Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

28 July 2011


Aviation is cruelly unforgiving of mistakes. One mistake, you’re dead…period, end of story, cancel Christmas. We who have been in this business for any length of time understand this. I may appear all casual and goofy about flying, but I take it very, very seriously. I did not get to this stage by treating what I do in the air as a lark. Not crashing takes hard work.

Our company had a fatal accident this week. On Monday one of our young pilots died. While drying a field of cherries he managed to run into a powerline which caused him to crash. This happens a lot in “ag work” (which is what we do). It happens even when pilots know the wires are there, as this pilot did.

We are always stunned when we hear such news, especially so when it’s someone you’ve come to know and like. You shake your head in disbelief and ask, “How could this happen? He was such a good pilot.” And Stephen was. A good pilot, yes. So young (24) but full of enthusiasm and skill, with a ravaging thirst for knowledge. We say this next part a lot: "He’s the last guy you’d expect to go out and crash the helicopter." But crash it, he did.

The NTSB showed up quickly, as they do. What happened was obvious, both from witness statements and the strands of powerline wrapped around the rotor head. Stephen hit the lines while in a bank at the end of a row of cherry tress. Instead of cutting them cleanly, the rotor head spooled them up. A witness said the rotor stopped completely before the helicopter hit the ground. Horrible stuff to hear, because I do the same kind of work. I deal with wires in just about every field I dry.

What the immediate evidence tells us is that there was probably nothing wrong with the helicopter. Stephen did not hit the wires from above (which might have indicated a descent from a power failure, say). No, he hit them from below; the helicopter had been under control up to that point. Maybe he simply misjudged…maybe he forgot they were there…maybe he got distracted…maybe the sun was in his eyes…something…nobody knows. We pilots hate it when people throw the term “pilot error” around loosely. Accidents always seem to get blamed on the pilot(s) first. But the fact is that most general aviation accidents are caused by pilot issues than anything else. Mechanical failures, while they do happen, are rare when it comes to causing accidents.

And so we are left to pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively. The accident itself is over, but the effects linger. There are details that have to be taken care of. The wreckage has to be recovered from the field. Stephen’s family will have to come and collect his things (his car is still parked at our hangar, standing as a stark reminder). Last but not least, we still have a contract to service. We cannot just tell the farmers, “Sorry, you’re on your own now!” If it rains we’ll still have to dry them…with another ship…with another pilot.

I was out drying that day. I had just landed to get some gas, and was still in the cockpit shutting the helicopter down when my phone rang. It was the FAA in Spokane. “You know your company had a fatal accident today,” the guy said. No, I did not know that. Then he told me who it was. He had called me because everyone else in the company wasn’t answering their phone. Yeah, well it’s our busy season and all our ships are out flying. He asked for some details about the pilot: age, hometown and such.

As I climbed out of the helicopter, my farm manager came over with drying instructions – which fields to hit, which I could ignore because they have been totally picked. He could immediately tell that I was upset, so I told him what happened. “Take all the time you need before going back up,” he said kindly.

But this was not the first pilot who I’ve known who has died. It happens. I won’t say that you get used to it. We all deal with it in different ways. Me, I’m just good at compartmentalizing. As long as I don’t think about it, I’m okay. On Monday, after I heard the news about Stephan, I got myself together, refueled my ship and went back to work. “Up there” is where I feel in control. Up there I don’t have to think about other worldly things. Up there I just do my job and try really, really hard to not crash the helicopter.


Mike Morris said...

It is always sad to hear about a loss. I don't have a lot experience flying, but I know that lines can sometimes be hard to see. I know it's a huge danger potentially lurking about. I am sorry for the loss.

Capt. Schmoe said...

It's always a bitch when someone you care about buys it. To those who think it can't happen to them - well it can and sometimes does.

Condolences, a tragedy indeed.

Bob said...

My condolences as well, Bob. So sorry to hear this.

Craig said...

Situational awareness. Loose it and you could pay the ultimate price - and it can happen to any pilot, at any experience level, at any time. Condolences to the entire Golden West team.

Nick A said...

So sorry Bob. As good as it was to find out it wasn't you, losing a pilot so young is always a damned shame. The fact that he loved what he did is just too small a comfort. Let us know if there's anything established for his family that we can donate to online.


Greybeard said...

The headline was "Indy pilot dies drying cherries", and since Indianapolis is my home town, that, along with the drying cherries part got my undivided.
So sad.
Be safe everyone... flying, driving, riding, taking a shower... whatever.

Bob Barbanes: said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I appreciate it.

We actually had two crashes on Monday: Stephen's fatal, of course; but also, another pilot got into some bad wind conditions and his ship ended up on the ground amongst the cherry trees. Both pilots got out without a scratch. The ship wasn't *too* badly damaged - it's easily repairable. It could have been a whole LOT worse. Thankfully it was not.

So what with two crashes and two aircraft to recover (admittedly, one came home in the back of a dump truck), it's been a hell of a week.

Yes, rough week, I'd say.

Hal Johnson said...

Geez, Bob, I'm so sorry to hear about this. Be careful out there.

Annie said...

Hal, I am so very sorry for your loss. Every time I see someone come in the clinic with that PHI logo, I say a prayer for their safety.

Anonymous said...

Hello Bob,
So sorry to hear the news. I suspect that like me after being around this business as long as you and I have, you get to a point that you do not try to forget all the people no longer around, but eventually it becomes harder to recall all the details. I truly would be hard pressed to give an accurate number of friends that I can no longer hangar fly with due to similar circumstances. I hope that does not come across as callous, it just seems to be part of the business we are associated with. I believe it is how we continue to do our job and retain sanity. However, every loss is tragic....including this one, period.
Take care, be safe, and fly like I know you always do...very well. I can't think of another person I would trust any more at the controls.

Bob Barbanes: said...

Cass, you're absolutely right. I guess that is how we deal with this and keep climbing back into that goddamn aircraft. But you know what? Sometimes it's pretty friggin' hard. Take care, man.

alliance said...

My thoughts and prayers are with that young man's family and all his friends and colleagues. As a mother I cannot imagine enduring such pain. Be safe brother.

Debby said...

Tim's company had a fatal also. A man 'turning a piece' (repositioning a large part which was being machined) got pinned between the wall and the piece. It severed his femoral artery and he bled out right there.

These things are terrible, but I know that in Tim's case, it caused him to try to figure out what it was that the guy had done wrong, so as not to repeat it. It sounds like Steve's accident had the same effect on you.

Be safe, Bob.

Phoenix Accident said...

It is such a sad news when you lose good people in your life. So tragic that even if they are good people, they are gone with just one mistake. I think the risk is higher for occupations that are more dangerous.