Aviation, is it dangerous?

There’s an old saying concerning Aviation that goes something like this
‘Aviation in it’s self is not inherently dangerous but to a greater extent than the Sea it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect’. Makes perfect sense doesn’t it.

Growing up flying with my dad was my introduction to Aviation and I have to credit him for being my greatest mentor. Lee Swain who I flew for my second year flying professionally gets the credit for being my second greatest mentor, but I would have to admit that Bobby Barnes and Terry Hanes, who flew for Lee that spring of 1984 along with me get credit as well for being a good influence on my flying habits and skills.

Arrogance and vanity have never had a place in my life for anything and especially concerning flying. I’ve known a lot of arrogant pilots and a good number of them are dead now due maybe in part to their arrogance.

Several years ago while flying for Wes Gossard at St Johns Washington I asked him what the difference was between personal vanity and professional pride. He used an example of an incident that occurred that spring to explain it. It wasn’t a fatal or potentially fatal mistake but an honest mistake and when questioned the pilot admitted that that was probably what happened. It involved the shut down procedure for the 1820 Wright; it’s complicated to start and requires a specific procedure in shutting down as well.

I’ve known pilots that have stacked up several aircraft while getting their career in Aviation going and those who will take credit for things that they never did. ‘Yeah, I taught him everything he knows about Aviation’. Or the ones who ‘taught Superman how to fly’. One of the best sayings I’ve ever heard was, ‘I can not only fly that thing I can fly the crate it came in’. You get the point I’m sure.

I do need to point out though that you cannot do a good job of flying being intimidated or unsure of yourself. Confidence comes with training and experience, arrogance and ignorance are full brothers though and if you don’t understand the difference between good training and experience and arrogance then stop reading right here; you don’t need General Chuck Yeager’s level of skill or confidence to be a good pilot but a good dose of common sense goes a long ways.

An interesting side note about General Chuck Yeager is that he once called Scott Crossfield the most arrogant pilot that he ever knew, they were both test pilots at Edwards airbase after WW2. They both set speed records as far as breaking the sound barrier and pushing the limit of Aviation for speed and altitude.

Scott Crossfield went down in a class 5 thunderstorm in the southeast while returning home from a movie location where he was working as a technical advisor. This was later in his life after a successful career as a military pilot.

Quite a few of those pilots from the WW2 era were great pilots. Bob Hoover was a WW2 Ace and a great airshow pilot. One of my favorite stories about Bob Hoover was when he escaped from a German POW camp an stole an enemy aircraft and flew it to the Netherlands. I don’t recall whether it was an ME 109 or a FW 190; either aircraft it’s a dang good story. As always you are welcome to verify anything what I say on my blog as I paraphrase a lot and tell stories from memory more than direct quotes.

In 1986 I was flying for Clarks Air Service out of Nampa Idaho, it was my 4th year flying professionally and my 1st year crop dusting at night.

‘Crop dusting at night you said’? Yep, that’s what I said.

Night Dusting is a whole different ‘Animal’ than daytime Dusting; very likely I’ll devote another post to that specifically but for now I’ll stay with ‘is flying dangerous’?

I don’t recall transitioning to night Crop Dusting overly intimidating but it was a challenge. You develop additional skills to your flying that are essential for your survival and your ability to do a good job. In 1986 and 1987, the 2 years that I flew for Clarks we were using Aircraft that ran around  115 t0 120 mph, they were radial or flat engines and we were using hand flaggers. From 2005 through 2009 when I flew for Tri Rotor out of Yuma we were flying Turbine powered Aircraft and they were running around 135 mph across the fields and were using GPS, Global Positioning Systems that were accurate enough to shoot an instrument approach; there was a 17 year gap in my Night Dusting so in a small way I  had to relearn; I’m not an especially quick learner but ‘when I get it, I got it’ so to speak.

At Clarks I flew 2 different types of aircraft, one was a Callaire and the other was a S2R 600 Thrush. I also flew a 800 hp Thrush that was powered by the Wright 1300. It was faster than the 600 but not as dependable; that’s a story in itself. At Yuma I flew the Air Tractor 402, 502 and 602, all were turbine powered aircraft and fast as well as reliable.

The summer of 1986 we lost 4 pilots in the Treasure Valley and totaled 6 Aircraft, I knew 5 of the pilots involved. The only pilot that I didn’t know was a California pilot that was flying a grasshopper contract near Jordan Valley and decided to ‘water ski’ his turbine powered Thrush across Antelope Reservoir; it got away from him and he rolled it up in a ball killing himself in the process.

I’m going to refrain from using last names out of respect for the living family members of those involved in this story. It would bear more weight in many ways to use their full names but for personal reasons I would rather not.

Bill, a Duster out of Caldwell Idaho was the first to go down. he was flying back from Mountain Home and landed on a road near the Boise Stage Stop to buy his crew breakfast, he hit a power line and didn’t survive the crash; he was a neat guy and well liked. That was around the last of June or the first of July.

