Minding my Own Business at the Range
On the afternoon of July 3, I was at my local driving range hitting golf balls for the first time in years. I have not played a round of golf since shortly after my son was born eight years ago, and a few years ago my wife gave me a gift card in order to entice me to a cheaper hobby. I had been there for about an hour, and pulled my phone out to take a picture and post a snarky Facebook comment about not having lost my ability to slice it fifty yards off course.
As I opened my Facebook app, I noticed the following image and news story posted in a local aviation forum:
|Taken from Chicagotribune.com - Click here to view story|
I saw the story of a single-engine plane crashing in a forest preserve in Bartlett, Illinois, which is located about five miles north of the airport out of which I fly (KDPA). My first response was that it was just awful to lose another fellow aviator, and to start to anticipate the questions that I was no doubt going to be asked by friends. That didn't last long.
That Uneasy Feeling
The news of the above distracted me from my original purpose for opening Facebook in the first place, and I returned to hitting golf balls. After a few swings, my mind started to wander back to this image above and it stopped me in my tracks. If one looks very closely, one can tell that this was probably a white Skyhawk, and very close examination reveals parts of the tail number that could have belonged to my flying club. Was this N62681? A flurry of text messages with three fellow officers began immediately in order to mobilize and gather information.
It was. I will confess now that given that I am an officer in the flying club I know a lot more about what probably happened than is publicly available, but I will be sticking to what anyone could learn from the NTSB and media at this time.
The Short Version
The private pilot departed KDPA and conducted some practice landings at nearby Schaumburg airport (06C). Upon return to DuPage, he called up the tower and stated that he was having a "rudder problem." The aircraft disappeared from radar and radio communication could not be established, and eventually the aircraft was found in a nearby forest preserve after having impacted the terrain in a nose- and left-wing-down attitude. The pilot was killed as a result of injuries he sustained in the crash.
You can listen to the ATC recording here, and the preliminary report from the NTSB can be found here.
When the probable cause report is released, I will say more about the above. At this point, I will refrain from adding any information not reported or suggesting any causes of this accident. I will say that upon learning that it was in fact our plane, I headed out to the scene. For the one and only time I can remember, I was thankful that Friday traffic kept me from getting where I wanted to go in any reasonable amount of time. By the time I reached the scene, our club president had essentially answered all the investigator's questions and there was nothing else for the club to do. I never saw the accident scene in person, and instead we met at a local Buffalo Wild Wings for food and a few beers instead.
Risks Become Real
If we are honest with ourselves, we really do not like to think about the reality that this kind of thing can happen to us. We never expect to be highlighted on the evening news or an NTSB report. But the uncomfortable truth is that it does happen, and it can happen to any of us. We have to maintain enough awareness of this so that we remain vigilant and sharp so that we do our part to avoid the headlines. We need to work to eliminate the number one cause of aircraft accidents: pilots.
In this case, we are talking about a plane that I have flown. Without looking in the logbook, I'd speculate that I have roughly eight or nine hours in this plane. While I never did a formal write up, I did reference this plane as the one I took on my at that time longest cross-country flight from KDPA to Burke Lakefront in Cleveland. I also rode right seat in it a month or two before to go and pick up our club Arrow from maintenance. I really did not like this plane and as it approached TBO believed that the club would be better off selling it. This was not the way for her to go.
I was also scheduled to go flying the next morning with my friend to fly the Bonanza for a few more hours before I could carry passengers, and I wanted to work on flying instruments with steam gauges. As you might imagine, Mrs. Dr. Flying Shrink was not too keen on this given what had just happened. I anticipated this, and simply stayed home that day. It brought the reality of what can happen to the forefront.
Finally, I'd be remiss not to point out that this is the first time I have known a pilot killed in a plane crash. I had not had very many interactions with this particular man, so it's not like we were flying buddies or anything. I think that this is what hit me the hardest, though. Yes, death is a fact of life and we accept a small increase in risk when we choose to be pilots. When the person killed is someone you know, it takes the "out there" and makes it "in here." Under such conditions, it is far harder to avoid unpleasant existential realities. This incident has certainly sparked some reflection amongst my fellow club members, and this is a very good thing. I just wish it did not take such drastic circumstances to spur such honest reflection so that we can do our part to reduce our flying risks.
Blue Skies, fellow aviator. And fly safe, my friends.