Things that I consider somewhat normal might scare the daylights out of others. Stepping into the cockpit of a half-million pound airplane with 300 people riding behind me, and piloting it across the Pacific? No sweat. The opposite is true for me though too, depending on what that other person’s knowledge and/or skills are. For example, bungee jumping or skydiving are definitely out of the question for me. It’s all a matter of perspective and experience.
Last month, I sent my seventeen-year-old son up in an airplane as its pilot – all by himself – for the very first time. It was his first solo flight, and I was his flight instructor. Think of the first time parents say goodbye to their kids after they earn their driver’s license, heading off to a friend’s house or maybe to a fast-food restaurant to meet up with some classmates. It’s a ritual common to the developed world, although doing the same thing in an airplane is a bit different. Yet, my son is not the first person I’ve sent into the sky on their own. I’ve been a flight instructor for nearly thirty years and had dozens of students working on their private pilot’s license who have soloed under my supervision. When I was a full-time flight instructor it got to be fairly common for me to sign off a student to solo and watch them make a few trips around the pattern at the airport. The level of nervousness for me decreased over the years as I become more experienced and could tell when the person was definitely ready for their solo. Was I nervous this time with my son? Of course. This was my only child, and no parent could stand by and not feel some trepidation when watching their offspring sail into a cold, cloudy sky by themselves. But like when I worked with those earlier students, I also had the knowledge gained by watching my son learn to fly over the previous few months. I knew that he had a good handle on how the aircraft operated, the basics of control, and some good common sense. Enough, in fact, that I was sure he was ready to do it on his own. He did a great job too, taking the plane around the traffic pattern three times, with a nice smooth landing each time. The photo accompanying this blog is one I took just after his first solo takeoff.
My son is at the beginning of his journey through aviation, a career he has chosen on his own, with no pressure from me or my wife. He’s made the decision to attend a university with a strong aviation program starting this fall to begin his career as a commercial pilot. He’s excited, and ready to start the long process of learning, testing, learning more, testing more, and so on that it takes to become an airline pilot. The thousands of incremental steps it takes to get to where I am now may seem daunting at first, but with each step comes experience gained not only by the student, but by the hundreds of thousands of pilots who have gone before them.
That experience passed on by previous generations of pilots often comes, unfortunately, written in the blood of those who made errors in the past. Flying is objectively one of the safest modes of transportation in existence today. Even the general aviation segment (small planes like Cessnas and Pipers) has a better safety record now than in recent years. Yet it has done so because of all the hard-won lessons from more than a century of experience in what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. And that is in part where the fear of flying comes from. The memory of crashes and accidents in the distant past still echo in the minds of many, with the ‘what-if’ thoughts running through their minds as they board their flight. They know the facts, they know the numbers, they know in their head that flying is safer than the drive to the airport. But in their hearts, where emotions ferment and boil, it’s hard to take that impartial information and lay it on top of the lack of control and lack of expertise that comes with being an occasional flyer.
So yes, flying is safe. And it’s many times safer than in the past. My dad flew for United Airlines from 1937 to 1973, an era when crashes were often monthly occurrences, yet he retired after 36 years of service without a single major incident. But he knew many people who didn't make it out of that time, lost to issues, incidents and mistakes we have since learned about and either eliminated or greatly reduced. It is that era that comes to mind though when people who don’t understand the modern aviation world step onto an airplane. The industry has done an amazing job turning a formerly sketchy mode of transportation into the global wonder it is today.
And yet… nothing is perfect.
There is an old saying you often see posted in flight schools: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” Despite the improvements in aviation safety since that quote was first uttered in 1930, it does hold true to this day. Sometimes we get a slap in the face, reminding us just what can happen.
Yesterday I learned of a new crash when a pilot friend posted on Facebook a simple message, “I’m good”. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t talking about a new self-reinforcement technique, but that one of the planes for the cargo airline he flies for had just crashed. Three people had died, and as I write this there is no known cause. Why would a 767 suddenly dive to the ground after making what seemed like a normal trip halfway across the U.S.? That’s for the NTSB to discover. Maybe it was a fluke occurrence, maybe it was the weather, maybe it was a systemic issue with the plane, maybe it was some missed mechanical issue, maybe it was pilot error. We will find out eventually, and if necessary, make changes where needed. As usual when these events happen there’s a lot of guessing and hypothesizing going on, especially on places like a certain aviation-related message board I sometimes look at. Within 24 hours of the accident over 500 posts had been made about the crash, most of which were guesses on why it happened. Nobody knows yet, and it’s pretty pointless to espouse a certain theory with essentially no information. But it is human nature to try and fill a void like that.
I’m sure all three of the pilots involved started the same way as my son, enjoying the idea of airplanes, and moving on to a love of the process as they learned to fly themselves. They all had experienced the tension and joy that comes with the first solo, and the long journey from private pilot up through the ranks to earning their airline transport pilot license. They would have had lots of experience themselves, and had learned from the knowledge gained by those who had gone before them. And yet, some as-of-now unknown piece of that assembly of machine, skill, process and knowledge failed.
It’s a tough realization that it can still fail, and a lesson that needs to be passed on to anyone wishing to fly for a living. As rare as it is, failures can still happen. The beginning that came at that first solo can come to a sudden and unexpected end. I’ve had long talks with my son about this very subject, and I think he understands the big picture, at least as well as a seventeen-year-old just off his first solo can understand it. All beginnings have an end. In the aviation industry we keep working tirelessly to move that end point further into the future by making the entire industry safer, so the experience of flying can be enjoyed by many more people every day.
Signing off my son for his first solo was an almost-normal experience for me, one that contained a little bit of tension and nervousness, but a lot of joy and pride too. A third generation of my family is headed to a career as a pilot, and that fills me with happiness. I can look at the beginning with joy, and take pride that while I understand the end may be unexpected, everyone in the industry is working on doing whatever we can to reduce that unexpected risk every day. The end will eventually come for everyone in some way. The hope is that it won’t be unexpected.