How Pilots Talk About Safety

I mentioned last month that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, "my" NRA, was like the real NRA in some of its intransigent lobbying -- but different in its near-obsessive focus on identifying and reducing the factors that create dangers from flying, for pilots and innocent passengers alike. The video below is the kind of thing I have in mind. It's a recreation, from the AOPA's Air Safety Foundation, of the "accident chain" that led to the death of four people -- in the same kind of airplane that I fly. 

If you watch this, the things you'll see include:

- The most common cause of fatalities for general-aviation pilots. The story of this crash, with small adjustments, is the story of John F. Kennedy Jr's crash back in 1999.*

- The patience and concern of the controllers in the FAA's air-traffic control system in trying to deal with someone who had clearly gotten himself into serious trouble.

- The AOPA's "this shows attitudes that all of us could be guilty of" moral, as a way of reminding everyone involved in aviation of pitfalls and assumptions to watch out for.

Apart from any of that, there is the terrible drama of hearing a person who will soon be dead, along with several members of his family, as he tries to talk his way out of the trouble he is in. This takes a few minutes, but anyone familiar with aviation will understand its power -- and others may be compelled by the mounting tension.

* In both cases, the essential problem was the one that William Langewiesche described 20 years ago in his Atlantic article "The Turn." If you cannot see out of an airplane, if you can't look at the ground or orient yourself to the horizon, it is simply impossible by "seat of the pants" sensations to tell up from down, or know which direction you are flying. That sounds unlikely, but Langewiesche explains why it is so -- and why pilots who have not been through "instrument training" inevitably start spiraling toward the ground once they get into the clouds. That is what happened to JFK Jr., and it is what appears to have happened in this sad case.

I took my "practical exam," or check flight, for an instrument rating the day after the JFK Jr. crash. I heard about it in detail through those next few hours.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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