U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


August 1999 




Thought for the month....Safe is not the equivalent of risk free.
U.S. Supreme Court, 1972

BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM....July gave us two unfortunate examples of fatal aircraft accidents which represent the wide spectrum of experience in aviation. In one accident, Admiral Don Engen died in a motor glider mishap in Nevada, and at the opposite end of the spectrum of experience, John F. Kennedy Jr. died when his Piper crashed into the waters off Marthaís Vineyard.

If experience alone could prevent any of us from having an aircraft accident, then Admiral Engen would have been the last pilot to ever be involved in one. He represented the pinnacle of aviation expertise. Former Naval aviator, test pilot, engineer, Chairman of the NTSB, FAA Administrator, President of the Air Safety Foundation and Director of the National Air and Space Museum. If Websterís Dictionary had a definition of "experienced pilot", it would simply say, "Don Engen." Those of us who were fortunate enough to hear him speak at our last Super Safety Seminar will recall the soft spoken, unassuming gentleman who talked to us about some of the lessons he learned when he flew his Bonanza across the Atlantic to England. He wanted to make the point that despite all his experience, and all the planning and preparation he and his son did for the flight, he used some poor judgment along the way that almost resulted in a forced landing at sea.

John F. Kennedy Jr. was new to aviation. From all accounts he was very bright and his pilot training was probably as good as money could buy. But, his experience level was very low. It is not appropriate to speculate on what actually happened to the airplane because the investigation is on-going, but one fact is clear, a VFR flight over water at night would be challenging for any pilot with any level of experience. The potential risks associated with that flight could be very difficult for a new pilot to appreciate. Lessons like that are usually learned through experience. Unfortunately, experience always gives the test first. As the story unfolded in the media, many of us probably had an opportunity to reflect on times when we may have been in similar situations but were able, through sheer luck or divine intervention, to survive the test.

Itís natural that when high profile individuals are involved in aircraft accidents, a great deal of attention gets focused on safety. The general public, and most of the news media, seem to believe that any object that lifts off the face of the earth is in radar contact and under direct control. Questions get asked such as; "How come there arenít rules to prevent pilots from flying into dangerous conditions?" Perhaps the idea of a safe flight, dependent upon the pilotís training and good judgment, seems a little incredible to the non-flying public.

In a sense, many of the General Operating Rules of the Federal Aviation Regulations are written to prevent creating a hazard to others, not necessarily the pilot or passengers. There is a lot of room in them for us to exercise good judgment. As an example, occasionally we receive a question such as; "How low may I legally fly?" We can answer that question citing the regulations, but a more appropriate follow-up question is; "How low would you like to be if the engine quits?" If the two answers arenít the same, some judgment is going to be required. Aircraft accidents are normally a result of a sequence of events rather than a single catastrophic occurrence. Neither flying at the minimum legal altitude nor flying VFR in the minimum legal weather may cause an accident. However, combining the two will certainly raise the potential for an accident to occur.

It is almost a certainty that there will be a call to review the procedures and rules under which both aircraft were operated, with the greatest emphasis on night VFR operations. It is interesting to note that JFK, Jr., was certificated at a time when the requirements under the Practical Test Standards had changed, adding mandatory night training in recognition of the greater risks imposed by night flying.

Admiral Engen would have wanted the facts regarding both these accidents made known to everyone who flies. He fully understood the importance of sharing information, and he would want us to learn all we could from his accident to prevent a reoccurrence. He also recognized that every freedom has associated risks that we must accept to exercise that freedom. The fact that he may well have been one of the most experienced aviators of his generation did not prevent the accident that took his life. If we learn nothing else, he taught us that much. 1st hour student or 30,000 ATP. We must all actively manage the risks associated with flying to make it safe.

In 1972, the US Supreme Court said in a decision that "safe is not the equivalent of risk free." Naturally, we find some level of risk in almost all human activities. Anytime we are exposed to an elevation higher than our head, a speed faster than we can run, or temperatures a few degrees either side of our body temperature, we have the potential for a life threatening situation. Aviation gives us a wider variety, and often more risks, than many other activities. The challenge is to learn to recognize them and manage them to the best of our ability. During the weeks and months to come, we will learn more about each of the two accidents and have an opportunity to decide for ourselves how well the risks were recognized and managed.

Upcoming Events

Aug. 26

Skyline Aviation Hangar, Spirit of St. Louis Airport
7 to 9 PM
Airspace Review and LAHSO Procedures

Sep. 9

Creve Coeur Aviation, Creve Coeur Airport
7 to 9 PM
Operations at Towered Airports and Automated Flight Service Station

Sep. 25

Highland Airport, Highland, IL
St. Louis Soaring Association
Open House Fly-in and Safety Day

Sep. 30

Florissant Valley College, Multi-Purpose Room
7 to 9:30 PM
AOPA Air Safety Foundation: Weather Tatics II


Safety Program Manager
1-800-322-8876 x 4835

May Day