10 min read

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.


“This has become a far too frequent occurrence for me.”

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.


Accident reports rarely convey just how awful an airplane crash really is.

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.

Bryant crash

Even celebrities aren’t immune to VFR-into-IMC accidents, as Kobe Bryant tragically learned.

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!

Mark Jarratt
Latest posts by Mark Jarratt (see all)
85 replies
  1. Mark Sletten
    Mark Sletten says:

    Mark, I’m sorry for your loss. I too have lost friends, some for the same reasons as yours. I have to respectfully disagree with this comment:

    > There was no hotdogging, buzzing, or overt recklessness involved.

    I would classify as overtly reckless a decision to fly a single-engine aircraft over unlit mountainous terrain at night without an instrument rating, in smoke, clouds, turbulence and with embedded thunderstorms along the route.

    • Joe Rosenberger
      Joe Rosenberger says:

      Mark, I am in complete agreement with your thoughtful and sobering analysis. On a beautiful July day in 1976 my brother had a spirited conversation with a pilot he barely knew about the performance of a Cherokee 140 with four adults aboard (and two sets of skydiving gear in the “luggage” space). My brother, an ex-Navy and newly graduated A&P, finally relented and hopped into the co-pilot seat. The line boy said the pilot refused fuel, saying he had burned off an hour of gas getting there and felt he was ok weight-wise for the 90-mile trip back to the originating airport. My brother did a quick scratch pad W&B and expressed his doubt about carrying four adults, the woman being a last-minute addition, but finally relented. A witness said the plane got a few hundred feet in the air then “fell out of the sky.” The woman in the left aft seat survived with near-fatal injuries. The pilot, my skydiver brother, and the other jumper were all killed. This afternoon I will visit my brother’s grave as I do each Memorial Day since that fateful afternoon in 1976 and wish once again that my brother had obeyed his instincts and opted to drive those ninety miles instead.

    • mike
      mike says:

      Every pilot should have their spouse read this story. As someone above mentioned we will unfortunately risk our lives to get home and avoid an angry spouse who will be irate when our annoying hobby has ruined yet another family outing.

    • Heather F
      Heather F says:

      Mark….thank you for sharing this very personal and heartfelt perspective. It is painful to think about how, perhaps, so many of these tragedies could be preventable. I hope your story encourages other pilots to take the extra steps…to not be complacent, to triple check and go over all the what-ifs, to apply their training and THINK before they head down the runway.

      As a Flight Attendant that has flown countless times with you as my pilot, I feel very blessed. It is always a feeling of trust and confidence when you’re in the flight deck. Thank you for every single safe landing. Your airmanship is exemplary.

      Here’s to many more days of blue skies and good tailwinds. See you soon my friend. ✈️

  2. Vinton
    Vinton says:

    I empathize with you. Shortly after earning my Private in 1973, the C150 I trained in was involved in a midair collision with a military aircraft conducting a GCA approach. When the C150 was recovered, a portion of it was returned to the flight school where I trained and left there for a week. When I realized I had flown it for 50 hours or so, it really hit home. The pilot was 19 years old.. Since then, I’ve known very high time pilots who have lost their lives doing things I never thought they would do, but they did it anyway. I try my best on every flight… That’s all I can do. I still love it. Most airplanes are made well and behave in a predictable way when properly maintained. The only thing I can control are my actions, and your article is a reminder what I can do to improve my odds. Well done.

  3. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Brother, sorry for your loss of this friend and others. Thanks for helping me learn the flying gig, and respecting that flying can be terribly unforgiving of those who make mistakes. There but the grace of God go i. Fly safe and humbly!

  4. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    Mark, yes, these are very sobering thoughts. I’ve lost fifteen friends and acquaintances in airplane accidents over the years; and I thought THAT was a large number… The most gut wrenching occurrence was the one where I had a chance to talk to a friend while he was just beginning to die. He was a CPA and a new private pilot (I had provided a few hours of instruction for him), in his recently-purchased C-150. He was in hard IMC and turbulence. I was in a Metroliner in the same airspace. I tried to reassure him, but it was a useless gesture. His last unintelligible words were shouted in panic. Mine words of encouragement were unheard, I’m sure. He ended his flight by shredded his airplane through the trees of central Virginia. I ended mine by thanking our passengers for flying on our line.

  5. Seth
    Seth says:

    Tough to read this; can’t imagine how hard it was to write.

    I am a middle aged dad with a few student hours under my belt, and this makes me ask myself if I am truly able to embrace the mindset required to minimize risk and fly safely. What is at stake is only everything…

  6. Sal M
    Sal M says:

    I’m sorry for your loses.

    I’m lucky, I put myself in a position early on that could have made my 2 year old fatherless, and my wife a widow. Get-home-itis into a low ceiling on a hot, humid summer day. The only saving grace was I made a descending 180 (the descending part was only 200′ and not on purpose!) and that cleared me and put me back from the airport I just departed. I landed and missed my flight to Singapore the next day. That was 20 years ago. I’ve lost friends and it sucks.

    As a CFI I try hard to teach ADM as much as skills because I think that’s what will kill you more. Thanks for sharing and reminding us of the risks involved.

    • Richard
      Richard says:

      Thanks for writing and sharing. “Realizing that even if you are solo…” is a wise addition to your comments. I have heard more than one comment since I started flying “with my family on board…” followed by what they would do differently. I treat every flight as if they are on board in some manner of speaking. Same as when I travel for a living on the road. (Now, I may do some maneuvers when solo that might make a passenger uncomfortable to work on skills and the like versus trying to fly silky smooth. But mostly referring to having a different risk standard.) And then I pray and ask Jesus to always give me wisdom and ears to hear when he is speaking – either directly or from bringing an article like this to my mind – so I can make wise choices. May He give you comfort over your losses as well.

  7. Scott
    Scott says:

    A poignant reminder of the utmost responsibility we have as pilots to truly think about every flight and consider all risks. After a few weeks out of the cockpit due to Covid my first time up on a clear day was just plain sloppy. We not only have to keep our skills up but approaching the “sightseeing” region flight as detailed as a long cross country is what we need to do. Thanks for sharing your story and my condolences to you and all affected by these losses. Fly safe.

  8. Stephen Hanff
    Stephen Hanff says:

    I’m a relatively new pilot of 300hrs and 3 years. Just after I got my private pilot certificate a friend gave me a book called The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die. It is a Must Read particularly for new pilots. It helps us identify the most common factors that lead to crashes and deaths and helps us learn from those who have gone before us. Let us not let them die in vain.

    • Rick Poling
      Rick Poling says:

      I recently read this as an audio book. A MUST READ in my opinion. It contains all the common accident factors that I have NEVER heard in my formal flight training.

  9. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    My condolences on the loss of your friends. In almost 5 decades of flying, I have also lost friends, although I haven’t kept track of the numbers. My first loss was my Daddy, who died at age 29 when I was all of 4 years old. There’s not a more personal loss than that. But losing even casual friends is personal, and attending their services is personal.

    I know that flying itself is risky, but as I look back, there were times when I took ridiculous and unnecessary additional risks, without much thought to the consequences. Today I’m not proud of those additional risks, not at all, and I wouldn’t take them today. But I will still fly and accept the normal risks of slipping the surly bonds. Life is for living, not for watching. I’ve always been a participant in life, and I hope to continue being a participant for years to come. There will come a time when I’ll have to hang up my airplane’s keys, but not yet.

  10. Frank Generoso
    Frank Generoso says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. As a retired law enforcement officer I know too well the sight of carnage in accidents. You never forget it. This is a very somber but necessary read about our realities as pilots. We need to take risk mitigation seriously and put the odds in our favor. Thanks for writing.

  11. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Flying is a wonderful experience. But articles like this put out mis-information and scares the crap out of some people. Any pilot that isn’t instrument rated shouldn’t be continuing into IMC, or haze or any other condition that might cause them issue. In most of what you said, I see pilot error, not aircraft error, but the article seems to blame the aircraft and/or general aviation as a whole. I sympathize with the losses, but don’t scare people away from flying because of it.

    • Robert
      Robert says:

      I think, Kevin, you are missing the entire point of the article. Reading carefully, I see no misinformation. I only see a poignant plea for pilots to recognize that our decisions have consequences. We can die flying airplanes and we can take our passengers with us. It is imperative that we recognize the risks inherent in leaving the ground and traveling at relatively high rates of speed. Those risks are real and nothing about flying GA aircraft is perfectly safe. Our ADM and piloting skills (proficiency!) help mitigate the risks, but GA will never be as safe as commercial airline travel or sitting in your easy chair at home.

      I’m guessing that you have never lost a family member, friend, or close acquaintance due to a crash in a GA aircraft. If you have, you will question your involvement in aviation. You will question whether or not you would have made the same decisions… and we must be brutally honest with ourselves in answering that question. You will question whether something could have been done to disrupt the accident chain or whether, in Ernest K. Gann’s words ‘fate is the hunter.’ Finally, you will feel the grief, helplessness, anger, denial, and all the Kubler Ross stages of your loss and if you continue flying, hopefully learn from the tragedy.

      I make it a point early in training… even in the first lesson… to look directly at my students and tell them in no uncertain terms that this is serious business. You can die in an airplane. You can make a mistake or a series of mistakes and die in an airplane. You can do everything correctly and die in an airplane. Our purpose in training and as pilots is to do our best to minimize the risks to the best of our ability, but we can never eliminate all possible hazards. I end the talk with ‘but you can also have joy in an airplane!’ Yes, I do ‘scare’ some students away, but only a very small number. The vast majority appreciate my directness and I sincerely hope they become safer pilots because of my words and actions. I think all CFIs should have that hope.

      In the end, we must decide for ourselves whether or not the sheer pleasure of being aloft outweighs the unmanageable portion of risk. For me (at the present… I re-evaluate every year as I age) and for most of my students, it does. If it doesn’t, then walk away. We’ll still be friends.

      I commend Mark for an outstanding and necessary article and my sincere condolences for his loss.

  12. Richard
    Richard says:

    With all due respect, perhaps it’s time for you to hang up your spurs. This is perhaps the most depressing article I’ve read in over 46 years of flying.

    • Rick Poling
      Rick Poling says:

      Depressing, yes, but a valuable read? YES.
      I am a middle age student pilot with three young children. I have read “the killing zone” and appreciate articles like this that continually remind me of ADM (good and bad) and how I can and should continually look for ways to reduce risk. I’ve yet to have a CFI talk to me or mention anything about plane crashes and that’s a mistake I think. We tend to get overconfident or complacent at times. This article didn’t scare me, it gave me greater confidence and assurance that I CAN fly safe and enjoy the wonders and joy of flight. BUT that comes only as I learn from the mistakes of others and put those lessons in to practice. Because of these real life examples, it makes me think twice before I might make the same mistake.

  13. Jim Giordano, CFII
    Jim Giordano, CFII says:

    Mark, thanks for writing this obviously painful piece. That you wrote it so that others might learn and not take that questionable flight is a tribute to you and your friend. The truthful, straight forward way you present it will hopefully make all of us think thru our go-no-go decisions. There is no denying the inherent risk to flying. There is no denying the inexpressible joy and satisfaction that also exists with it. The most haunting thing about these stories is how rationale people make these terribly bad decisions. We all think that could not happen to us. Your story is a reminder that it could, and that we best be vigilant. You know this is not your fault and you have helped the aviation community with this story! Thank you and God Speed. To all us – Fly, but fly safe.

  14. Tom
    Tom says:

    Mark: Excellent article, and one that has created introspection and self-analysis in your readers.
    I would add the following comment, only as an oft-overlooked ingredient in the chain of events that lead to the regrettable, but predictable consequences most pilots have seen:
    The pressure that insidiously makes pilots launch into these misadventure is in direct proportion to the fear that the individual has for the displeasure he (or, less likely she) will have to face when he calls the spouse to inform her (him) that the long-awaited family vacation will have to be scrubbed because of bad weather. No doubt the retributory phase, once the pilot comes home, will be less than pleasant, or brief; in light of the monetary loss and of having spoiled the family’s long-awaited fun. Having seen this in person when I reached the accident scene of an individual who launched into convective weather with his friend was impacting… his decision was made because he needed to get home to attend his 6-year-old daughter’s birthday. I surmise that at no time in his hasty decision process did he consider that he would ruin every birthday in the life of a little girl who loved her father.
    I add this only as a respectful suggestion for all of us that enjoy a privilege that very few others possess. What is most important for us as pilots may very well be regarded as a frivolous pursuit by others who don’t, or won’t, understand our passion for flight.

  15. Bill M
    Bill M says:

    I noted from my early training that wx killed more pilots than any other single factor and couldn’t believe the void of wx training available. I signed up for several university level meteorology courses and found them too deep in the science to be practical. Then I found Scott Dennstaedt at – a CFII and former NWS meteorologist – showed me how to use forecasters’ tools and make practical decisions – from 2 weeks out. Huge difference in my decision-making being able to make some risk assessments long before the “get-there-itis” has a chance to get a grip. I now wave off a flight a week ahead and feel relieved doing it. This is something I CAN do that significantly ratchets down risk and I live by my personal minimums – rules to live by. I can’t face the idea of no longer flying to save my life…since flying brings so much joy to my life. Life isn’t meant to be saved…it’s meant to be fulfilled. Staying in your room all day isn’t saving “life”, it’s a sentence and I’ve lost way more loved ones to cancer than any kind of accident. Part of flying safely is flying so it’s fun…if you imagine one that isn’t going to be fun, then that’s when your judgment should kick in…something’s wrong…reconsider.

