A pilot's story

A veteran flyer recalls her near-death experience in a private plane on the New England coast.

Published July 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I remember the first time I tangled with New England haze, flying from Boston to
Provincetown. Over land, I was fine, spotting the Plymouth airport five miles to
the south as I headed out to sea.

Once I crossed the shoreline, I lost it. The blurry ocean and fuzzy sky blended
together into a bright mass without the usual sharp horizon line bisecting my
windscreen. I tensed my hand on the yoke, trying to keep the airplane from
turning, but inevitably turning it as I tensed. With no outside visual cues, I
couldn't interpret the flailing needles on the cluster of instruments. Obviously
the airplane was doing something, and doing it pretty quickly. But what? I
couldn't tell.

Ever since I heard about the crash this weekend, I've been thinking about that
flight -- thinking about the pilot's inky last few moments, frantically scanning
instruments and ransacking his brain for a pertinent flight training tidbit.
Every pilot I know has been there, in an open sky full of panic. But we're still
alive. It's that slim margin between life and death that fascinates me, that
unknown combination of timing and training that kept me alive and killed John F.
Kennedy Jr.

I knew they were all dead the moment I read the report in the Boston Globe. Any
pilot knows that a 4,000-feet-per-minute descent over the ocean and subsequent
disappearance from radar has no happy ending. A normal descent is 500
feet per minute. A thousand to 1,500 is considered "rapid." It didn't
surprise me to read that only fragments of wreckage were washing up on shore.

It was very telling to see what those fragments were. They did not come from the
outside of the airplane -- a wingtip, perhaps, or a tail beacon. When that
airplane hit the water, it shredded, spilling out headrests, foam insulation,
carpet fluff. These bits were torn from their mountings and
casings -- government-regulated, safety-wired, flush-riveted, lock-nutted mountings
and casings. The plane bored in hard and probably at an angle steep enough to
cartwheel it, more devastating than a flat landing.

Ten of my 14 years of flying were spent in Boston. I spent hundreds of
flight hours in and out of those same coastal airports, over that same
ocean, in that same weather and in a similar aircraft. Pilots up flying Friday
afternoon agree that the haze was awful. The ones I've talked with used their
instrument ratings, controlling the plane solely by reference to the dials and
gauges on the panel. The instruments tell you if the plane is turning, climbing,
falling, speeding up or slowing down. Sometimes they appear to argue with each other. One says the plane is
descending, another says it's making a steep left turn, another says the airspeed
is way too fast, a light starts blinking, a radio squawks. What do you fix first?
Panic and error are almost inevitable unless you've been trained, hour after
tense hour, to grit your teeth and patiently piece together the bits of
information, reacting to them in precise order.

A private pilot trains "on instruments" for only three hours before getting a
license. I trained for more than the required 40 to get my instrument rating,
sweating under the hood that prevents students from seeing outside the cockpit.
The first thing I learned is not to look outside, much as I wanted to, because my
eyes would betray me. I learned to ignore what my confused inner ear screams
("I'm turning! I can feel it, I know I'm turning!") and trust the instruments
("You're not turning, you're just disoriented. Look at the instruments, they all
say you're level"). Trying to correct phantom turns, letting real ones go,
pointing the nose toward a false horizon, all are mistakes that kill
non-instrument-rated pilots who wander into the clouds.

Mistakes like that are easy to make in legendary New England coastal fog and haze (much riskier weather than night flying, when you can at least see bright cities and highway lights). Even when visibility is above the legal minimums (only one to three miles is required along the route between Essex and the Vineyard), that insidious haze creeps in, blinding pilots to the horizon.

I went anyway. Bolstered by a pilot's aggressive self-confidence and dangerous lack of experience, I had no idea the haze would corrupt visibility so badly. When the aviation weather service said visibility was five miles, and I only needed three to be legal, I went. And regretted it. I struggled with the plane for several minutes, spotting occasional boats below and using them to tell me where the ground was. I turned and climbed, leveled off and dived, puzzling out what the half dozen dials were trying to tell me. Finally, I turned to my co-pilot, who was well into his instrument training, and said "Damn, what's going on?" He coached me through the instrument readings, I pulled it out of the descending turn, scanned the instruments and kept things stable until we got within sight of Provincetown, where I landed safely. A few months later, I started my instrument training.

That ocean flight was in my first airplane, a small, slow Piper Cherokee. If I had made it in my current plane, events would have unfolded much more quickly. My Bonanza is, like Kennedy's Piper Saratoga, a high-performance six-seater aircraft. It's fast, with retractable landing gear, an adjustable pitch propeller, auto pilot, fancy navigational radios. More gizmos to remember how to use properly. More instruments to interpret. Less time to do it in before speeding along to the next checkpoint.

My insurance company insisted that I fly the Bonanza with an instructor for five hours before I could fly it solo. In actuality, I needed more. Unlike my training airplane, the Bonanza is fast and unforgiving. I would glance down at a map, draw a line, and look up quickly only to find myself in a gentle turn with the nose dipping slightly down. Another half minute and this innocuous turn becomes a "graveyard spiral," an ever-tightening, descending bank that puts so much force on the airplane that it can eventually break it up. I recovered because I could see the horizon, and immediately knew I was turning. If I had been flying at night, with no horizon, and only three hours of instrument training, like Kennedy had, I'd probably be dead.

Before I finished my instrument training, I made more flights in bad weather. I don't remember the circumstances. Maybe I had to get to a meeting the next morning. Maybe my grandparents expected us for Christmas dinner, or I had to get to my child's dance recital. I succumbed to "get-there-itis," an often-fatal disease rampant among pilots in which they push to make flights that can't possibly wait until tomorrow. Pilots are driven, aggressive and ego-fueled, otherwise we wouldn't have made it through the training. Instructors wash out students who aren't confident enough to take charge of scary flight situations.

Then we get into trouble. Even then, we fight, confident that we can handle the situation. We're trained not to give up. We scan the instruments, trying to puzzle out their secret messages. We strap ourselves more tightly into the seats and run through procedures in our heads. We battle our machines down to the ground, praying that what our instructors taught us about "controlled" crashing will save us. Even when it's hopeless, when the water comes flashing up, when the horizon is lost and all the radios are silent.

By Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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