Over the years, I’ve had a lot of memorable flying experiences. And hopefully, by sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned, it will help other aviators in the future be able to make the decisions that will help them fly more safely. I hope you enjoy reading these stories!
I don’t profess to be an astronomer or cosmic expert, but when the appearance of a celestial event like Halley’s Comet comes around, it does capture my interest. March 2, 1986 was right in the middle of the observation window to see Halley’s Comet, its last recorded appearance. Since I most likely won’t be around to see the next appearance in 2062, the 1986 event captured my attention.
Some quick backstory to set the scene: I earned my private pilot certificate in April 1984, so by the time March 1986 rolled around, I began to feel like a ‘real’ aviator. The flight school I earned my certificate at was based at John Wayne / Orange County Airport (SNA) in southern California.
During the last week of February, they hosted an aviation safety seminar (i.e. FAA Wings credit, type program). At the end of the session, a young (and eager I must add) flight instructor approached me and asked if I was interested in joining him and another student on an ‘observation’ flight of Halley’s Comet. They were to be flying a Piper Archer (N81918). Well, I was biased at that time to Cessna aircraft, because that is the aircraft type I was most comfortable flying. And besides, I make a terrible passenger in a small aircraft if I am not flying. Finally, add to that the fact that I didn’t know either of them really well. So, I kindly turned down his offer – a decision I would treasure for the rest of my life!
Since March 2nd was a Sunday, the following day was a typical work day. About 10:00 AM I received a call at work from a friend of mine who also flew with the flight school and his first comment to me was “Good, it wasn’t you…one of our planes went down last night!” I didn’t quite put two and two together yet, and went about the rest of my day. For those of you who are reading this and were born after 1995, you probably find this next comment a little stone age, but there was no Internet, texting, or Twitter. We had to rely on the news broadcast at 5 PM, 6 PM, or 10 PM. So out of curiosity, when I got home to my apartment that evening, I turned on the local news. A shiver went down my spine (yeah you guessed it) as soon as the news anchor said, “There was a small plane accident over Newport Beach last night, and witnesses reported the plane doing a cartwheel into the ocean just past the Newport Beach Pier…”
At that moment, I just knew it was the plane I had been asked to be a passenger on. In the coming weeks and months, the mood around the flight school was somber and very sad. Even sadder was hearing that the student aboard that plane was the husband of the flight school administrative assistant. About 6 months later (being the aviation/flying geek that I was /am), I was able to locate a copy of the NTSB accident report (LAX86FA131). To my utter amazement, I read that the student’s wife reported that her husband and instructor had been seen drinking beer before they left for the airport, and that the toxicology tests conducted by the Orange County Medical Examiner revealed 0.32 micrograms of cocaine in the student’s body. So, call it what you want, I learned a valuable lesson from that sad event – never fly with anyone you do not know well and trust, because your life could be at stake. Flying an airplane is serious business, and needs to be properly respected. Trust me, when faced with this Go No-Go decision, I’m certainly glad I made the right one!
Featured Image by D. Miller