Over recent times tragic news seems to have become all too frequent for the aviation community. In recent weeks alone I have known two pilots that have perished and when I tally the number over my career, the number is confronting. In the cruellest manner, it seems we are all reminded that tragedy is the ever-present companion in the skies we seek to transit.
As the son of a former combat fighter pilot, I had grown up around the potentially fatal nature of aviation. As I flicked enthusiastically through fading photographs of fast jets, my father would answer my questions in an even tone. Often my enquiries with reference to the pilots was met with, “He got killed by ground fire near Haeju”, or “I think he put a Mirage in off the coast during a training exercise”. Their young faces beneath flying helmets still stare back at me so many years later.
My own first encounter with the harsh lessons of aviation started as a student pilot. Still a paramedic by trade, I stood at the Royal Aero Club counter as the airport’s crash horn sounded and the ominous black, oily plume rose from beyond the runway’s end. Off duty, I drove my car the short distance around the airfield perimeter and entered the factory where the Piper Cherokee Six had plunged vertically through the roof. One burnt survivor has been thrown onto the rooftop, while I dragged another from the smoke-filled building. Four remained in the wreck, still strapped into their seats; lifeless. Any complacency about aviation that youth may have been tempted to bestow upon me was banished at that very moment.
In the losses of recent times, as is so often the case, there are not necessarily any common themes. Each was in a different type of aircraft, with the weather varying from despicable to fine and clear. The pilots ranged vastly in experience and their operations covered the spectrum from private flying to commercial aviation. The only shared trait seemed to be the tragic outcome. I read through the various news reports with a strong dose of suspicion, borne of decades reading of ill-informed, sensationalist reporting. Details seemed to change by the hour and rumours took on the status of fact until the next piece of hearsay could be generated in the public domain. What could not be disputed was the life-altering impact of these accidents upon so many. To such a backdrop, one by one I recalled the faces of those that I had seen lost at the brutal edge of aviation. As I penned each name, the sobering truth was rammed home to me; no one is immune.
The list of names was far longer than I had anticipated. They ranged from pilots with whom I had shared a meal and conversation, to close friends and work colleagues. Nearly all of them were commercial pilots eking out a living in general aviation, though some had also been lost pursuing their passion just for the love of it. Some were starting their journey, excited at their first gainful employment and some were experienced mentors in the service of the nation’s aviation regulator. One by one I recalled their faces. The ‘old hand’ Bill whose ultimate oversight in forty years of safe flying was not spotting the glider that sheared off his Bonanza’s tailplane. And Brinley, celebrating at the local restaurant at the news he’d secured a position with the national carrier only to perish nights later, circling into a black hole in rural Australia in the foulest of weather. Trevor, whose single-engined fish spotting aircraft had force landed at dusk into the frigid waters, only to survive the impact, but not the swim to shore. ‘Freddo’, who’d tried one too many hair-raising flying feats at too low an altitude, only to pancake into the rising terrain. Alan and Peter, who had been searching for another aeroplane when their own Cessna’s engine had failed over inhospitable terrain. Fernando, who descended gently into the ground in the wee hours with a full load in his Baron. My fellow freight pilots who had been lost within a couple of months in a bleak, wet winter of low cloud and icing levels. On and on the list continued as face after face stared back at me.
Admittedly, there were those who had been sticking their neck out further than the rules and common sense would advise. But for most it was simply a case of the odds stacking up against them in a series a compounding smaller events; the classic ‘Swiss Cheese’ model of Dr. James Reason. For a few it was the simple bad luck scenario of wrong place-wrong time. Universally, however, they are all still with me; even though I had not thought of many of them in recent years. They are with me every day. They are with me as I flight plan and as I retract the landing gear. They are with me as the day becomes night and as the weather turns dark and walls of water confront me. They are with me always.
They are not evil spectres awaiting my demise, they are those who have gone before and paid the ultimate price. They paid for their harsh lessons with their lives and I am now the benefactor of their loss. In many ways, I owe them for the joy I have experienced in the skies above. They may have gone before, but they have stayed behind to tell me when enough is enough and when danger is lurking. They are there when the hair stands up on the back of my neck. They level the playing field and stand on the kerb whenever the temptation to cut a corner may exist.
They were acquaintances, colleagues and close friends who lived and breathed for aviation. I count myself as fortunate to have thus far safely encountered my way, but this is not an automatic right. It requires an ongoing commitment to safety and discipline at all times and anything less is to dishonour those who have sacrificed so much. We call the skies our home and it is not a dangerous place to encounter. However, as those who have been lost recently and in the distant past can attest, aviation can be very unforgiving.
"Unforgiving" was originally published in my book '50 Tales of Flight'.