  16. M. Herald
    M. Herald says:

    Don’t stop flying.
    Keep writing about what you know.
    You ARE a writer.
    You, by your writing, and speaking, can get a pilot thinking about the unpleasant possibilities.

  17. Link
    Link says:

    Reminds me of my good experience. Several years ago to and from Oshkosh with a CFI passenger in the back seat. I was not IFR qualified. We leave Oshkosh on Sunday with some known IFR ahead. We land 400 miles from home to get more weather information. Probably we can get around the weather by flying 150 miles west.
    CFI tells he will sign off on on my biannual if I can get him home tonight. We spent the night 200 miles from home. After we arrived home I asked him if he would still Approve my biannual. He said absolutely you use good judgment in making us spend the night.

  18. Jim Ausbun
    Jim Ausbun says:

    Thanks Mark. These somber stories are needed to keep the right perspective about flying. I’m a rusty pilot myself. Been away from aviation for years and just starting a kit build. So much information to re-learn. Yet it all needs to be there to make the correct decisions. I’m still excited about doing this even after reading your article. Living life to the fullest, you have to take some risk. Just do it right. No do overs. Have a tough job like that and enjoy it every day. Also my two boys are fighter pilots. F-16 and F-35. Tip of the spear. Do I have night mares about what they do everyday. Nope.

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      Thank you so much for sharing. I am not a pilot; just a passenger. I feel safe every flight. We discuss the passenger orientation and the abort plan every time. However, your tragic story shines through to me. We are people, not machines. Our flaw is being human and factoring intangibles like if I don’t get home, we will miss a family vacation. This is a stark reminder that in GA do not factor such intangibles. Analyze the facts. No wife I know would want to risk a family tragedy over a delayed vacation. So very sorry for the losses you have suffered!

  19. Dino Ferrari
    Dino Ferrari says:

    Mark, thanks so much for sharing and sorry for your loss.

    Reading articles like yours make me think, and I believe, a better pilot. What decisions would I have made, would I have done something differently? How will I plan in the future based on reading this article?

    As hard as it is to share, sharing makes us better pilots, and better equipped to make sound decisions for us and our loved ones.

    Thanks again.

    Since you shared, here is a small thing I learned from my first Commanding Officer while in VA-196 … “Never fly a routine training mission.” His point was, no flying is ever, ever routine. Plan, plan and then plan again. Every flight I fly, regardless familiarity with the airport or route, gets thought and review of procedures. We own that to ourselves and our loved ones.


  20. Tom Berge
    Tom Berge says:

    Having been a pilot who made a life ending mistake and somehow survived, all I can say to those who think they are immune is reconsider. We all make mistakes and hopefully survive to learn the valuable lessons presented. Sharing the experience may help others avoid making the same mistakes. No one is immune. Twenty three years on I still recall with great clarity the position I had put myself in and the shortness of my future. Tripping the self preservation wire is a terrible thing and knowing what’s coming is indescribable. Yes, I still fly and continue chasing the perfect flight with no mistakes, an elusive activity. I also guard against the big mistakes that are always nibbling on the edges.

  21. Bob
    Bob says:

    Whenever we talk about a pilot who was killed in a flying incident (there are no accidents), we should keep one thing in mind: He/she called upon the sum of his/her knowledge, experience, and judgment to make an aeronautical decision. That pilot would have believed in that decision so strongly as to bet his/her life on it. The fact that the decision was faulty to the point of negligence is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every Instructor, mentor and fellow pilot whoever crossed paths with this pilot had the opportunity to influence his/her Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and Situational Awareness (SA) for better or worse. So it stands to reason that a little bit of all of us goes with every pilot we lose.

    After 117 years of powered flight, I fail to see how we could possibly invent any new ways to ruin our days (and our passengers who trust us with their lives and people on the ground). So why are we NOT learning from the mistakes of others and our own blessed past ? Whatever it takes, however long it takes; NO pilot needs to be in a hurry to do anything right with an aircraft the first time, ever.

  22. John Emerson
    John Emerson says:

    Thank you for the article. I could feel your pain as a I read, and I cringed because I have been almost as stupid (hate to say it) as the wonderful people who died.

    As an instructor and examiner in personal jets, I deal with many very accomplished people who have added or are adding “jet pilot” to their piloting credentials. These guys are generally very serious about it and as a group are pretty safe.

    But the difference in them and a pro pilot is that the pro pilot will use the data he has to perhaps cancel a flight if a no-go item is inop or if the weather is below minimums. Just that simple. But the non-pro has a far more complicated decision matrix.

    The owner operator or the pro pilot who is not at work is subject to the non-aviation pressures of being somewhere, not wanting to disappoint, or perhaps even living up to the reputation as a “great pilot.”

    There is an old Rod Machado article in which he proposes that a pilot must have his “Bushido,” or personal code about what he will and will not do in aviation. He stated (I am seriously paraphrasing) that the pilot can simply not do something because he “just doesn’t do that.” He has no reason to argue or to explain himself very much. That one article changed my viewpoint from that of an accomplished hobby flyer towards being a professional pilot.

    I am so sorry for your loss. I have lost a few myself and it makes one take stock.


  23. Jason
    Jason says:

    Thank you for sharing. I read every comment about your article as well before I wrote this comment, and believe I have become a better, safer pilot from having read your article and comments from your readers. Good judgment comes from paying attention and learning from those who have gone before you.

  24. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    I had come into contact with a gentleman living in Victoria B. C. Canada. He flew Spitfires during WWII. Later, he flew few jets in the Korean Air and was a test pilot with Canadian Airforce that later became the Canadian Armed Forces. He then left the Canadian Armed Forces as a Lieutenant Commander.
    When I began my flying lessons in Canada and adding hours to my log book, he told me: You need to be very careful once you reach a thousand hours and again on reaching ten thousand hours. That is when complacency / overconfidence sets in and a pilot could have his first incident or accident.
    During my flying days and until now I have seen and heard of many accidents in my home country Nepal. Many of them are weather related, ego, commercial pressure, company pressure, lack of resolute mind and being a ‘YES’ man all the time. We see these qualities in many people and talk about. Talk about. That’s it. When someday, something dreadful happens, then finger pointing becomes an issue.
    As pilots, we must be able to say ‘NO” when things are not right.
    Happy landings !

