When my phone beeped at me with an incoming text message, I saw it was a friend from work, and I smiled. He was another instructor and pilot at my airline, and his son is just starting his freshman year at the same university where my son is starting his third year. Both boys are in the commercial pilot program at that school, hoping to become airline pilots like their dads. We had even run into their family a couple of weeks earlier in that small North Dakota town during parent’s weekend as we’d (unknown to each other) travelled out there separately to visit our sons and see how they’re faring, just a few weeks into the new school year.
As I read the text message though, my mood changed in an instant. He asked if I’d heard about the airplane crash at the school, which apparently had happened two hours earlier, killing the student pilot. Instantly my mind spun, my muscles tensed, and my heart raced. Had my son been scheduled to fly that evening? I couldn’t remember if he was on a flight or not. Before even answering my friend’s text or saying anything to my wife who was watching TV in the recliner next to me, I texted my son, asking ‘You still up?’, trying not to sound like I was in a screaming panic, despite the adrenaline and fear running through my system. Mere seconds later though I saw the spinning circle that indicated he was typing a message. “Yep. You hear about our accident?” was the reply a few seconds later.
The relief that flooded through me was as intense as the fear a few moments earlier. My son was not involved in the accident, and didn't know the young man who was. I told my wife what had happened, then started a series of texts back and forth with my son.
I am the chairman of our union’s accident investigation program, so I understand how the NTSB and FAA would progress along their investigation and what they would be looking at for data & information on the flight. I also started along the same route, sharing info back and forth with my son. Since there is no official NTSB report yet, I will state that all of what follows is based solely on my observations and from information relayed through my son from his friends and acquaintances at the school, so please, don’t take this as anything other than what it is – my opinion of what might have transpired.
Very quickly after we started looking, we found the plane’s flight on the flightaware.com website, but the data opened some immediate questions. The plane had taken off normally and turned south toward Fargo, but as it leveled off, it was going much slower than normal, and didn’t accelerate to its usual cruise speed. In fact, if the data was to be believed, the plane would have been hanging right on the edge of being too slow to fly. When we’re learning to fly, we train on how to operate the plane at various speeds so it isn’t unusual to see short periods where the student slows down, then back up to normal again. But this flight started slow and stayed that way. After many minutes of this, the data showed it slowed even more, holding altitude until it suddenly turned sharply left, and descended very rapidly toward the ground, dropping off the radar in less than two minutes. And that was all we knew.
As professional pilots we are taught not to speculate on what the cause of an accident is until the investigators have been through their process. There are simply too many possibilities to know with any certainty, what caused the accident. It is also human nature to want to assign blame as soon as possible, despite not having all the information necessary to make an informed opinion. I talked about this with my son, and he agreed. Of course there were rumors already floating around the pilot community at the university, that possibly the plane had been stolen. Or that it was a suicide. Or that it was simply a student pilot on a solo night cross country flight that went horribly wrong. And from my point of view it could have been any of those things, or possibly a mechanical malfunction. There was no way we could have (or should have) started picking one over the other.
The next morning though, the picture became clearer. The crash had caused the university to pause all flight operations for that day, in what is called a safety stand-down. But they didn’t cancel the regular class schedule, and in one of those classes my son heard what was probably the real cause – suicide. At the day’s classes, the crash was all they could talk about. And in one of the classes, a student my son knows said the victim of the crash had texted several friends (including this person), family members and his instructor just before the crash, and said goodbye. As the day wore on more details emerged. Again, this is merely hearsay, not confirmed facts, but it seems that the victim might have been in a single-car accident two days before the crash, possibly involving alcohol, and had been despondent that because of the accident his career as a professional pilot was over before it had begun. If this was the truth, it made the aircraft crash all that more tragic, because there was no reason why this young man’s career would be over.
If, if, if. If this is all true, the pressures put on this young man by himself, and possibly from others, created a situation where he felt he simply couldn’t continue on. And most tragic of all, the pressures we’re assuming he felt were not any reason to end his life in a deliberate crash.
If. If you have been through college you know the lifestyle – new experiences, new friends, new opportunities to mess up. The university where this happened also knows that, and has a set of rules in place to help the prospective aviators avoid the worst pitfalls of college life, and to protect the investment made by the school and these students who are involved in something that can be more dangerous than what the standard college curriculum provides. Yes, general aviation is a safe activity these days. However it still requires a greater attention to safety procedures and planning than many other possible career paths. At schools like this the word is given out early – no drinking by underage students, and if you’re over 21, you have to abide by the very strict alcohol rules coming from the FAA. When our son started at the school he told us about the rules, which according to rumor meant that even after one single slip-up, and you were going to be expelled from the program, with no chance to pursue your dream job. The truth is that if an underage aviation student is caught intoxicated, they are put on a 6-month flight hold. That would put you behind, but it wouldn’t ruin your career. Much more in the realm of rumor, is what would happen when you applied to an airline after an alcohol-related issue in your past. Although the rumor is that if you have a DUI the big airlines wouldn’t even look at your application, the truth is that if it was a single infraction and you’ve done whatever it takes to change your habits, most airlines won’t give that old infraction a second thought.
