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.