My Friend Mike
I have spent a lifetime fooling around in high-risk sports—flying, skydiving, motorcycles. It follows that I have a lot of friends who do the same and a few weeks ago, I lost one of them. In any high-risk activity, there are always people who rise to the top and stand apart from the rest and who, by dint of experience, competence and aura, are the last people you’d ever expect to die in an accident. Yet one did. Mike Truffer was a pilot and skydiver and well known in the sport, involved in all levels of it for many years and for many of those years, he was publisher of Skydiving magazine, the sport’s independent voice. Mike died over the Memorial Day weekend following unsurvivable injuries from a hard parachute opening. He was 63.
Mike and I shared a friendship based not just an intersection of interest but also of professions. He was an Aviation Consumer reader and we traded off expertise. If there was anything Mike didn’t know about skydiving—its history, trends and industry dynamics—I’m quite certain I never discovered what it was. I would occasionally call him to ask about some obscure parachuting subject; he’d call me to ask about aviation topics since, as editor of Aviation Consumer, I was supposed to know such things.
He owned at least a couple of airplanes during the time I knew him, including a vintage twin—a Travel Air, I think or maybe an old Baron—with tapped out engines that he once called to ask me about. Mike’s humor could be almost as black as mine, so when we ran through the numbers and I darkly suggested that maybe a hangar fire might be the most economical option, he got the joke. Not everyone does.
If Mike were here now, he’d roll his eyes if I fell into the trite prose of the typical memorial hagiography by suggesting he touched many lives, so I won’t do that. Respect and fondness for a person is usually erected on a foundation of specific memories and in Mike’s case, I recall two.
In 2005, through the lens of skydiving, a conversation we had reset my thinking on aviation risk assessment and how I analyze and write about it. Most skydivers these days use something called an automatic activation device or AAD. It will automatically deploy a reserve parachute if a skydiver fails to deploy on his own below a certain altitude and airspeed threshold. I have one and assumed Mike did, too. But quite purposefully, he did not. His reasoning, as it always was, was old school, but sound. AADs protect against a small slice of risk—distraction and/or failure to pull or incapacitation in free fall. These are exceedingly rare events. But AADs have been known to malfunction, deploying when you least want them to. We agreed that we had no reliable numbers on unintended activations and measured against bona fide saves, Mike figured the risk was about a wash, so he didn’t use one. You probably know people like Mike, who like to push back against the accepted wisdom that accrues from group think, not to mention marketing boilerplate.
I continued to use an AAD, conceding to myself that the real risk mitigation, as Mike maintained, was probably more between the ears than real. But isn’t that usually the case? The very same logic applies to some aviation equipment many of us have come to believe is indispensable. Not having an AAD, by the way, had nothing to do with Mike’s accident.
Mike and his partner Sue Clifton retired from publishing Skydiving in 2009 and shuttered the publication. It is missed mightily, for every discipline and interest benefits from having an independent news outlet. Mike got that. I did some writing for Skydiving and one of the things we covered was a certain type of reserve parachute that clearly had a design defect. It had a degree of longitudinal instability that made it all but impossible to flare. I had personally seen two skydivers stall it and suffer identical injuries as a result. When I approached Mike about reporting this, he didn’t flinch, despite the reserve’s manufacturer being an advertiser. All publishers should do so well. And it wasn’t an isolated example, either. Mike had that rarest of qualities: advocacy uncompromised by obsequious glad-handing. When you asked him a question, you’d get an unvarnished answer, usually based on first hand knowledge. I don’t know about you, but I value this in human character above all else.
In the wake of a tragic accident like Mike’s, we sometimes soothe our grief by drawing from it some lesson that may save a life in the future, but there is no such lesson here. The reality is that high-risk activities always involve a degree of randomness that respects no person and defies the prepared, the skilled, the competent.
Mike knew this because he and I talked about it. Of course, in the end, it’s just words on a page, none of which make it any easier to accept his passing. For me personally, there simply are no words for that.