and said to me, ‘That guy is going to kill himself.’
“When I heard about the accident upstate I was shocked at ﬁrst, but then after thinking about it I wasn’t surprised. Certain people shouldn’t ﬂy, but I think there will always be a few like Dixon who get through the system. I have some customers I wouldn’t loan an airplane to. In fact, I know airline pilots I wouldn’t loan my airplane to. You can’t stop them because they’re legal, and somehow they manage to slip through.”
Through mutual acquaintances I learned that instructor Jack Shale was now ﬂying for a major airline. I tracked him down in Georgia.
“Sure, I remember Dixon,” Shale said on the phone. “The ﬁrst time I ﬂew with him was after he bought into Ray Harris’s Arrow. Dixon learned to ﬂy in a 152, and Harris wanted me to check him out in complex singles so he could ﬂy the Arrow. Very nice guy, Dixon, but completely lost in the airplane. Hadn’t done any homework. Didn’t know the critical speeds, or any of the emergency procedures.
“We landed, and I got Harris and Dixon together, and I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to waste your money. There is a lot of work to do here, and it would be much cheaper if you learned the airplane before we ﬂy again. Harris here knows the airplane. You guys ﬂy together, practice, and then come back and I’ll be happy to ﬂy with Dixon again.”
Dixon and Harris did ﬂy together for about 25 hours, but Dixon’s performance was unimproved when he again ﬂew with Shale. Once more Shale told Dixon to really study the airplane, practice what they had done, and come back.
“He was better the third time, but I still couldn’t sign him off. I told him he still needed a lot more work. And then he said to me, ‘This is my airplane. I own it. Sign me off. If you don’t, I’ll ﬁnd someone who will.’ Well, that was it for me. I couldn’t do it.”
Dixon did ﬁnd someone else, and soon was qualiﬁed, at least legally, to ﬂy complex singles. It was the same instructor who later checked out Dixon in his new Mooney ﬂying with him long enough to satisfy the insurance requirements.
Shale told me that Dixon suffered from a marginal natural ability as well as from an attitude that could only lead to an accident.
“In a stick and rudder sense he could have been safe in a Cessna 172, or maybe a 182 if he worked at it, but not a complex, high performance airplane. The lethal problem, though, was his attitude toward ﬂying. He wouldn’t do the work, sort of like he was above it all. I really blame a lot of that on his instructors right from the beginning. Sure, he got through the system, and I think the almighty dollar was part of the reason.”
Like Jack Shale, Ray Harris, and the instructors who refused to sign off Kurt Dixon, my friend Leslie Lockhart had tried to warn and advise Dixon minutes before his fatal ﬂight to no avail. Maybe he was just an accident that was going to happen no matter what. The instructor who ﬁnally did sign him off for the Mooney might as well have been signing a death sentence.
Case 2. An Intervention. So Far, So Good.
I had not thought of Dixon’s accident for several years until about a year ago. The winds at my local airport were just right for crosswind practice: a 10 gusting to 15 knot breeze blowing 45º from the left across our long main runway. Just enough to make you pay attention, but not frisky enough to make you sweat. After an hour of take-offs and landings, I pushed my airplane, now a Husky, back in the hangar, and was locking the door when I noticed a gleaming yellow Cub in the pattern lit up by the afternoon sun like a Christmas tree bulb. What a beautiful sight. “He’s practicing, too,” I said to myself, and drove to the fence by the end of the runway to see how he was doing. As he turned base leg, I could see that the aircraft was one of those lovely LSAs based on the Cub design. As the ship rounded on to ﬁnal approach, it was clear the pilot was behind the airplane, and the control inputs to counter the gusts and the crosswind seemed not only late but inappropriate and confused. It was wobbling in pitch, yaw, and bank all the way down ﬁnal, and seemed too fast. “Oh, I get it,” I thought. “That’s a student pilot with an instructor who is letting him work it out.” But when the airplane passed me about to land I could see there was no one in the back seat. I sat up straight in my car. This was not looking good. Wriggling toward the runway the airplane hit the runway and bounced. The nose reared way up, the upwind wing lifted causing the downwind wingtip to come within what appeared to be two feet from the ground as the ship drifted toward the downwind side of the runway. “Dear God,” I said. I was about to see a nasty crash. The only thing the pilot did right was to ram in full throttle before the plane stalled, or the right wingtip contacted the ground. The LSA with a generous power-to-weight ratio managed to stagger without descending farther, and clawed itself back into a more reasonable semblance of ﬂight. Round the pattern he came once more. I held my breath. Final approach seemed a little more stable this time, and the airplane plopped stolidly on the runway as if completely uninterested in any further attempt at levitation. Slowly it crept to the taxiway, pulled off, and came to a stop for several minutes which I presumed was to let the pilot’s knees stop shaking.
