Here we go again: Rulon Gardner plane crash

Another famous person has been in another publicized crash involving the same kind of small airplane I used to own and fly. Rulon Gardner, the charming, bulky, and admirable-seeming wrestler who pulled off an astonishing upset in the 2000 Olympics, was hurt when the Cirrus SR-22 carrying him and two other people hit the water in Lake Powell. All three got out of the plane before it sank but could easily have succumbed to hypothermia after their hour in the frigid water and night on the lakeshore waiting to be found and rescued.

Main point: I'm very glad they're all alive and (relatively) well.

Next point: What's going on here? Why so many high-publicity crashes in this kind of airplane?

(The plane I had, and have sold, was a very early-model SR20, the slower, less powerful, much less expensive predecessor to the SR22 in which Rulon was flying. The Cirrus line now includes a wide variety of models that look basically the same but have different engines and electronics.)

After a publicized crash like this, public and press speculation almost always centers on the airplane. Does it have a "bad safety record"? Is is "tricky to handle"? I don't know exactly why this is so -- when you hear that a car full of teenagers has hit a tree, you don't start asking: Is there something wrong with Toyotas? But I know this instinct is strong.

In reality, these crashes are almost never about the airplane, just as the tragedy of the teenagers is almost never about the car. There have been "so many" Cirrus crashes in recent years in part because there are now "so many" Cirrus airplanes. For at least five years running this has been the best-selling plane of its type in the world. (The venerable Cessna sells more planes overall, but across a wider range of models.)

Also, evidence suggests that people who buy these planes fly them more hours, and fly them "harder" -- in a more challenging range of weather -- than the general pilot population. One example comes from, which tracks all flights in progress through the United States. You can search by airplane model, and most of the time Cirri (the plural term) make up a disproportionately large share of the airborne fleet. By the way, the "create a link" function in Yahoo Web Hosting seems to be broken right now, so links to FlightAware and other references are at the end of this post.

Moreover, the Cirrus's interior design reflects a shift of mentality like the one Ralph Nader, in his pre-election-spoiler days, forced on the car industry. Compared with traditional small airplanes, its passenger compartment has few protruding internal points, a stronger energy-absorbing frame, better airbag-equipped seatbelts, and so on. To the extent this crash was "about the airplane," such features may have meant that Rulon and his two friends were strong enough after the impact to escape and swim.

But why did they hit in the first place? Here is a boilerplate caveat: No one really knows; initial indications about accidents are often misleading; the National Transportation Safety Board has to do its work; and so on. But: What Rulon said the morning after he was rescued, on CNN, was that the plane was flying over the lake "low." To put it mildly! According to Rulon, they were flying low enough that one of the wheels hit the water (!), at which point the plane, in Rulon's words, went from 150+ mph to zero in about two seconds.

Now: There are famed aerobatic pilots who fly very close to the ground during air shows. Cropduster pilots are respected for their skill because they must fly a few feet above the crops and fields while doing their work. For training in judging height-above-ground for landings, I have many times flown the length of a runway trying to stay just two feet above its surface. When training in seaplanes, I have done something similar to judge the distance between their pontoons and the waves. By the way, it's harder to judge height over the water (like Lake Powell) than over land. The glare is a problem, and so are the waves.

But close to the surface -- ground or water -- is the most dangerous place to be in a plane! When doing my low-level passes I knew that if I misjudged, the worst thing that could happen is that the wheels or pontoons would touch down where they were meant to land anyway. That's not the case with a wheeled plane over water. Wheels are not like pontoons; if they hit, the plane stops, or cartwheels. (A justly famous display of unbelievably precise flying involves this very point. The "Flying Lions" of South Africa put on a "waterskiing" display, in which the bottoms of their wheels skim the top of a lake. Two inches' miscalculation and they're dead. Link below.) I once had an exhilarating flight over broad stretches of the upper Missouri, following the route of Lewis and Clark and noting few signs (apart from, well, the airplane) that much had changed since their time. It was exhilarating because it was "low" - but low in this case meant maybe 500 feet, with a flight instructor sitting next to me.

So was there something about this plane that (if we believe Rulon Gardner) led the pilot to fly it right above the lake's surface? My guess is no. Pilots feel better about their airplanes, and more complicated about themselves, when they realize it's almost never about the plane. It's about human beings -- who we are glad are still alive.#
Link about the accident itself:
Link about a previous Cirrus crash:

Link about Cirrus SR22:
Link about Flight Aware:
Link about Cirrus interior-safety features:
Link about Flying Lions: