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.