How Not to Be a Hero


I’m rarely stumped for things to write about in aviation although I‘m occasionally perched on the fence pondering what I might offer as amusement worthy of getting you through at least half a cup of coffee. Occasionally, readers nudge me as Scott Kordes did this week.

“I’d like to read an article and get your reaction to this story. Numerous people are saying this pilot is no hero and potentially made a bad situation worse,” Kordes wrote. The “this” refers to an incident that occurred recently at Bridgeport Connecticut’s Sikorsky Airport, my old home base along the Connecticut coast. The story was picked up by the local news outlet, News 12 Connecticut.

Frankly, I was going to let it lie as being such a galactically bad display of airmanship, in my estimation, as to require no further comment from me. But who am I to resist the public clamor for piercing analysis which, in the end, I’ll concede is stating of the obvious.

The gist of the story is this. A Piper Arrow was inbound to Bridgeport with a partial power failure, evidently unable to generate more than 12 inches of MAP. The would-be hero of the story was on the ground in a Cirrus SR20, heard the exchange with the tower and launched to join up on the Arrow. He then provided a steady stream of commands and questions as the Arrow pilot sorted through his emergency and approached Bridgeport.

When I was first pointed at this incident, the Cirrus pilot—an instructor—had a full video with cockpit audio on his website. It was taken down later in the same day, but then the news story appeared. In the original video, the Cirrus pilot is heard to pepper the Arrow pilot with a number of questions; he said “I want you to put your landing gear up” and he called for flap extension and a forward slip on short final, among other distractions aimed at the pilot in distress.

The Arrow pilot, by the way, didn’t sound especially stressed. He was doing what we would all do: sorting through the problem and trying to work a plan. He definitely didn’t sound panicked or confused—“lizard brained,” as the Cirrus pilot described it. Perhaps he was grateful for a second pilot in command in another airplane, but I wouldn’t have been.

But shouldn’t we all know that forming up on a distressed aircraft and subjecting the pilot to questions and commands he hasn’t asked for is exactly the wrong way to help? In this situation, staying on the ground or out of the guy’s way would have been more useful without risking a midair collision or the wrong decision for the guy who’s actually in the cockpit.

The tower played a passive role here because it could do little else. Bridgeport is Class D airspace, so all the tower does is provide sequencing and runway separation. The controller couldn’t order the Cirrus not to join up with the Arrow, although it could have, under its own emergency authority, withheld the takeoff clearance until the situation was resolved. Had I been the controller in the cab, however, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been prescient enough to do that because lacking imagination, I wouldn’t have expected what actually transpired.

In the course of a journalism career, every young reporter will be sent on a story for which he or she is utterly ill equipped to report, by dint of ignorance of the subject and too little time to learn it or multiple source it. The result will be the embarrassing mess that this report is. That it got so uniformly excoriated on social media should be a plus for the reporter as a stinging lesson in the perils of single-source stories on unfamiliar topics. For the rest of us, it says what shouldn’t have to be said: Don’t do this.

It takes a certain expansive ego to want to be a pilot in the first place and that quite naturally can metastasize into full-blown White Knight syndrome. We all just understandably want to apply our steely eyed skills as aviators to save the day. I’ve seen this before on a grand scale.

You may recall the incident in November 1992 when a Gulfstream II flown by actor John Travolta lost electrical power and went entirely dark on a flight from Florida to Maine. It was stuck above a solid undercast on a black, moonless night.

When it was south of Washington, controllers—channeling Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd, I guess—thought it would be a good idea to vector a USAir flight to join up on the Gulfstream and lead it to safety. In a moment of shattering clarity, someone realized that vectoring an airliner full of passengers toward an invisible airplane no one could communicate with was a terrible idea. As it sometimes does, sanity intervened.

One can only hope it will again next time this happens. And that’s what makes it worthy of mention.

This is the full video of the event.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. Back in 1986, I decided that I’d had more than a stomach full of managing an FBO. One of the factors that pushed me to my decision was a conversation I had with a former student of mine, who had purchased an interest in the FBO. He told me that he’d heard complaints that I was “too demanding” of my students. “It’s important not to piss off our customers, Yars.” I replied that I thought that it was more important not to KILL our customers. Shortly afterward, I resigned.

    Not long afterwards, management hired several flight instructors, to pick up my personal workload in that activity. Within two weeks, one of the new guys had soloed a couple of dozen students. Clearly, management’s assessment of me had been vindicated. Until it wasn’t…

    I had come into the FBO to give my bladder a break. On my way back out the door, I saw a Tomahawk pitch up so steeply that I anticipated a non-renewable outcome. Stunningly, the plane pitched downward just as rapidly, and erratically made its way overhead.