What should I do? I just saw someone almost crash his plane because he didn’t know how to handle it properly. He needed some dual time from an experienced taildragger instructor. Like my friend Leslie Lockhart cautioning Dixon, I felt it would be wrong for me not to do something. As the plane started to taxi to the ramp, I drove back to the hangar area preparing what I was going to say to the pilot. He taxied up to the FBO hangar and again just sat in the airplane for a few minutes while I watched from my car ﬁguring what I was going to say. I decided I would walk up to the plane, compliment the pilot on what a beautiful aircraft it was, and then say I noticed he was having a problem on that landing. I would identify myself as the owner of the Husky in the hangar over there, and suggest the name of an instructor if he felt he needed some dual. If that was met with indifference, I would then be less discrete and more direct in voicing my concern for his safety.
However, before I got out of my car, the pilot had abruptly jumped out of his plane and walked hurriedly past me staring straight ahead with a serious look on his face, got in his BMW SUV and left. He was of medium height, trim, with chiseled features and gray hair.
I drove to the airport ofﬁce where John, a bright young man working toward an aviation career, was manning the unicom. “John, did you see that LSA land?” “Yea, that was Burt Lansing. He’s based here.” I didn’t know him, but recognized the name immediately. Lansing was the very successful founder of a chain of retail stores in our area.
“Was he just having a bad day?” I asked.
“No, he doesn’t know how to ﬂy that airplane. This isn’t the ﬁrst time he’s had problems.”
“He really needs some dual,” I said. “I feel I should say something before he hurts himself or a passenger.”
Tom turned to me. “He also has a Cessna jet.”
“Please tell me he doesn’t ﬂy it single pilot,” I said.
“He does,” Tom said, “but he has a fellow who manages the jet for him, ﬂies with him sometimes, and delivers it here from Orchard airport where it is hangared. I think he’s also an instructor.”
“I should talk with him,” I said.
“Kristi at the FBO desk might have his phone number. Burt keeps the LSA in their hangar.”
When I explained the situation to Kristi, she looked at me with a knowing look. “I’ve heard he’s been having some problems with the airplane,” she said, and looked up the instructor’s number. “Here it is. Richard Curtiss. He lives somewhere near Orchard. Brings the jet here, and picks it up whenever Burt wants it.”
Two days passed before I could contact Curtiss. I told him I kept my Husky at Burt’s home ﬁeld, that most of my ﬂight time was in taildraggers, and while I didn’t want to stick my nose in anyone’s business, I felt duty bound to tell him what I had seen.
After listening to the story, Curtiss chuckled. “Burt called me after that ﬂight, and said he had a very bad day, and didn’t know why.” I didn’t understand the chuckle, but let it go.
“He needs some dual in that airplane,” I said, “and since you ﬂy with him I wanted you to know. I don’t want him to hurt himself or someone else.”
Curtiss thanked me for calling.
I didn’t see Lansing’s plane ﬂying again until a bright warm day this fall. It was in the pattern doing touch and goes in a very stable and precise manner. I noticed both seats were occupied, and later learned that the back seat had been ﬁlled by an instructor friend of mine who was very experienced in taildraggers, and ﬂies a Gulfstream G V internationally as his day job.
“He was pretty rusty at ﬁrst, and said he wasn’t comfortable in the airplane,” my Gulfstream friend said when I called to tell him the story, and see how his student was doing. “I think he’ll be okay with a little more dual. He’s been very busy with the store, and said he doesn’t have much time. I’ll give him a call in a while if he doesn’t call ﬁrst. Very nice guy.”
Whether it was my original phone call to Lansing’s instructor at Orchard that caused him to get more dual, or simply that he had scared himself into doing so I’ll never know, but I felt that I had done as much as I could to help Lansing, and to keep my conscience clear. So far Case 2 has had a happy ending.
The line between trying to help and being a nosey know-it-all is narrow. Frankly, haven’t we all been in situations where good fortune more than consummate skill got us through? A little soul searching before criticizing others might make us all better pilots. Yet, you can’t in good conscience see an accident waiting to happen and do nothing. What to do is a judgment call. In Case 1, perhaps at some point after Dixon’s attitude and habits had become clear someone as a last resort should have contacted an FAA accident prevention specialist. No one likes to call in the Feds, but in Dixon’s case it could have forced him to either give it up or get better. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But worth a try.
It’s hard to be your brother’s keeper if your brother doesn’t want to be kept. Dixon and Lansing were similar in that each was very successful in their careers due to their own abilities and hard work. The difference was that Dixon refused to acknowledge that he needed help. Lansing did. He is still alive.