Later on in July I was in the office at Nampa after my flying was done and it was around 1030 or 1100 that evening. Tim, my loader and Brenda my flagger were there and we were shooting the breeze before heading home. We all 3 had to be back in the morning around 430 to do it again. The phone rang reporting a Duster down and I thought it was maybe one of the other Operators in the Valley. I made a quick call and found  out that all of their aircraft and pilots were accounted for. I got a hold of Emily on the radio who was flagging for Steve, the other pilot and asked if they were okay. She said she was waiting for him at a field in Dry Lake while he flew down near Melba an knocked out a field on his own without benefit of a flagger. It was a common practice as we did not always have time to run flaggers from one field to the next and keep things rolling; the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

About as quick as I got off of the radio with Emily the phone rang and it was a farmer from the Melba area that we had a job scheduled for that evening reporting a crash. By now the dots were beginning to connect and as soon as I had a location Tim, Brenda and myself were racing to the crash.

This was 36 years year ago and I turned 36 years that summer, I’m not sure if I could have written this story in full before now but here it is. My bride is the only person alive that knows the full story or the impact on our lives; that I am not a quitter nearly cost us more than we could bear but finish reading and you can decide if the cost was worth the price.

When we got to the crash site a deputy sheriff wouldn’t let us go near it. I told him it was one of our pilots but it didn’t make any difference. I had called the owner of Clarks Air Service before I left the office and figured  he’d be showing up soon.

While the deputy was preoccupied Tim and I sprinted to the wreck, Brenda stayed with the gathering crowd. The aircraft was pointing due south as it sat on the ground, above and directly in front of it was one of these towers, stuck in the tower just underneath where the wires went through the tower was the right wing  of Steve’s aircraft. The top of the tower was hanging to the north side with all the wires still attached, the wires are what kept it from falling to the ground.

This picture is from the north side of the wires facing south, the exact location I’m unsure of after all of these years but this would be close.

Near as I could figure Steve was flying the field east and west and on a run to the west pulled up and turned into the tower without gaining enough altitude to clear it.

It gets pretty graphic from here so stop if you have a weak stomach. We put the story together by bits and pieces as Steve didn’t survive.

Evidently he was flying with his shoulder harness off and the impact threw him forward piercing his abdomen with the joy stick. The aircraft did a 270 degree flat spin from it’s direction of flight and landed flat pretty much intact minus it’s right wing. Steve was still alive when the aircraft hit the ground and a field worker who witnessed the wreck ran to the aircraft and jumped up on the left wing and tried to drag Steve out of the wreck as it was smoking but the fuel caught fire and the explosion blew the field worker off of the plane. The filed worker survived but Steve was burned to death.

I didn’t see his chard body but Brenda saw it as he was loaded into the ambulance.

When we got back to the airport the owner and foreman weren’t there yet. I called again and they weren’t coming in. They did want me there at 430 in the morning to keep the flying going; I was a bit shocked.

I didn’t sleep much that night. When I got home I told my bride what had happened; she was beyond shocked. Joy was pregnant with our 5th child, the oldest of the other 4 being 10 at the time.

When I got to the airport the next morning the boss sent me home without doing any flying; he said he just wanted to see me there. I don’t believe that was the truth though, I’m sure his wife got a hold of him and threatened him if he had me fly that morning. I went home and got some sleep that day. We were running on a few hours of sleep here and there but never a full nights rest. Sleep deprivation is a part of Crop Dusting especially if you are flying day and night.

That evening I was out flying and had just finished a few loads in the daylight and was getting ready to head to our strip at Dry Lake, affectionately called ‘USS Cliffside’; you can read about it in a previous blog post. The phone rang and it was someone calling about another aircraft down. It wasn’t ours as I was the only aircraft flying from our company. I got a location and headed out in the Callaire to locate it and then head to Dry Lake and a night of work.

I saw the smoke after taking off and flew over what appeared to be a Turbine Thrush. It was upside down in the southeast corner of an intersection east of Caldwell. The pilot was killed in the crash and there were no witnesses; once again we were left to surmise what happened.

A few days after Steve was killed his wife came into the office and gathered up his personal belongings. I was finishing some paperwork and although I had never met her I knew who she was. We looked at each other but never said a word; I’ll never forget that look. It wasn’t one of hatred or contempt but like I said I’ll never forget it. Maybe there was something in her eyes telling me to be careful because it could be me next. The owner of the company in his own way had put a wedge between Steve and I and we weren’t as cohesive as coworkers as I would have preferred; it could have been our personalities as well. We weren’t openly antagonistic to each other but we weren’t going to be friends either.

I have found that some companies prefer chaos to cohesiveness with their employees, maybe the divide and conquer theory works best in their minds but for me working together has always been better.

Brenda quit a week after Steve’s funeral, I figured she had seen or heard about all the death that she could handle. Tim stuck the season out but didn’t come back the following year.

Two other Crop Dusting aircraft were totaled that summer but both pilots were unhurt.

Before I started flying professionally a fellow rancher in Lima Montana who had flown F4 Phantoms in Vietnam told me that his commander in Vietnam once said ‘if you fly long enough it will eventually kill you’; I don’t know if I believe that.

I flew for 27 years professionally and logged over 12000 hours as a Crop Duster, Fire bomber and back country pilot and never totaled an aircraft. I tore a few up but in the words of Bob Johnson, Johnson’s Flying Service out of Missoula Montana, I was always able to ‘fly the biggest piece back’.

The fellow pilots and friends that I lost to flying accidents didn’t have to make huge mistakes to get killed but in the end no matter if there was weather involved, poor maintenance, fatigue or any number of factors pilot error accounts for 80% or more of all aviation accidents. This story is to assure you that you don’t have to screw up to get killed flying, it’s risky business; some of it is riskier than others.


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