    I dashed into one of the briefing rooms, to call the control tower. No need to. As I reached for the phone, it rang. I picked up the handset. “Yars – did you see that?!?”
    “What happened,” I asked.
    “He flew through the 4,000 feet remaining sign. Completely shattered it. I’m closing the airspace. You’re cleared for takeoff.”

    I grabbed the keys to something with wings, fired up, and took off from the ramp and adjacent taxiway.
    The controller and I agreed to do business on the Tower frequency, because we were concerned that asking the student to tune another frequency could be the proverbial camel’s-back-breaking straw.

    I established a radio rapport with the student, who was certain that he could not land the plane, and was going to die that afternoon. I assured him that he was not. By this time, we were orbiting the aerodrome at pattern altitude. I carefully examined his aircraft from all aspects. It appeared to be intact – our second piece of good fortune (the first being the absence of a smoking hole at the site of the former sign, which was constructed of two-by-sixes and 5/8- inch CDX plywood).

    In the minutes that followed, I gained enough of his confidence to permit me to talk him through configuring the airplane for an approach (yes, it was just a Tomahawk, but the poor guy didn’t even know what the trim wheel was) and then flying to a successful landing with me 30 feet off of his left wing. When he achieved a favorable position-to-land, I had him close the mixture simultaneously with the throttle. He wasn’t going to die that afternoon.

    All of the students the instructor had endorsed for solo were grounded, pending a review of their paperwork and readiness. The FAA was not amused. The instructor lost all of his certificates. For the FBO and the students, it could have been much worse. All’s well that ends…well?

    The student continued his flying lessons. I’d like to report a happy ending, but…

    A couple of months later, the 19-year-old student was killed when the motorcycle he was riding got T-boned by a speeding motorist on a local street. He never had a chance.

    Sometimes, being “a hero” just isn’t very satisfying.


  2. I saw this on facebook earlier. The pilot of the Cirrus was in my opinion a pompous arse. He should have asked the pilot of the Arrow who appeared to be doing just fine if he needed any help first before butting in. I am sure his actions added to the pilots anxiety not eased it. Yars story was a different situation, a low time student who probably shouldn’t have been solo and probably truly needed help and calming.

  3. I remember a few years ago losing all oil pressure about 15 miles outside of a class D (KBKL) airport. Blew the number one cylinder head right off of an RG, however, at the time I had no clew what happened. Needless to say I was a little bit nervous at the time trying to troubleshoot why the total loss of pressure. I finally radioed the the tower and communicated I had lost all oil pressure, was at 2,000’ msl and was inbound from the North East. I never declared an emergency. They immediately cleared the airspace for me and told me I was cleared to do whatever I had to. “The airport is yours, all runways.” I’ll never forget what a calming experience I had immediately after the tower said that to me. My head immediately focused on all options available without having to think about other aircraft in the vicinity or anything else for that matter. Ended up landing long on 24 with a strong NE tail wing. Used the entire runway. I like it when people leave me alone and let me do what I have to do.


  4. Damned if you do:
    An early fall evening, after tying down the airplane I sat down at the picnic table for a little hangar flying with a couple other pilots. Beautiful, cool, calm evening; you know what I mean.

    A piper started up for a little night work and touch and goes. By this time, sun was down and it was legitimately a night flight.

    While jaw-jacking around the picnic table, we suddenly hear: Scccccrrrrreeeetch, buurrrrriiiinggg. We all looked to the runway and all shouted at the same time: GEAR UP GEAR UP!. Sparks everywhere and it was just enough light and sparks that we could tell that the belly of the airplane never touched; just the boarding step and the prop. The pilot then poured on the coals…. and got airborne again!

    I grabbed the portable radio out of my flight bag. One guy got on the phone and called 9-11.

    I got on the radio: “Pilot in the pattern, we’ve contacted 9-11 are you OK? Do you need anything?
    Pilot: “Uhhhhh, no. I’m fine, it’s a beautiful night, coming back around to land”.
    I shut up and let the pilot fly his airplane. The pilot called downwind, base and final. We were impressed with how calm he was. Nerves of steel this guy.

    The guy lands and quickly taxis right by us, we wave and all thumbs up. “Looks like he’s making a Bee-Line to the hangar, don’t blame him, he wants no more of this lime-light”.We call 9-11 back and tell them to disregard, aircraft safely on deck.

    Seconds later, we hear the piper powering up again. “What’s he doing? Checking the prop? Engine?”

    Pilot takes off. I grab my radio:
    Me:“Piot in the pattern, you’ve had a gear up landing! And a prop strike! Do you need any help? I think you might want to land!”
    Pilot: “Uhhhh, whuuut? That last landing was sweet! Picked up Rubber!”
    Me: Yeah, last landing was good, it was the landing BEFORE that! You took off again, after the gear-up-prop-strike!”
    Pilot: “Whuut? Whachatalkingbout wheelsup-propinthedirt?

