I want to think that I’m a better pilot than most. Looking back at logbooks that span shelves in my study one would have a hard time finding any intentional or unintentional bent metal, broken bones, or even nicked propellors in those volumes. However, I find myself watching airplane accident videos on repeat trying to understand not what made one pilot err, but what is keeping me from doing the same.
Recently the STOL Drag community lost one of their own. A husband, father of five, and aviation enthusiast tragically lost his life when during a somewhat-sanctioned event at the Mayday STOL Drag Event in Wayne, Nebraska. Being a husband, father of five, and an aviation enthusiast, I shudder at the footage that’s leaked of those last few moments where airspeed, altitude, and ideas were gone with the 15 to 25 knot gusting crosswinds across the plains that day. I find myself screaming at my screen, having placed myself in the cockpit trying to right the wrong, and save a family, a community, and the world from yet another tragedy in this emerging competitive space in general aviation.
The GoFundMe pages will continue to grow, the thoughts and prayers will litter the social media posts, but looking back over the span of the last few years, what we’re seeing was nothing short of inevitable. Last year I couldn’t sleep having read a similar story were another husband, father, and aviation enthusiast nearly lost his life in a similar competitive environment that didn’t need to happen. Competitors at that ArkanSTOL event were witnesses to incidents and accidents like this in the past. Some even voiced their opposition to the unnecessary risks the event purveyors presented in what I thought was the most convoluted competition that could be completed in airplanes until I found this gem on YouTube.
STOL Cross, the latest development in the world of making insurance companies increase their rates, adds even more excitement to the STOL competition world by “presenting its own unique challenges for takeoffs and landings and overcoming the obstacle course in between those landing zones.” Watching their latest promotional video, frames like the one above highlight those obstacles pilots will be faced with, and nothing like unmarked high-tension power lines above and adjacent to many of the landing areas that a direct line-up with the sunlight will surely increase the chances that the new-found NASCAR crash-seeking fans of these STOL events will leave the event satisfied. Less than a week ago a pilot was killed when his inability to maintain flying airspeed on final caused him to stall and spin into the ground. Around the crash site was hardly any obstacles or obstructions that would have made any attempt to go-around difficult. Yet, here we are, adding rapidly rising terrain and unmarked high-tension power lines to the equation.
STOL Cross purveyors taunt the egos of the already higher-and-mightier STOL competitors by alluding to the benefits that those who are fortunate enough to compete in their aerial version of Russian Roulette with “skills as aviators that skyrocket to new levels.” STOL Drag says on their website that they “Making Good Pilots Better.”
Outside of the racecourse, outside of the accidents and incidents, even the questionably-venerable Dan Gryder fails to see the first break in the chain that’s culpable for all these bent props and broken homes. STOL Drag came to the world on the wings of a Carbon Cub emblazoned with the infamous Flying Cowboys insignia. What started as a supposed rag-tag group of like-minded pilots using their airplanes to help others has turned into a culture that’s bending the rules and airplanes at the same time. Within days of the fatal accident, STOL Drag creator Kevin Quinn shares with the world a video of him coaching a STOL Drag competitor flying his airplane low to the ground in a power on aggravated slip with the caption “…working on skills most don’t do very often.” Having been a purveyor of airshows for the span of many years, and a recreational backcountry aviator for a few less, I have yet to see a reason for a pilot to do such a maneuver except for perhaps a razzle-dazzle pass of the airshow line in something faster and more capable than a Cub clone. In fact, one could argue that these non-standard maneuvers being performed low to the ground should have some sort of community-driven permitting process like the airshow pilots require, but I digress.
“You have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable” the caption later reads. A look at the weather during the fatal accident at the Mayday STOL Drag event revealed winds that exceeded whatever requirements the FAA and / or STOL Drag had placed on the event, but whoever lead the charge, whether it be the pilots, the spectators, the sponsors, or the event purveyors themselves, the winds were found to be acceptable for a “traditional STOL competition.” In reality, flying in afternoon crosswinds gusting 15 through 25 knots does not sound like a good time. Add in some hastily-concocted demonstration-turned-competition and images like those shared online (and the hard to watch video) sadly don’t surprise many of us. Whether or not this fateful schedule modification came with a safety briefing, some sort of standards of operation, or anything of the like we’ll likely never know. What we do know is that what pilots had attempted to do that day was well within their wheelhouse, landing airplanes on a specified point along a well-defined runway. Yet, within this comfort, tragedy took place.
My mind races to the CVR of Pinnacle Flight 3701, where two professional pilots tasked with repositioning an aircraft without passengers onboard decided to “get uncomfortable” by stretching the already lackluster limits of the Canadair CRJ-200 Regional Jet. Activating the stall warning systems multiple times while exceeding the structural load factors of the 50 seat RJ, the pilots decided to take the airplane to the limit of its climb capabilities.Ironically, ATC inquired about their cruise altitude later inquiring that they’ve never seen a CRJ-200 at that altitude, to which the crew replied “we don’t we don’t have any passengers on board so we decided to have a little fun and come on up here.” Twenty one minutes later, the cockpit voice recorder stops with sounds “similar to impacts.”
Nothing told those two pilots to throw caution into the wind. Reposition flights, while carried out regularly by commercial operators, are generally handled just like revenue flights. Most operators even operate these flights under the same regulations as those with cargo or customers onboard. The only difference with this accident is the attitude of the crew. Sadly, flights such as Pinnacle 3701 fill NTSB accident databases, and tell the tales of what’s possible when professional pilots become flying cowboys.
We all know complacency kills, but it appears that the opposite of complacency does as well. Comfort or not, we’re still crashing perfectly good airplanes, and, unfortunately, we’re not finding new ways to do it. What I’m learning is that there’s a culture problem that in my opinion is equally culpable in these accidents. Having dealt with the impact that the Flying Cowboys have made on aviation, I fear that the future of the ego-charged STOL competition world is going down a path that will not only bend metal and break bones, but will bury the future of aviation along with it. Whether that future is the children who lose parents who succumb to the pitfalls of these increasingly challenging competitions, whether it be the opportunities for recreational backcountry aviation be mistakingly associated with such tragic acts, I try my best to bite my tongue while I scream at the screen yelling at Tom to just fucking go around, and hope that if I ever find myself in that situation, I’ll follow my own advice.