  25. MarkWyant
    MarkWyant says:

    Sorry I find this article totally out of place and completely over the top in misinformation. I’m truly sorry for your loss (and losing 16 people to accidents is mind blowing) but this article is basically an indictment of GA which I wholeheartedly reject . I too have been flying 46 years …airline,corporate and private. I’ve lost 1 person close to me and I’ve had an engine quit on takeoff and been through the resultant crash.

    Shit happens. Simple as that. To take the risk out of life is to remove life itself.

    BTW to say there was “no carelessness involved” in night VMC mountain flying into weather, descending below MDA and continued VFR into IFR shows the fallacy in your argument.

    You should quit if you feel this way about general aviation.

    • Mark Montague
      Mark Montague says:

      “You should quit if you feel this way about general aviation.”

      In other words, “Love it or leave it—but whatever you do, don’t you DARE make it better than when you found it!”

      The writer wasn’t denigrating general aviation; his purpose in writing the article was to implore his fellow aviators to do a little more soul-searching before putting themselves in the way of unnecessary risk. He’s entitled to that. He’s earned it, having paid a frightful tuition for the privilege.

      If in 46 years you’ve only lost one friend to an aviation accident, you’ve been incredibly fortunate. As for myself, so far I’ve lost 29 friends and acquaintances, and I no longer attend funerals. (My background is broadly similar to yours, by the way: GA beginnings, domestic and overwater long-haul airline experience, company check airman, 41 years CFI, DPE, FAASTeam Representative. Former B-777 captain, retired from the majors six years ago, still actively instructing in airplanes and gliders.)

      It’s up to every one of us to leave this world in a better state than that in which we found it, and the writer is doing his best to do his part. What will YOUR contribution be?

  26. Gil A, CFI-AIM
    Gil A, CFI-AIM says:

    Like the others, I’m sorry for your loss as well as to the loss to the general aviation community. I’ll apologize in advance as I mean no disrespect. A previous comment said it best:

    “I never thought they would do, but they did it anyway.”

    These folks died because they did what so many pilots do, “…they did it anyway.”

    Sadly, their deaths are the result of taking on insurmountable risks, bypassing any reasonable level of mitigation, and hoping that somehow they survive. I’ve been in aviation a long time, and so far, I have yet to see an accident like this that wasn’t written long before it actually happens.

  27. John
    John says:

    Thank you Mark, This took courage and conviction, You are truly dedicated to safety! I have and still do maintain currency and proficiency, your writing this letter does so much for our community, God bless you and your close friends, continue your quest for excellence.

  28. James
    James says:

    Excellent article from the heart, with solid and valuable insight. I lost my parents and oldest brother almost 60 years ago; dad was an experienced instrument-rated pilot flying in a new Bonanza (his 2nd), when for reason(s) undetermined the left wing separated . . . his final transmission in response to an ATC “traffic 3 miles at 11 0’clock” (no altitude provided) was “no need to look, we’re solid”. Only God himself knows what caused the accident, but perhaps the flight would have been more prudent at 9,000 (VFR) than at 11,000 (IFR). I’ve been a licensed pilot for 40 years, inactive for the past 20, and as much as I loved flying, each passing day I am more and more at peace to leave the flying to professionals such as Mark and his colleagues . . . it isn’t as routine as driving a car, and the consequences of an interrupted flight are so often final. God bless all

  29. Nanook
    Nanook says:

    Weather is an indiscriminate killer. Don’t push your luck with violent weather. Just go around or turn around. Live to fly another day…

  30. Don Rickelman
    Don Rickelman says:

    Yes judgement is important but sometimes “stuff” happens. Having faced the possibility of a fatal crash in IFR mountainous terrain due to unexpected icing and the inability to maintain altitude gives you some time (not too much) to reflect on why how you got there. But you realize if you can’t make it out the end will be quick.
    The simple answer is if you’re afraid to die don’t fly………but then you might die of Cancer Covid-19, a car accident etc. The reality is we know what a rush the experience it is no matter what our experience level. Every GA flight is a learning experience but there is nothing more satisfying than completing a long cross country flight while dealing with some IFR/ATC/new airport approaches etc. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything….. we are all fortunate to have been able to fly no matter at what level.

  31. Jim Price, CFI
    Jim Price, CFI says:

    So sorry for the great loss of life. After 67 years of flying and still instructing I find it hard to understand some decisions that pilots make and risks that they take also the reasons that they make those decisions. I have tried very hard to evaluate students and flight review applicants as to their decision making parameters. Some years ago I had a student that I had known since he has a teenager. He was always a risk taker, though I thought that he had matured. Wrong, and several years after his PPL he had asked to start his Instrument training. Prior to that happening he flew to another city with two female friends. After a night of dancing and ‘light’ drinking returned to the airport for the return home. At the airport with zero-zero weather, night and even pleas from the taxi driver that had taken them to the airport to rent a car, or spend the night, he still attempted the return flight. It appears that after becoming airborne he changed his mind and was attempting a return to the airport. Rolled it into a ball and too bad for even a funeral. I still fill guilty at times for that one, but we still go forward. On this Memorial Day weekend, Let us all remember our friends and family for good and bad, but do not hesitate to comment on bad decisions we witness and try to help in the reduction of the accidents. God Bless.

  32. Dan Fregin
    Dan Fregin says:

    Here would be some more ‘been there, done that’s, but nearing 43 years/22,000+ hrs. (corporate, 135), I re-read Ernie Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter” and a few of the things that he told of hit close enough to me that I retired the week after I turned 65 y.o.a. (

  33. Vince Massimini
    Vince Massimini says:

    Hi: Nice article.

    I add one more thing. Try to plan not to put yourself in a position to have to bow to “get home itis.” I don’t plan or go on a cross country or trip unless I have at least one or two days slack on the outbound and the return. My favorite definition is that a superb aviator is one who uses his or her superb judgement to avoid having to use his or her superb skill.

    Stay well.



  34. Raymond Fraze
    Raymond Fraze says:

    Mark, Thanks for the well written article. Sunday morning here in the mountains of SE Arizona where monsoons and mountains will soon provide dramatic and sometimes lethal weather conditions; thunderstorms and high density altitude. Reading about your friend made me reflect on my flying and three personal incidents where a CFI’s advice prevented me from taking risks that I wasn’t aware of at the time and from a pre-flight error. I have been fortunate that I have CFI friends and they continually harass me about safety. Thank God for good CFI’s and people such as yourself who took the time to write about this loss.