    The pilot calls downwind, base and final. Still calm as a cucumber. Guy lands and starts to taxi towards us.
    Did this guy have a stroke (seriously here)? Did his brain go to mush after the gear up? We didn’t know how this guy could have missed the gear up and the prop strike, so we were thinking some sort of medical issue.

    So, as he taxied closer, we waved our arms, jumped up and down, shouted, yelled, shined flashlights at him. He pulls the plane up and we wave to shut down the engine. He shuts down and climbs out.

    Prop is flower peddled and sure enough, the boarding step is ground razor sharp and thin. He had no clue.

    So, here’s the thing: After witnessing this, what would you do? Leave your comments and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

    • Cirrus pilot reminds me of the rich and stupid guy with tons of money – buys a toy and thinks he is a wizard. My chums thinks it is lucky that the Cirrus didn’t scare the Arrow pilot – talked Arrow pilot into using almost all of the runway. Too few functioning brain cells and too much bravado to be helpful. Cirrus pilot was so far away from Arrow – it was a good thing. Hope I never meet the Cirrus pilot

      • Well, we didn’t believe the pilot was drunk. No tale-tale signs of alcohol anyway.

        However, he did seem “odd”….But, what’s odd here (other than taking off again after a gear-up prop strike)? I’d never met the guy before so I had no baseline. Was he just shaken up? Scared? Dunno.

        But for us witnessing this, we just couldn’t figure out why. Do we just let this guy go on his merry way? Did he experience some sort of medical condition? So, we have a LifeFlight based on field and asked him if he’d like to go over to get checked out. He said “sure” so we walked over and explained what happened to the folks on duty. They had a look at him and said, “he’s fine”….so on his merry way he went.

  5. “Say intentions”

    I have very few peeves. I have fewer peeves when it comes to talking on the radio. Want to ask “traffic in the pattern, please advise?” Go ahead. Want to make a “departing north, last call”? Sure, don’t care. Wanna “take the runway”? Take it, it’s yours.

    But controllers, one of the most unhinging and unhelpful radio calls during an emergency is: “Say intentions”. Even worse, if I don’t respond in 0.523 seconds with a detailed narrative about how I’m going to get out of this pickle, I’ll get a bit more firm radio call: “Cessna N1234, SAY INTENTIONS”

    “Well center, my intentions are to fly to KABC, grab a 1/2lb fire grilled cheeseburger with fries and shake. Walk it off a bit around the airport and the local boardwalk. Sit down and take a load off before the return, take off, land back home, quickly cut the grass and grab some hot tub time….that is my intention.

    However, someone pulled the chute on the blow-up doll mid-flight, I’ve got a guy in the back trying to get the door open, another guy taking pictures of the most unusual situation with said anamorphic balloon and I think my engine just quit. My intentions be damned”

    Instead just say “CessnaN1234, understand you have an emergency, how can I help?” Maybe, throw in a “CessanN1234, closest airport is at your 020, 20 miles”. And if you really want to help, throw in the CTAF for that local airport. But please, don’t ask what my intentions are. My intentions for this flight, just like every other flight, is to land safely.

  6. I’m not sure what identifying the “would-be hero” as “Cirrus pilot” adds to this story other than provide red-meat for trolls. To me, there is more to learned here by identifying the would-be hero as the “over-zealous instructor”. I think we have all experienced instructors that provide too much help when it is not needed.

  7. Isn’t there an FAR prohibiting formation flying with an aircraft without permission from both pilots? Secondly this whole cozy setup between the pilot and controller is somewhat reminiscent of Deliverance. I think it’s a fair statement this individual is a classic example of a guy who’s been flying at this particular A/P for a few years and has acquired the attitude that the field is his personal playground. Unfortunately and no doubt like many others I’ve met such people who seriously seem to believe they have a right to know who is doing what at “their” field irrespective of law or even common sense. But as the saying goes, they’re everywhere.

  8. …and the parodies have begun. Go to YouTube and search on “i2n1bovTaek”. It’s a video about the “World’s Greatest Pilot” in his “Super Cirrus” saving everybody in the pattern.

    As for the subject of this article, he has his own website advertising his CFI rates and services, plus videos, at “Alexander Wolf Corp . com” (remove the spaces).

  9. If I was the guy in the Arrow I would have told the Cirrus to back off. Last thing you want is some “wanna-be-hero”, offering unsolicited advice when managing an emergency. Now if I believed I had exhausted all options, and asked for help, that would have been different. The guy flying the Arrow seemed as though he had the situation under control.