If. If the victim of the crash really believed this incident might kill his career chances, it might explain some of his actions. What I don’t know (and probably most of his friends don’t know) is what other pressures he was under. Many kinds of pressure lie beneath the surface, such that almost nobody else can see them. But they do exist, and can affect how a person works, lives, and performs their duties. Eventually the NTSB will release its report on the crash, which may shed some light on the background of the victim, or maybe they will leave those details out of the report.
If. Even if we don’t know the details, we can probably assume that this young man was under an enormous amount of pressure. So much pressure that he decided the only solution was to end it all. Permanently. Pressure is definitely something we experience in varying degrees at different points in our career as pilots. For example, just hours before receiving that text message about the crash, I’d had my regular 6-month FAA physical exam. No matter how much you know about your own health and how well you take care of yourself, there’s always that nagging little voice in your head in the days leading up to the exam that says, ‘what if?’. What if my blood pressure is too high? What if my eyesight is failing? What will the doctor find that might mess up my career and stop me from enjoying the best job I can imagine? Pressure like that can be subtle, but it is there. And it can be added to other pressures you might feel that day.
Being a commercial pilot is a bit different from other careers. If you get the bug to fly, it can take hold with tenacious strength. It becomes a huge part of what and who you are. A lot of the plusses are brought forward early on when you are thinking about and planning for this career; the relatively large paychecks, the ability to travel, a job that is rarely humdrum. Yet once you get into the actual training for the career, you start finding darker corners of the job too. Bizarre hours, lack of sleep, poor diet, frequent checks in the simulator, constant recurrent training, and the family pressures of being far from home. And added to that is the possibility that if you screw up, sometimes even once, this career may be taken from you without you being able to do anything about it. Or if it is a medical issue, you may do everything right, and still lose your career.
Because of the type of work, aviation also attracts more than its share of type-A personalities. And if you are one of those go-getters, you may sometimes add extra pressure to yourself to get everything done perfectly – pretty much an impossibility in aviation.
So pressure is there, from the beginning. In the ‘old days’ there was essentially no support for anyone suffering from the pressures of the job. My father was an airline pilot from 1937 to 1973, and we often talked about how things have changed – mostly for the better – as airlines learned how their pilots were handling (or often mishandling) the pressures of the job. Alcohol was a major problem, almost to the point of being a cliché. If you realized you had a problem in the past, most pilots just covered it up as admitting the problem was something less than the ‘manly’ attitude you were supposed to have. But there were enough professionals who recognized the problem in the industry that a pilot-specific program called HIMS was developed. Here's a link to the history of the HIMS program. Background | HIMS (himsprogram.com) HIMS stands for Human Intervention Motivational Study. They developed resources to help not only someone suffering from alcohol issues, but their colleagues and family too. I have personally seen how well this program works with friends at my airline, and am happy there is an avenue of help for them.
Another huge aspect of assistance in aviation comes from the CIRP program. CIRP stands for Critical Incident Response Program. When people go through a stressful experience, their reactions can vary widely. Some handle it well, talking it out with friends and learning how to de-stress themselves. However most people can carry that burden of stress with them for a long time. That stress can affect the person’s ability to do their job, sometimes to the point of causing them to quit, or worse. The idea of this stress issue has been around for decades, whether it was called ‘shell shock’, or something else. But as more people became involved with the aviation industry it was noted that performance can decline markedly after a stressful incident, if that person didn’t have a way to understand what they’ve been through. CIRP was developed as a method of ‘psychological first-aid’ using trained peers to help defuse a stressful situation. I have personally been exposed to both sides of this program, having been through the training as a CIRP peer, and also receiving a defusing session with another peer after a near-miss during a takeoff in Las Vegas 16 years ago.
Having these resources available is a huge benefit not only to us, but to the travelling public too. But going back to the tragic crash in North Dakota this month, it is obvious that this level of support is not fully available, or at least fully known, in the flight training world. We are currently at a stage where we are short of qualified pilots, and the shortage will only get worse. The great recession of 2007-2009 stopped a lot of people from getting into flight training. And then when the Covid pandemic hit, many airlines offered early retirements to their pilots, which was advantageous to the airlines for a short time, but when the passenger traffic picked up faster than expected, it left the airlines critically short of crews. It does require a large outlay of cash early in your training to become a pilot, but if you make it through, the rewards are just as big. However, it also takes a lot of time to get fully trained and ready for a career with the airlines. There’s really no way for the training pipeline to adjust quickly enough for the frequent economic ups and downs in the airline industry. With the anticipated growth however, even the most optimistic guesses of pilot training output will leave a shortage of qualified people at the airlines for a decade or more. We need to do more to protect and assist people in every manner possible during the years from student pilot to airline pilot to happy retiree.
All of this is to point out that every stage in a pilot’s career, from day one of private pilot training until retirement, there should be resources available to them to help with the unique and stressful environment we deal with every day. In the case of the accident in North Dakota, it may be more a case of not knowing what was available than a lack of support. But there is still a young victim who won’t be going home for Christmas vacation, who won’t be talking to friends as he comes and goes from his fraternity, and who won’t fill the seat in an airliner as he had hoped for so long. Whatever fractured inside him, it could have, and should have, been prevented. The personal toll of a high-stress career ended his chances before he got started. We all need to do better.