  35. Joel Godston
    Joel Godston says:

    GREAT article Mark. As an Aeronautical Engineer and a person in the Aviation ‘World’ for 50+ years I would ALWAYS: 1) know the airplane VERY well you are going to fly BEFORE you pilot it, and use ALL of that knowledge; 2) Brief ALL the people on the aircraft with you, on each and every flight…. what you are going to do, and what they need to do if a problem should occur during the flight; and 3) and have the person that is in a seat that has a ‘control stick’ like the one you have… fly the airplane sometime during the flight. FYI, I became a pilot in the US Air Force piloting Piper Cub, T-28, T-33, and B-47 aircraft…. later piloted T-33, F-84, and F86H aircraft in the Mass. ANG; and finally owned and flew a Cessna 182 Cheers, keep doing what you enjoy, do so well, and i would like t have a 5-10 minute telephone conversation with you sometime Mark… so PLEASE let me know date(s) and time(s) that are good for you, to do that!

  36. Chris
    Chris says:

    Great article and comments. I’ve been licensed for almost 50 years. Never stop learning.

    I was in VA-196 on the Enterprise 1970.

  37. Russ
    Russ says:

    I got my license in 1988. I really love aviation and read everything I could about flying. I took my FAA check ride with a retired B52 pilot with 10,000+ hours. After we landed, he said “I don’t see a reason to fail you, but remember one thing: This is a license to learn; never stop.”

    I had several magazine subscriptions. Flying Magazine had 2 must-read section in it, which may be gone now. One was “I Learned About Flying from That”, which was a feature article describing a close-call from the pilot themselves. Anything from bad decisions to bad luck. All survived to write about it. The other was “Aftermath”, which summarized the results of an NTSB reports on mostly fatal GA accidents.

    I got my license at 50 hours and had accumulated another 60 as PIC. I had 3 close calls in that time, 2 of which were ATC errors and the third was poor judgement. These incidents, plus regularly reading “Aftermath” and “I Learned About Flying from That”, weighed on me. I had just had my first child and decided I didn’t want him growing up without a dad, so I stopped flying GA and never went back to it. I regret not flying, but I would have regretted far more not seeing my kids grow up. It was a good trade.


    General Aviation pilots are the worst. They crash more than anybody else.

    They make up little rules and licenses and regulations and follow them like obedient hallway monitors and narks, and talk in milspeak and garble on on the radios, ostensibly to be all safe and legal. Really, most of them are cowards who can only take off and land, fly in a straight line, follow a map or gps up in the air, and make a turn or two.

    I’ve flown with them, and most of them spend too much time looking at their instruments, and too much time flying too fast in too heavy and too fast metal airplanes with poor glide ratios. In my opinion, they’ve ruined aviation, and have done everything they could to keep the poor out of the skies. The great burning of all the primary gliders, and all the old fiddle farts at EAA building hat little fast metal racing planes. Attribute it to what you will, it drove all the kids and women out of aviation.

    But the poor and kids and women are all over aviation now. When you guys shut us out, we found another way in through quadcopters, and the field has exploded.

    The times have changed. Your big metal airplane is obsolete, dangerous, and a threat to the rest of us in the skies. The skies are a commons for all to enjoy. You don’t need to be in a cockpit to enjoy flying any more. You don’t need to waste tons of non-renewable fuel flying your fat SUV of the air on joy rides.

    • Sparky
      Sparky says:

      The generation of rude haters, look at her website–drone pilot. Obviously she is going to school the rest of us with her social “woke”. Have you done an Angel Flight, Eagle Flight, Pet rescue, Hurricane relief etc like many General Aviation pilots in their “fat SUVs” do on a regular basis and on their own dime. So sick of this me generation.

  39. Nanook
    Nanook says:

    Most of us in Alaska fly slow fabric covered Super Cubs (the cool pilots anyway). When the weather doesn’t cooperate, you land and throw up your tent and grab a fishing rod. No big deal! Tomorrow is another day. Relax and smell the roses, take advantage of the wx delay…

  40. Warren
    Warren says:

    My approach as a mechanic prior to becoming a pilot and owning my own plane, a ’46 J3 Cub, is that the best instrument you have is between your ears. As far as maitenance and repairs there is no place for optimism. Check everything 3 times and never ever cut corners and if you can always have a second set of eyes look over your work, the more the better. Blue Skies. And you ARE a great writer!

  41. Rob Lyons
    Rob Lyons says:

    Mark, it is indeed a tragic story, and the loss must hang heavy in your heart especially as you see yourself ast that pilot’s mentor. Let me say I totally get the thrust of what you are saying, and I agree that General Aviation can never be as safe as routed commercial flying.

    Having said that, it is not because it is GA, but it is because the GA pilots are inherently less safe that CA pilots. Some of that has to so with just inexperience, but most has to do with lack of profeciency in the skills needed to deal with the meterological and other conditions you encounter, particularly darkness, IMC, and terrain, all contributing factors in your friends death.

    This lack of profeciency can be overcome with ab initio training, I believe. In my experience, I obtained my private and commercial licenses from a flight training operation which encouraged and promoted night flying for almost all aspects of your training. Part of the pre-solo sylabus was two hours of night flying instruction, and the post solo syllabus was building the necessary hours in the dark.

    In addition, for those going on to get a commercial license, a mandatory five hours under the hood, with pretty strict plus or minus limit of 100 feet from assaigned altitude, was the rule, and for those just wanting a private license (not very many at that time) it was highly encouraged by giving rental preferences to those who had taken the course.

    The General Manager of the Club was ex-military, and his rational for this insistence on ab initio proficency was, as he put it: Ïf you can fly in the dark, you can fly in the clouds. If you can fly in the clouds, you get time to find out where they aren’t.

    Now, as a former bush pilot in northern Canada, you would not believe how that little bit of time and care in thinking through what training should be about, saved my bacon in the dark, and in the clouds, single engine or twin, over some pretty inhospitable terrain, as a young pilot in a commercial operation.

    Of the 16 commercial pilots I attended the flying club with, not one of us has died in a flying accident. I credit that to the type of training we got right from the get-go.

    To those who have responded to your post with admonitions about creating fear of flying, I simple answer: “Would you rather be afraid or dead?” This is from a view point of nearly 10,000 hours of bush and ambulance flying, many, many many before GPS was operational, there were no navaids, and IFR was conducted with an artifical horizon, an airspeed indicator, a compass and a watch. Oh, and a very high pucker factor as well.

    Thanks for sharing your grief.

  42. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    We needed this story. The “know it alls” and “big risk takers” will continue to add to the majority of the GA accident numbers. ARM will help most conscientious pilots at least not allow many of their mistakes end it all. No flight has to be made – NONE! There are potential other risks we must be willing to take, but taking undue risks when multiple “red flags” are obvious is undoubtedly adding to the numbers. Even the airlines know when to fold them! Thank you for your thoughtful article!

  43. Bruce Tabor
    Bruce Tabor says:

    I thought this article was excellent and the intent of the writer came through very clearly. It was definitely well worth the time to read and think about. It seems too bad that chopper girl has carried so much hate all the years really wanting to be a guy.

  44. John Bleakley
    John Bleakley says:

    Tragic story, I’ve been flying for 36 of my 56 years and lost a few friends over the years. I’m sorry for the loss of your friends, it’s very difficult to understand why pilots push a little too far, but it happens. If we are all honest with ourselves, we’ve probably had a landing or two when we wanted to kiss the ground, whether it was weather, fuel, mechanical or pilot issues.

  45. rdt7
    rdt7 says:

    Two points: 1) In this country, anybody can get a pilot’s license, if necessary by “shopping” instructors and examiners. Eventually, they’ll find someone who will sign them off. It happens all the time. We don’t test people who want to learn to fly for aptitude or risk orientation like they do in the military or some airlines. I think the time has come for this type of screening – not to prevent someone from learning to fly – but to make sure they get a strong warning up front: “Your skill set and risk profile match that of a lot of dead pilots – BE CAREFUL!” This sort of screening is done in general industry all the time. You just cannot operate dangerous equipment if you don’t have the aptitude (and training) for it. 2) Teach and require the use of a flight risk assessment tool for every flight. There are many out there – check with your type club. If you take most any accident report and calculate the risk score, it’s almost always in the “No-go” zone. The risk score in the accident described in this article would have been off the scale. It was the pilot’s understanding of risk (or lack thereof) and possibly his risk orientation (“if it’s my time, it’s my time”) that caused this accident.

    Sure, there are fatal accidents involving competent, cautious pilots but they are the exception.

  46. Jay PerryCook
    Jay PerryCook says:

    This article, and the ensuing responses, are timely for me. I have a story that I’ve wanted to share for some time now and for the same reasons that Mark shared his with us. The task of writing my story seems to float around priority #5 on my daily task list for reasons that I’ll explain in my story if Air Facts chooses to publish it.

    Order lumber
    Log 185 flight to PLU
    Mail insurance payment
    Clean septic screen
    Write Air Facts article
    Program garage door opener
    and about 35 other items of less importance

    I share this with you not because I want you to see some of the mundane in my day but because if any of you have a near miss story or, for better or worse, a tragic story to share with us that hovers on your list, please bring it to the top and get it out there. It could save a life or several lives. Is that important? That is left for you to decide.

    Thanks Mark for sharing your bare-naked story and popping the clutch on my pencil.

    It’s a tragedy to lose anyone to aviation. I too have lost a couple of good souls in my circles. In my opinion, this topic is extremely complex and emotions arise among us readers because of the profound consequences of the common, or not so common, progression of events leading to a fatality. These events can entangle human behaviors, environment, expectations, experience, equipment, reaction, skills (or lack of), pride, ego, assumptions and probably dozens of other factors yet unidentified until they too become real following future fatalities. Dark? Maybe. Real? Yes.

    Thanks again Mark for inspiring us to share stories. These stories help crack complacency and possibly take a little bravado out of the brave.

  47. Jeff Edwards
    Jeff Edwards says:


    Sorry for the loss of your friends. These accidents are preventable. Intervention is possible in some cases but not all. Just one minor critique… 40% of all GA accidents are not caused by SD. According to the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee 47% of all fatal accidents from 2008-2015 were loss of control. I have served on that safety committee since 2011 and SD arises infrequently in our data. It is a factor in non instrument rated pilots who venture into IMC and non proficient instrument rated pilots flying in IMC. I lost a good friend last October for the same reasons you cite, yet he was instrument rated but did not maintain currency or proficiency. The safety net we had in the military or in 121 operations does not exist in GA. If we are going to make big improvements in GA safety we have to change the safety culture. That begins by pilots like us making a positive impact on pilots like our deceased friends and their families before they harm themselves.

  48. Rod Smith
    Rod Smith says:

    Airplanes fly for scientific reasons and airplanes crash for scientific reasons.When I lose a friend in a crash that can’t be explained then I will quit.In over fifty years this has not been the case yet.However after losing over twenty friends I stopped counting years ago.Very good article and very true .

  49. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    Thank you for your heartfelt article. In my experience aviators fall in one of 3 categories: 1. Overconfident and undercautious 2. Underconfident and overcautious 3. Confident and cautious. Cat 1 are always dangerous. Cat 2 are so fearful they may avoid training that would help make them safer (stalls, upset training, etc). Cat 3 is the ideal aviator, which we all should strive to be. But we are all human and sometimes we mess up despite our best effort. On the days I start thinking “this is just another flight,” I try to take a deep breath and roleplay all the things that could go wrong so I don’t get too complacent.

  50. Tom
    Tom says:

    He just forgot to latch the canopy. It was a hot afternoon at Sun&Fun. And he just forgot to latch his canopy before takeoff.
    I was walking along Hotel (before they put up that 8’ fence-for-no-reason) watching the mass exodus that really makes the airshow, An Airshow. I saw a Glassair speed past and the pilot kept reaching up to grab the forward hinged canopy.
    Twice I thought he had it but just as he reached the end of 27 it popped skyward, far out of his reach and with his tail blanked, he started skidding to the left.
    He disappeared beyond the tree line and I said to myself, “Come on buddy, get ‘er up”. I watched for a minute, saw nothing and hoped for the best. I figured he had gotten it under control somewhere over the horizon until I heard this bloodcurdling scream from a woman near me and saw a column of black smoke rising up beyond the trees.
    Rescue crews where dashing in every direction but I just took a line of sight bead and climbed fences and leaped streams until a got to the scene.
    One guy was already there. His house was close enough to be threatened by the flames and he was walking back from the far side where he had been shooting pictures with his long-lens to sell to the departing pilots.
    The plane had spun 180 degrees and was on fire but not yet totally involved. I asked if there were any chance of survival but the photographer said that the pilot had died on impact.
    The third guy to arrive was a sheriff. l told him that I saw the plane travel from the runway to the trees and the photographer said he saw him from the trees to impact. He also said he saw that the pilot was throwing something out of the canopy.
    The sheriff refused to believe he would be throwing anything out of the canopy and that it must have been blown out. Then he went off to wrangle up the fire crews.
    I looked at the guy and asked if the stuff could have blew out and he said, “No Way”! We were on opposite sides of a fence so he took one side and I took the other.
    By the time the sheriff returned we each had a cachet. The photographer had a bag with snacks and a bottle of water (yah, that stuff will just ‘blow out’ of a plane); and I found his temporary airman’s certificate, the aircraft’s registration and the airplane’s performance data card (also likely to just be blown out of a plane).
    The sheriff said, “ I can’t believe this. It usually takes us weeks to find out who they are”!
    I knew the guy’s name and that he was from Bluffton SC, but this is back in the old pre-smartphone days, so I had to wait until I got back home to look him up on that internet thing. What I discovered was pure irony.
    He was a fairly young guy and very highly accomplished. He was the head of supersonic research for Gulfstream Aerospace that had been developing a supersonic bizjet up until that time. His area of expertise was “Aerodynamic Control”. And he forgot to latch the canopy? Irony !
    It’s the little things that’ll get ya …

    And I Know We’ve All Done That One.


  51. Rick Tabb
    Rick Tabb says:

    I lost my father to the exact same situation in April, 1974. He had five chances to save his life, but pressed on anyway and flew into the side of a mountain in South Carolina. If only he had waiting until the next morning to fly home.

  52. wade russell
    wade russell says:

    After 4,000hrs.+, & 40yrs. + flying myself and Fams. around whole USA and beyond, I now ride along with my son in his Cirrus SR22 and airframe parachute. Simply amazing sense of relief & security- just to know it is there! I used to make “fun” of the SR when they first came on the scene. NO LONGER ! Great, timely, needed article sir!

  53. Trent H Duff
    Trent H Duff says:

    I have had great respect for Ernest Gann to write the classic book, “Fate is the Hunter.” Very few pilots have been able to approach that level of realism and truth as Ernest and Mark have and publish it, although many great articles come close in aviation literature.

    I learned to fly in 1968, but was “out” 31 years to concentrate on a career and family. During that time, I read nearly every NTSB fatal report in an attempt to scale-up aircraft parachutes to larger airplanes and one day commercial jets. The stories made me a better pilot. And my belief that jets can be fitted with effective airframe parachutes has only strengthened over time. Yet the record of the Cirrus application has long been dismal with signs of improving. Never give up in your quest for safety.

    A degree in Atmospheric Science taught me much about what is possible with thunderstorms and severe weather. That, too keeps me out of storms. In fact, I would never be comfortable as an IFR pilot and refuse to fly a missile blind, even alone, with the exception of night flying. Air Traffic Control and ADS-B are not nearly enough to make me feel safe. God help me if I ever feel comfortable or complacent as a Private Pilot.

    Much of this truth I speak of is all about how honest we might be with ourselves, and how much we need to be honest with those who fly with us.

    Now, as an aircraft owner, adding 1200 hours and counting up rapidly as a VFR pilot who will enjoy night flight from time to time, I continue to learn. A wise instructor encouraged me to practice night landings without lights, I might turn the lights on just prior to landing briefly to make sure a deer is not nearby, but it is good practice. Risk must always be considered, with every flight. Flying alone helps a lot to minimize distraction, although I always look forward to flying with an instructor or fellow rated pilot. It is much easier to fly safely when not flying to events or for a particular reason. But even if your destination is a daughter’s birthday party, a no-show is far better than a deadly crash.

    Thank you, Mark. Godspeed in VFR.

  54. Barry Hull
    Barry Hull says:

    I am in the business of measuring and improving judgment, and even though I’m sure it was difficult to write, your article was spot on. Thanks for sharing it.

    Through my work, knowing the judgment values of the population at large, and reviewing thousands of NTSB accident reports, it is rarely our knowledge or skills that kills most pilots, but just like your friend, it is our weak strategic judgment that gets most us in trouble. Put simply, a failure to consider the implications and consequences of what you are about to do. I’ve made the presentation, “The number one killer of pilots and what you can do about it” for FAA wings program credit because, as you, I’ve seen this tragedy play out over and over.

    Thanks again for your well said article.

  55. Andy K
    Andy K says:

    Mark, so sorry for your loss and thanks for your courage in writing this. One thing I can add as a non-instrument rated GA pilot is: train under the hood with a CFI (this isn’t done nearly enough post-certificate), practice your engine out procedures, and always look for a place to land. Stay sharp and take steps to minimize risk: fuel for destination plus an hour; weight and balance ok; up to the minute NOTAMS, keep ‘outside and ahead of the airplane’. If the weather is lousy, don’t fly. Actual IFR work sounds just like that-work.

  56. Joel Rosenlicht
    Joel Rosenlicht says:

    Mark, very heartfelt and wonderfully written. In my very humble opinion of 40 years of flying and 4500 hours, this should be required reading for all pilots. (especially the naysayers). There is not one pilot who has ever flown that has had an error in judgement or at least wished he had done something differently regarding a flight which could have ended poorly. Regardless of whether it’s an airplane issue, changes weather or poor assessment of the weather, currency or proficiency, or most importantly the pilot concerns, we all are often times challenged during flight. Thats one of the reasons why the gift of flying needs to be taken very seriously and for every flight no shortcuts should be taken. I’ve lost quite a few friends also.

  57. Rick
    Rick says:

    I started to write a long dissertation on the well over 100 dead from just one accident I believed I could have prevented. It is a very heavy burden not many have had to take to heart. I have been the first on crash scenes with the mangled bodies, and some taking their last breath. I was with the FAA at the time and had worked as a systems engineer, controller, maintenance controller, pilot fixed wing and rotor craft… I don’t even know how many hours I had at the time.
    When I was supposed to be on a plane that did crash, knowing I could have prevented it, I walked away from aviation and my career. I couldn’t accept the risk or the burden of the guilt I felt. I knew too much, I even knew of accidents where very relevant information about the crash was hidden from the NTSB. I was all about safety from the beginning of my aviation career, even volunteered with the CAP as you do now, serving as the squadron safety officer. But, when I saw safety wasn’t the main mission at the FAA, I walked or as someone here wrote, I hung up my spurs.

    I didn’t fly for 20 years, even avoided commercial flights if possible.

    The people I worked for at the FAA are mostly dead now or retired. I had planned to piss on their graves, the way they did to the people that died under their watch.
    Im back fly now,
    I took every ground school, written test, and flight test for all my rating over again. I know flying is extremely dangerous, far more dangerous than riding a motorcycle… one could even argue, it is more dangerous than skydiving, they can jump when there is no where to land…
    l know now I can only do everything I can to make it a safe flight each time… and hope everyone else knows just how dangerous flying really is. Look out for each other out there. I will be looking out for you.

  58. Rich
    Rich says:

    The best safety device and training you can have beyond all the ADM and pilot training, etc., is to have a credit card, know how to use it, and don’t be afraid to use it when necessary!

