Winging It

I got a private pilot’s license about the same time John Kennedy Jr. did last year. I take the flight test for an instrument rating this week. My first reaction to the news on Saturday was, like everyone’s, heartbreak about the loss of such vitality and charm. But my second reaction was like that of most people who have any experience with small planes: Why so many risks?

The lore of pilot training emphasizes that a disaster can happen to anyone, through sheer bad luck (like the explosion that apparently brought down TWA Flight 800). But disaster usually involves a compounding series of risks and errors, which in theory could have been broken at any point. In this case the links of the chain seem to have been a) a night flight, b) over water, c) without a flight plan, and d) by a pilot without an instrument rating or a lot of experience in a fast plane.

Night flight is easy in one way, since you can see the lights of other planes for miles. But having the right depth perception for landing is harder, and any emergency is terrifying, since you can’t scour the ground for a place to land. Flights over water, like flights over mountains, greatly compound the risk in a single-engine plane, because there is no handy field or road to land on if the engine fails.

When driving away from small airports, you often see signs asking: “Have you closed your flight plan?” The reason is that if a pilot has filed a plan but has not reported a safe arrival within 30 minutes of the expected time, search-and-rescue efforts begin automatically. Even without a flight plan, pilots can request “flight following,” which allows controllers to keep a watchful eye on their altitude and heading (direction) on the radar screen–and talk to them immediately if trouble occurs. Only a tiny part of instrument training involves learning to follow navigation signals. Most of the training is simulating emergencies–loss of guidance systems, sudden descents, or disorientation in clouds–again and again, so you won’t panic or “get behind the airplane” if it happens for real. It is as if driver’s ed involved dozens of blowouts and practice brake failures.

John Kennedy knew all this–he would have had to, to pass his tests. He was also no doubt aware of the weird inconsistency in how the Federal Aviation Administration regulates flight. In many ways the FAA is unbelievably picky–a plane cannot legally take off if it is one hour past its scheduled inspection time. Any aspect of flight that involves carrying passengers for pay has regulations by the ton. But a private pilot’s license (which allows you to carry friends and family members, though not anyone for pay) is amazingly broad. The FAA examiner routinely tells those who have just passed the private-license test that it is a “license to learn.” But it is also legal permission to get into situations far beyond a new pilot’s ability to cope. Once you are “pilot in command,” you–not some bureaucrat in Washington–are the ultimate authority on whether a given trip is too risky to undertake. The FAA’s underlying assumption seems to be that with his own life at stake, the pilot himself will have the greatest incentive to break the chain of risks. Sometimes that incentive is not enough.