A Personal Salute To Spad

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Last spring, Richard McSpadden talked me off a ledge of sorts. Now, following his death in a crash on Sunday, I wonder if I’m not back out on it. I had called him to discuss some analytical work I was doing on comparing outcomes in emergency landings, but the conversation soon drifted to what I was increasingly seeing as the pointlessness of this kind of work, made more so by the YouTube troll armies that have come to dominate this discussion. As only he could do, Richard said tap the brakes a minute and let’s talk about this.

I met Richard shortly after he took over at AOPA’s Air Safety Institute in 2017, but got to know him better when we both contributed to audio recordings at Pilot Workshops. Knowing someone via phone calls and emails is one thing; meeting them in person at length adds a richness so utterly missing in a modern world animated by texts and Facebook posts. If you had nothing to do with aviation and zero interest in it, you’d be easily drawn into conversation with Richard because he had that quality all good leaders do: engagement driven by curiosity and a genuine interest in what those around him thought, did and said. He would ask of you more than he would volunteer of himself and you might never know of his impressive achievements in aviation and otherwise. Even on our AVweb staff, Richard’s name didn’t rise to household familiarity.

Not that he would have cared. In my dealings with him over several years, he was happy to let the work speak for itself and as a well-funded, independent safety entity, ASI has provided base level tracking on general aviation safety and accident trends that the NTSB and FAA don’t bother with. At times, I thought it could do better and Richard entertained those ideas, because while he asked questions, he also listened to the answers.

Having matured in the competitive world of Air Force tactical aircraft flying, Richard could summon a fighter pilot ego if required, but rarely did in my experience. His style is best described as confident self-effacement, if I can coin such a term. Here’s an example. That’s what made him perfect for the ASI leadership role because in the rarified strata where fatal accident rates devolve to the single digit, the physics of flight matter less than the psychological, as we try to understand why pilots make mistakes we know they shouldn’t make. A black and white thinker won’t bring much to that task and Richard surely saw nuance many others would miss. Academically, Richard was trained in information technology, but I wonder if he missed his calling in not becoming a pilot/psychologist.

In my conversation with him about the futility of accident reporting, we agreed that people die in airplanes for the same reasons they always have, but also for random turns of events they might never have imagined possible. Inexplicably, experience—and Richard had plenty—so often turns out not to be the universal winning hand we suppose it to be. He tried to dissuade me from my view that in some cases, no amount of experience or preparation could forestall such things. When your number is up, it’s up. I’m not sure where I stand on that now. In the wake of such an incredibly shocking accident, an even keel eludes. But curiously, I find myself incurious about the details of his accident. I’m already seeing speculation and discussion on social media and I’m just not interested in the details and may never be. I scroll right by and really think some people should restrain themselves in the belief that knowing more sooner is a birthright in this industry and somehow removes the piercing edge from a death no one saw coming. It certainly doesn’t for me, maybe because of fondness, respect and familiarity with the victim. I suspect Richard would agree because he launched his own excellent early accident analysis videos as an antidote to the flood of speculation the erupts after every accident because, as we all know, that drives the clicks.

My overwhelming focus, such that it’s possible to focus after such a tragedy, is the sheer depth of the loss. And by that I don’t mean the work of ASI won’t go on nor will the rest of the GA safety community grind to paralysis. It’s just that Richard touched so many people in that world, caused them to make connections and offered a steady hand in the face of what can be very discouraging developments, especially now. I don’t think he ever got discouraged, probably because of an innate talent for dispassionate, analytical thinking and a realization that an effective safety culture in GA will unavoidably be a slow grind; one step ahead, two back. That’s what leadership is and that’s what Richard McSpadden brought. It was a privilege to know him. Maybe his equal is out there somewhere and if so, Richard left a worthy legacy to build on.

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41 COMMENTS

  1. Touching, Paul. I never knew him, but how you describe him seems to match his public persona. I always loved how he interviewed the pilots who flew out of danger and was so empathetic and non-judgemental in the hopes we would all learn the lessons. He will sorely be missed.

  2. Also based at FDK, I did not know Richard well, but appreciated an “open hangar door” mentality in someone who could have been aloof instead of riding around on his bike checking in with other open doors.

    A TACAIR background may give more of an acceptance that what you love may some day, no matter your prep/equipment, result in the holes lining up. Giving up on that effort to reduce mishap rates towards zero would return us to rates orders of magnitude worse from the not so distant past.

    Some day none of us here will still be flying, but the generations that follow will all need to (re)learn the same lessons. Continuing the effort honors those like Richard who fought for a worthy goal even if not absolutely achievable.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful words Paul – I watched his videos avidly as they came out, and they made me reflect on my own airmanship each and every time – as you say showing quiet and determined leadership and a drive to improve GA for us all (even those of us here in Europe!). RIP.

  4. Oh gosh, Arthur. As time goes on, it’s getting impossible to tell whether you are simply an unfeeling human, or some sort of Russian troll-bot.

    • What am I supposed to “feel” when preachers who have made it their avocation to criticize bad piloting are they themselves ended in an impossible turn? As a realist all I can do is say is yea, don’t do that.

  5. Well said, Paul. There’s a very small group of aviation writers whose every word I read and take to heart. Both you and Spad are in that group. Even though Buck, Collins, Deakin, and now McSpadden are all gone, their writing lives on. Keep fighting the good fight.

  6. Discovered Richard’s ASI “There I Was” podcast during the pandemic, and haven’t missed many since. I’m still stunned that he’s gone.

    I suggest that his efforts, and yours, have advanced aviation safety more than you may ever know.

  7. Don’t give up, Paul. As a writer, a big part of your business is convincing others to feel as you do, and when that seems not to happen on subjects where your opinion is so clearly supported by facts and logic it can become overwhelmingly disheartening. The fact is, the vocal few who disagree with—or worse ignore—you are not in the majority, and the number of converts is continually growing. As you note, culture change is a slog, not a sprint.

    I once met and spoke with Colonel McSpadden at an event where he had been invited as a guest speaker. Your estimation of him matches mine almost to a T. As a former USAF service member with a lot of experience dealing with USAF pilots, I was struck by Colonel McSpadden’s humility, a quality not thought (incorrectly, I might add) to be common among his peers. Given what I know from reading/viewing his work, he would not want this event to discourage anyone from flying and observing the continuing tradition of safety he embraced and supported. I’m almost certain, Paul, Colonel McSpadden would tell you to study the facts, do all you can to learn from them, then press on, because what you’re doing is making an impact even if you can’t see it from where you are right now.

  8. We who have spent our years in aviation recall the faces we have lost to the sky… I don’t believe any of us are un-scathed. We chose to live inside a profession that requires our utmost attention, discipline and constant consternation. A single lapse can result in incident, accident and ultimately tragedy. We all know that. We accept that. We all, especially people like you Paul, work hard to improve the standards of our day. Real aviators have done that since the inception of human flight. Be proud. Remember the loss of your friend will result in many others not being lost or hurt! Shed a tear, look up, say a prayer, kiss the sky. Loving places like Johnnycake Mountain and Buchan’s Landing have defined us…and somehow explain who we are.

  9. Paul don’t despair. I know your work and the work of Richard has impacted me as I regularly hear both of your voices as I make decisions in the cockpit. This tragedy does question why we do this for recreation but I think the answer is contained in the beautiful poem “High Flight” by a RAF pilot who dies weeks later:

    “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air…
    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew—
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

  10. Interesting, his last video was on one of my best friends who we lost at Reno. It’s been a lousy couple of months in aviation.

  11. I only knew him from his podcasts. So devastated to hear of his passing. McSpadden was so mild, wise and helpful in breaking down accidents by analysis and interview.

  12. The point I take from this issue is that it matters not who you are or how much experience, knowledge and skill you have, one mistake or no mistake can end in tragedy. Not any different than driving a car, riding a motorcycle or flying a plane.

  13. Great article Paul,
    We have lost a fellow Aviator,
    Someone who believed in Aviation, and promoted it.
    There are too few people like this, and it hurts when we loose them.
    I feel sad for us all.
    Please take care of his family.

  14. A very fitting tribute, Paul. Richard and I overlapped at AOPA for about a year, before I left there in mid-2018. I was chief flight instructor managing AOPA’s in-house pilot training and proficiency operation, and Richard occasionally shared his thoughts about the program. More than once his inciteful questions and comments caused me to rethink a rule or policy, get off my comfortable perch, and make adjustments that would improve our procedures. Richard was an important resource for all of us within AOPA, and I was fortunate to have known him and benefit from his expertise and wisdom.

  15. When I see an accident take the life of one of the finest among us, part of me just doesn’t want to fly anymore.

  16. Beautiful, Paul. No one could have written it better. I’m sure many pilots were like me in that Richard’s videos were never skipped. Always made time to watch them. Admired his calm, intelligent demeanor. Thank you for your tribute.

  17. We honor people like Richard by continuing to fly while striving to improve our own habits and technique.

  18. Thanks for sharing Paul.. I rarely comment, and this story left me numb and discouraged for a couple days. Losing such a competent and sensitive advocate for GA and Aviation Safety hurts, and his personality was such that even those of us who just saw his videos or listened to his presentations felt we knew him and wanted to fly in a way that would make him feel he’d succeeded in creating a culture of safety. Sorry for the feeling of loss among all who knew him, and his family, and hoping that the organization can somehow find another leader of at least similar capability.

  19. A very insightful and respectful memorialization of Colonel R. McSpadden; Paul B.
    I saw him twice at various AOPA sponsored events, speaking with the pilot population attendees regarding safety initiatives of the ASI. As with all others- my takeaway aside from the highly beneficial applications to safer flight was his humbleness and ability to make others respond rather than he, himself just preaching. He had a gift for teaching; but also making the lessons interactive. My prayers go out to his family and friends in this time of loss and for him, that his safety messages will endure and be absorbed by others as we aviate.
    One… person at a time.. Paul … as you educate..
    Great job, as always, Paul!

  20. Thank you Paul – I sent the following email to Mark Baker but haven’t heard from him yet:

    “What a gut punch. I just can’t get over it. This guy was a living-breathing God to us in all things related to aviation safety. What would he say about his own death in an aviation accident?

    You need to pick up the pieces and give all of us some hope that there will be a steady hand at the AOPA Air Safety Foundation in the near future.”

    And Paul – thank you for your reply in support of this Air Safety legend – you hit all of the high road points regarding Spad. It made me think of Ernst Gann’s book once again “Fate is the Hunter” but what a sad loss.

    Your characterization of Richard as a personal friend was no surprise because that just the way he was in all of his articles, interviews, etc. Good job, nice tribute to a departed GA aviation giant.

  21. Paul, you write:

    “Inexplicably, experience—and Richard had plenty—so often turns out not to be the universal winning hand we believe it to be. He tried to dissuade me from my view that in some cases, no amount of experience or preparation could forestall such things. When your number is up, it’s up. I’m not sure where I stand on that now. In the wake of such an incredibly shocking accident, an even keel eludes.”

    I have spent quite a bit of time – not enormous, but more than a little – in the accident statistics, and I think both are true. That is a) experience can help enormously sometimes and b) sometimes your number is up.

    Mostly pilots die because a) stalled the airplane b) did not feed fuel to the engine c) flew into weather/darkness they were not prepared for. Those three account for – depending to some extent on how you count them – 80-90% of all fatal accidents, and the first one alone is maybe half of those. Mostly, training and care can prevent all three. Meanwhile, all those weird random things that seem like good cautionary tales – John Denver turning around to reach a fuel selector, Dale Snodgrass forgetting one and only one time to check for free controls, the student yanking on the control stick during a landing – are actually things you “won’t see coming.” If one of those happens, experience will probably not change your crap-shoot odds much at all.

    I think you don’t care to learn the details of Richard’s crash because you realize there’s nothing to learn from it. You’re not going to be able to say “aha, if I’m ever in that situation, I’ll know…” because if it were knowable, Richard would have known. If what was happening to him right before the crash were ever to happen to you, and you were to survive, it would most likely be more attributable to dumb luck than to superior piloting – because Richard was a superior pilot. Heck, maybe he would have survived what was happening, 99 times out of 100 – but this time there was some additional element of dumb, bad luck.

    It’s sobering. I take all the precautions I can, but the fact is that there are a lot of “unknown unknowns” in our avocation, and at times like this I realize that if one of them can get Richard, one of them can get any of us. All we can do is hope for the dumb luck that, in actual fact, will carry the vast majority of us through unscathed.

    • Perceptive reading between the lines. And you’re right, I don’t think there’s a lesson there. And if there were, I would skip reminding myself of the high-minded journalistic principle to pursue the greater good. Richard would discourage me from doing that, but I am choosing to remember him as he was and not as an accident victim who we might paw over to remind us not to make a mistake we already know we shouldn’t make.

      He got through a military career flying and living in harm’s way, only to have this happen in what I consider to be still the prime of his life. I feel such sorrow for his family, I can’t even describe it. Sure, carry on and all that. But there are days when this avocation really sucks.

  22. I valued Richard’s podcasts and videos, and I also had the distinct pleasure of meeting him in person after a safety talk he gave at a local aviation seminar. He was a humble and approachable guy, which is pretty amazing for someone as accomplished as he was. Such a loss to the aviation community.

  23. I didn’t know Richard personally. But for an avid follower of his safety work you’re giving the quintessence of his professional legacy:
    ” the physics of flight matter less than the psychological, as we try to understand why pilots make mistakes we know they shouldn’t make.”

    So, no matter what exactly happened here, and what odds were stacked against a good outcome for Richard, I believe there will be immeasurable lessons to be learned also from this tragedy.
    We are all trained in slow flight, low level maneuvering above airfields. None of us have experience with tree top landings. So the urge to try to get away with a barely made runway touch down as opposed to certain injury and a totaled airplane in the tree tops, this psychological urge is huge against all statistical knowledge or risk level. We should not call it the impossible turn, but the irresistible turn.

  24. Please don’t stop Paul. Both of you two have helped me, and I need you to continue. My wife and I have raced cars for years, the race that killed Dale E caused me to order a Hans device for my wife (now largely mandated). I fly three different airplanes, but I’m seriously thinking about using Spad’s passing as the final straw to get more headroom in my experimental SuperCub and wear a helmet.

    Me (crew chief) and my wife have witnessed many deaths racing. We hate them, but understand they are part of the thing we enjoy. We share a saying “when it’s your day, it’s your day … I just hope I’m not sitting next to you on your day.”

    It pays to have deep faith. I’m a Christian, I’m truly not sad for the death of a fellow Christian, I’m said for the people they leave behind.

  25. “I scroll right by [speculation and discussion of accidents] and really think some people should restrain themselves in the belief that knowing more sooner is a birthright in this industry and somehow removes the piercing edge from a death no one saw coming.”

    I don’t remember exactly which accident it was, but I have come to realize that what may seem like an obvious cause might not be the cause after all. And all the hand wringing and speculation of how to prevent an accident that has happened can actually be counterproductive. That’s why I enjoyed Richard’s accident reviews because they focused on just the known facts without any fanfare or tactics to drive up viewership that too many others out there are keen on doing.

    I do believe that the aviation world would be a better one if we stopped with the speculation following an accident and just wait for the finalized report. It may not have all the details we’d like (since GA aircraft lack the data points that airline flights record), but speculation that can’t be proven is not helpful.

  26. An A&P recently told me of a Vietnam saying “don’t worry about the bullet with your name on it, worry about the one that says to whom it may concern”. We’re all trying to do our best to avoid to whom it may concern with thinking about what we would have done differently. But, is it really to avoid something we can fix or is it to blind ourselves to the fact that sometimes that bullet just has our name on it, no matter how good you are?

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