“Let me not die while I am still alive. ”
In a recent discussion of sports with my British colleague Charles Alcock, he talked about England's historic admiration for what he described as the "gifted amateur." This was illustrated best in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, the story of Harold Abrahams, the gold-medal winner in the 100-meter dash at the 1924 Olympics. Abrahams' teammate in the film, the fictional Lord Andrew Lindsay (based loosely on the real Lord David Burghley), personified the image of the gifted amateur bringing glory on his homeland and its aristocracy. But Abrahams invoked scorn by hiring a professional trainer to prepare him for the games. To many, this bow to commercialism was an insult to the purity of sport as they knew it.
But when it comes to pilots, there is good reason to respect the gulf between those who fly for pay and those for whom aviating is a sideline. Certainly, a talented amateur can fly safely and with utility. But it is understandable that all of us amateur aviators strive for that loftiest of qualities we call "professionalism."
With the coming of the very light jets-and particularly the even smaller jets announced recently by Cirrus and Eclipse, both aimed at price points south of $1 million-it remains to be seen how safely and skillfully nonprofessional pilots will handle the added challenge of jet power, speed and performance. There is justification for a balance of optimism and pessimism, based on historic precedent.
On the glass-half-empty side, the safety records of quantum-leap airplanes have a checkered past. The Beechcraft Bonanza, introduced in the late 1940s, and the pressurized Piper Malibu (later Mirage) of the 1980s are examples. Both experienced a rash of accidents in the years shortly after they appeared on the market. Many of those tragedies can be attributed largely to well-heeled owner-pilots mounting too frisky an airplane with too little experience in the saddle.
On the other hand, the Bonanza and Malibu/Mirage proved extremely safe and useful when flown within their operational limits by pilots who took their training seriously and flew enough to remain current. Good maintenance and respect for weather are also vital ingredients in keeping one's tail number off the accident reports.
A pilot's wealth and standing can also contribute to safety, if the proper attitude prevails, said Art Maurice, president and cofounder of Columbia Air Services in Groton, Conn. He has customers who fly Socata TBM 700 and 850 single-engine turboprops, which sell for more than twice the price of the Cirrus jets. Maurice said his customers leverage their station in life to ensure that their schedules have lower priority than their flying safety. "If the weather is bad or there's a maintenance issue," he said, "my customers are in a position to tell everyone else involved that they'll be there when they get there."
Part of the pressure that can fall on the amateur pilot comes from the impression of personal flying among those who look at it from the outside. (Is this a form of extreme hobby or sport, like mountaineering? Or is it an exotic mode of personal transportation, comparable to a winged SUV?) And not many people outside the field have enough good information about small airplanes to realize their limitations, as compared with the all-weather capability of an airliner or a business jet.
The truth is that personal flying is a blend of an avocation and the ultimate A-to-B machine. Yet, while no one would expect you to be out rock climbing or sailing in a storm, some might not understand that weather that is OK for an airline flight might be too dangerous for a personal airplane.
In fact, all aircraft are subject to the limitations of weather. But while it takes extreme storms to ground a professionally flown large jet, lighter aircraft are less capable of besting the elements. And it can be difficult for the family on one side of a weather front, where the sun is shining, to grasp that a 20-mile-wide stretch in between can keep Grandpa and his expensive airplane from getting to his granddaughter's championship soccer game on time. Too often, that pressure is enough to convince a pilot that "maybe I can slip through."
And unlike a particularly challenging rock face or double-black-diamond ski run, the conditions of a flight can change from benign to deeply challenging with little warning, turning that forecast of friendly skies to a deadly pitfall to be avoided at all cost.
I've heard discussion of a radio link for pilots of light jets-a sort of airborne OnStar system through which a pilot could solicit weather updates and, in general, have a well informed virtual copilot with whom to discuss options for continuing the flight, or turning tail to fly another day. Some private pilots have reacted to this idea with scorn, disdaining the idea that anyone else ought to be that involved in the cockpit decision-making process.
I respectfully disagree.
Airline pilots enjoy a constant link with their dispatch personnel for updates on weather, turbulence-free routings and "best practices" for getting safely, comfortably and efficiently to their destinations. That pilots of their own personal aircraft should be denied the same input- when the technology is readily available-does not appeal to my sense of fair play. If you can call for directions to a restaurant from your Range Rover, you ought to be able to call an advisor from the cockpit of your personal jet who can help you find a safe airport alternate when a line of unforecast thunderstorms blocks the route to your destination.
People have been flying personal jets for some time, and the fact that this is not widely known shows they have been doing so with a good safety record. Part of the reason is that manufacturers and insurance companies have been conservative about training requirements, both in the initial phases and for year-by-year currency. And yes, the seriousness-the very professionalism-of the pilot-owners deserves some of the credit, too. While it is unrealistic to expect the new very light jets to remain accident free, I hope the new school of owner pilots will follow the trend and hang onto the culture that has allowed this segment of private aviation to achieve an enviable safety record.