  59. Coy Getman
    Coy Getman says:

    Mark, my friend: you sent me this article to read months ago: first sorry for not reading until today and for the multiple losses we’ve both experienced.
    It was a great refresher course for some of the truly dumb things I’ve done (not only when flying). Of which, two I will share. First, taking off into very marginal IMC weather along the Alaskan coastline and having to fly 3 hours below the clouds, with the altimeter no higher than 50′, there was just nowhere to go….did have a sand beach below, the whole time.
    The second, more humourous, is a preflight error when flying an Apache. This was a combination of “hurry-up…get home-itis”. Calling for taxi, the voice over the radio was not the tower. The Horizon copilot commented “taxi will be far easier if you untie the left wing”.
    We all make errors, minimizing them is the key to longevity!

  60. John Banas
    John Banas says:

    Mark, I am sorry for your losses.

    What is it about pilots, who are trained to use checklists and on all the tools available for us to make the right decision? Just this week, for my second instrument lesson, I had to pick up the plane at a different airport due to the repaving of the only runway where I fly from. The FBO had to cast their planes to the wind, literally, and I was to pick up the plane, fly to another airport about 30 miles away, pick up my instructor, fly my lesson under the hood, then drop him off and fly back to the originating field. The wx was “iffy” for this 300 hour VFR pilot, and even the CFII and Briefer lauded my decision to cancel the flight.

    But I made the mistake of posting my decision, with a screen print of a rather ugly sectional from ForeFlight on Facebook. You should have read all the responses from my pilot friends – 1/2 of them instrument rated, the other half not. ALL mocked me for not flying in “not quite marginal VMC” and for worrying about this un-forecasted wx showing up this far east and what might pop up before I can get the plane home.

    Well, I am proud of the flights I DIDN’T make. I am PROUD that I adopt the cowardly way. I’d rather hear their mocking voices ring in my ears for months rather than the sobs of my family or screams of my passengers in the last terror ridden seconds of my life.

    This was a timely and helpful article. You SHOULD write more – I am a writer and have even written an article myself for Air Facts Journal. Your prose deeply conveyed your heartache and sense of avoidable loss. Please don’t quit.

  61. Bob Singal
    Bob Singal says:

    Thanks for sharing a very painful experience. Unfortunately, many if us have known very capable and high time pilots who have made fatal decisions that leave is scratching our heads in disbelief.
    I feel the need to comment on John’s response above. I also have had other pilots chide me for what I wouldn’t fly in. Worse, I have had rental operators get snippy when I cancelled flights at the last minute for weather. The decisions we make as PIC are our own. We seek advice from multiple sources before a flight to improve safety. The idea that other pilots would criticize someone for being conservative and safe is mind boggling to me, but it happens . NEVER let anyone take you out of your comfort zone, ever!

  62. Bill P
    Bill P says:

    Thank you Mark, for a fine and sobering particle about the loss of a member of your flying community. I feel compelled to add my voice to the many who have expressed themselves here. I’ve been through the loss of a good friend and coworker as well, and it was shocking, devastating, tragic. As you described, his friends, family and acquaintances came from far and wide, so many that the family had to schedule memorial services at two churches. As you described, so also my friend was an accomplished pilot and mechanic, with thousands of hours in his logbooks. I think articles like yours are extremely necessary to us, so thank you again for publishing your thoughts for our consideration. To the folks who are considering hanging up their flying, please don’t. Understand that these tragedies are meant for us to learn from. Yes, they are scary, tragic, depressing – they are also examples by which we, the pilots still flying, can refine our skills, add that extra step to our checklists, resolve to be more careful. So please do not let fear, sadness, depression overcome the reason why you started flying in the first place. As the Native Americans have said, there are two wolves constantly battling inside each of us, named Joy and Fear. Which one are you going to feed?

  63. Chris Brault
    Chris Brault says:


    Thank you for the candid description on the loss of your friend, because you might have saved a life.

    I own and fly a Cherokee Six after having learned in another club owned Six. I tried to rent N56306 for a family Spring Break trip to Phoenix. The plane had already been reserved by someone and we flew commercial on our Phoenix trip. I opened the Sunday paper the morning after our return and learned that a local pilot and family members were missing in the mountains of Colorado. You guessed it, 56306. A few days later, my instrument instructor Mark called to ask me if the now deceased pilot ever called me about advice for his first venture into mountain flying. Mark was also his instructor. “No, he did not”, I replied. The pilot had called Mark for advice on mountain flying and Mark, despite being a CFII had no experience flying in the mountains. He suggested training and told him to call me since I had recently completed mountain flying training. I reviewed the accident and learned that the pilot had broken numerous rules about flying in the mountains. 1). The weather briefing for his return trip included “partial mountain obscuration, VFR flight not recommended”. 2). His flight path showed he had not planned his trip to follow lower terrain, highways, rivers, railroads and airports. 3). I learned later that he reportedly had to be home for some work appointments. He and his wife left behind two children.

    Please take the time to learn and train. I want to meet Jesus someday, but not today.

    Mark, God bless you for your post.

  64. Bob W
    Bob W says:

    Understandably heartfelt article. Sorry you had the need to write it, and “Thanks!” to Air Facts for leaving it open for continuing comments. It allows me – although late to the discussion – to contribute yet-one-more GA pilot’s (sailplane in my case) thoughts/experiences. I began active immersion into “hands-on aviation” in college, stumbling across “Flying” magazine and its “I learned about flying from that!” column (as I vaguely seem to remember the title). This was about 30 years before the internet made finding such information considerably easier; it supplemented “Aviation Week’s” NTSB reports that semi-regularly graced its pages in issues my dad often brought home for his airsick offspring. Callow and feckless “ute” that I was, I quickly concluded most aviation accidents were “pilot induced.”

    I graduated; took up soaring/got several thousand mostly-solo and cross-country hours over the next 37 years; began losing friendly acquaintances and friends within 2 years (yup. “pilot induced”); quit actively counting upon reaching double-digits; most recent loss about 3 months ago…likely “yet another stall-spin in the landing pattern”. So while fatal sailplane opportunities often differ in fundamental ways from opportunities available to hydrocarbon-powered GA aviation (e.g. IMC, fuel, etc.), pilot-contributions are a common factor across ALL of aviation’s spectrum.

    I’ve never seen the need to change my college-years’ pre-flight-training working conclusion concerning the most common contributor to aviation crashes – Joe Pilot. There’s no such thing as immunity from stupid pilot tricks, regardless of one’s “aviation-of-choice” (e.g. think “Snort” Snodgrass), years of experience, currency or anything else. Sure, ignorance in low-time-pilots, overconfidence/complacence in higher-time-types, the occasional “immortal-pilot/watch-this!” types all exist, but in my opinion, any pilot who doesn’t actively think something along the lines of, “I can kill myself on THIS flight, if I don’t always-and-actively keep this thought in mind throughout this flight!” is doing himself a disservice, if living until one’s biologically-appointed destiny is important to him or her. It worked for me…


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