Between Iraq and the Republican’s surprise sweep in Tuesday’s elections, the news has already moved on from the tragic death of Paul Wellstone and his entourage in a small plane crash. I was sitting around dwelling on how sad it is when it occurred to me that these damn small plane crashes happen with numbing frequency. Logically, it happens to those groups of people who fly small planes most frequently, including musicians and politicians, most recently Wellstone, Mel Carnahan, and poor young Aaliyah, who was just starting her life.
The Political Graveyard lists dozens of politicians killed in small plane crashes since WWl, including 18 U.S. senators and members of Congress. Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., and former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas died in unrelated plane accidents within a day of each other in April 1991. Musicians include Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly/Ritchie Valens/Big Bopper, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rick Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter, John Denver – you’ve got a Hall of Fame right there.
What does it all mean? If nothing else, it means that traveling is a very dangerous business. Contrary to statistics, traveling by air is the most dangerous way to go, in the long run. Though it is much more likely that you will get in a car wreck than a plane wreck, it is also much more likely that you will survive a car wreck than a plane wreck, and more likely still that you will survive a bus wreck.
Many bands play 300 or more dates per year. Some fly in small planes between every date. That’s 300 small plane flights a year. Small planes and helicopters are more susceptible to weather problems. Small plane pilots generally have lower skill levels than major airline pilots do: most are flying charters and commuter lines because they can’t hook up with a major.
My brother flies frequently on business. At an average of three trips a month, he flies one-tenth as frequently as a heavy touring band, and at least he flies major airlines. But I still worry. I can’t get on a plane without getting stressed out anymore. I just feel too helpless. When I’m in a car, even if I’m not driving (which is rare), I can at least shout, “Look out for that fertilizer truck,” and prevent a dung disaster. My fate is at least partially in my own hands.
Sure, I know the litany of automotive dangers: drunk drivers, blind intersections, mechanical failures, rampaging trucks, etc. There were only two cars in the state of Pennsylvania in 1896: they ran into each other.
I know all of this. However, in a plane I have no control over my own destiny, and the margin of error is essentially zero. Plane crashes are much less forgiving than car crashes. If your engine dies in your car, you slow down and stop. How inconvenient. If your engine dies in your airplane, you do.
The Skynyrd death story is typically depressing in its predictability. The band rented a single engine Convair 240 on the spur of the moment to fly to Baton Rouge from Greenville, S.C. Low fuel. “No problem, guys, these things always read low. I’ve flown 100 miles in the red in one of these things before. Besides, the worst that can happen is that we crash land in some swamp. No problem.”
They crash landed in a swamp in Mississippi killing Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and manager Dean Kilpatrick. Everyone else aboard was seriously injured. What happens when a bus runs out of gas? Someone has to walk to a gas station.
Technology is not infallible because people aren’t either. No system is people proof. Consider the Challenger disaster. If thousands of people, spending billions of dollars, can screw up a launch with that much at stake, nothing and no one is safe. I still can’t believe it. Every computer had a backup. Every system had triple safeguards and we still blew those poor people up. How perverse we are. We didn’t just blow up pilots and bureaucrats, who are used to that sort of thing: we blew up smiling, trusting, unsuspecting teachers and scientists. We held a national contest. The winner got blown up.
If you are fortunate enough to survive an explosion in your car, you survive. If you survive an explosion at 20,000 feet, you have terminal velocity to look forward to. If NASA or the airlines really cared about people as anything other than cargo and revenue, they would issue each passenger a parachute, at least to even the odds.
Consider a disabled aircraft. There isn’t anything wrong with the 250 people aboard, they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If a large hand could reach out and catch the falling thing, or if the plane had air brakes, or if everyone had a parachute, then the passengers could all have a nice reunion at the Disneyland hotel ten years later, and show pictures of their children and grandchildren.
But parachutes aren’t cost effective. “We can’t even get people to wear their seatbelts and take off with their trays in the upright position, who’s going to wear a parachute?” I, for one, would. Hopefully, you’d never have to use it, just like insurance. But it sure would be comforting to know that survivors of an explosion could also survive the trip down.
While we’re on the the subject of travel safety, let’s start paying a little more attention to the weather that we travel in. The risk is not worth the consequences. Stevie Ray went down in heavy fog. Buddy and Ritchie went down in a blinding snowstorm with a pilot who wasn’t cleared to fly on instruments. Wellstone was flying in bad weather, and on and on. Let’s stay home when the weather sucks, like in the old days.
In the past when someone said, “It’s not a fit night out for man or beast,” he meant it. Timetables and schedules and appointments have become more important than lives. People just don’t think about the fallibility of man and machine and the fragility of life when they have an appointment to keep. We have not conquered the weather.
Our magnificent cities are little pimples on the butt of Mother Nature that she can reach over and sqeeze out of existence at any given time. Homeless people and farmers know about the weather. “I’m going where the weather suits my clothes.”
Quit pretending the weather doesn’t affect your life. Why fight it? Don’t drive in that deluge – stay home and listen to T-Rex and Eddie Cochran records. Don’t fly in that blizzard – stay home and listen to Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. And don’t fly that chopper in the fog – stay put and listen to some Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Keep some perspective: schedules are important, but not more important than your life. Avoid small planes if you can, make sure they have enough fuel if you can’t, and don’t go near them when the weather is bad.
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