Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Underbelly of the Beast

Today was a first for the IFR Pilot. Seven-plus hours were spent crawling over the wreckage of a single-engine plane that, along with its owner, came to an ignominious end. It's in litigation, and we help represent one of the allegedly liable parties. Thus, I won't be sharing any details about the crash itself or the lawsuit, even though it's a matter of public record.

I was prepared for this to be an eye-opening experience. I've written numerous times about crashes in various Accident of the Week posts (note to self: start writing those again!). In general, it's an academic exercise, done principally for me to (a) have something to write about, and (b) to consider various situations and think actively about what I might do if ever presented with a similar scenario. I've been blessed that I have yet to know personally anyone who met their maker while flying, although the Vari-Eze crash in Lethbridge during The Great Alaska Adventure (tm) was close enough. But this was my first time up-close and personal crawling around what's left of a plane that smacked into the ground. Mind you, I'm only just the lawyer who dabbles in aviation. There was a roomful of experts to do the real investigating.

I had steeled myself for the experience of seeing the crumpled mass of aluminium, wires, and equipment that was once an airplane. I particularly dreaded the prospect of seeing any lingering blood from the pilot. It would be an all-too-acute reminder that, for once, this wasn't just an academic exercise. It was real, with tangible effects for all involved.

Turns out that the latter fear was misplaced. There was no sign of blood, probably because most of the instrument panel had been removed during a previous inspection.

So, all was good for a while. It started to became another somewhat academic exercise. Taking in the various things that the people whose business accident reconstruction is were saying. Really, it's amazing to see how they can deduce, infer, and postulate about what was happening based on various dents, scratches, and the like.

The reality that someone had perished in this aircraft, however, was brought back with a vengeance in the blink of an eye. While moving some wires and other items in the cockpit, I came across a blue nitrile glove. Now, maybe it was deposited there during a prior inspection. In the instant that I saw it, however, all I could think was that it was left there when EMS responded to the scene of the crash and learned that nothing could be done for the pilot.

Faithful readers, we all accept the proposition that there is risk in aviation. Just like there is risk in anything else we choose to do in life, whether it's skydiving or crossing the street.

As I confided in one of our experts, however, I don't ever want a dozen or more lawyers, engineers, and accident reconstruction experts combing over the wreckage of an aircraft that I was piloting. Ever.

No, I'm not giving up the aviation game. I am, however, redoubling my commitment to be a safe pilot, whether flying solo or with others aboard. No more abbreviated pre-flight inspections. No more skipping calling for a weather briefing, even if I've gotten a computer briefing. More rigorous scanning for traffic, both as PIC and safety pilot. More regular perusal of Mike Hotel's POH so that I can know everything about the plane that I'm flying. All the little things that I can do to try and minimize risk.

Won't you all do the same, so that someday I don't have to comb through your wreckage too?


Greybeard said...

Well now...
Thought provoking, my friend.
We all can use a reminder now and then. Some need it more than just now and then!

Imagine arriving at the scene in another flying machine, watching the crew approach the crumpled mass that was once streamlined and beautiful, smelling the strong scent of AvGas or JetA in the air.
It's a sad reminder of the extra risks we take on when we levitate and go fast.

Good post.
Keep the reminders coming.

Eric Gideon said...

Years ago, my dad was in a club that owned a 182 hangared at Paine Field. The pilot of a taxiing 310 suffered a heart attack and veered into the hangar, killing himself and the passenger in the ensuing fire.

I was about 10 or so, and walking around what was literally a charred 310 outline with twisted seats sitting on the ground - and one tip-tank embedded in the hangar door - was a very sobering sight, and one I still recall from time to time. The smell was particularly memorable, and the incident is a constant reminder of how important good health is.

Anything can happen at any time, and as pilots we're responsible for our passengers' safety as well. Being anything other than a responsible pilot needlessly endangers everyone around us.

Bill said...

I vow to be a safe pilot. I am pre-solo pilot and definitely don't want something like that to happen to me.

Thanks for the eye-opening blog entry. I enjoy reading them.


Barb Carges said...

Thank you for an excellent reminder that things sometimes go wrong. Accidents happen but we can lessen the chances by taking the time to do things right. Shortcuts often cause more problems then they solve.

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