What Would You Do If You Had No Fear?


Don’t take counsel of your fears, goes the phrase, variously described as of religious or military origin. Its meaning is don’t be captive of that which frightens you and it is, if nothing else, a double-bladed axe. Fear can be both a healthy thing or a numbing source of paralysis or maybe something between. This came to mind as I was reading some of the unusual number of emails, texts and private messages sent to me after last week’s blog on Richard McSpadden’s fatal accident on Sunday, Oct. 1. This is further evidence that Richard touched many people and cast a long shadow.

Unsurprisingly, there was a sentiment in some of these comments to the effect that if someone as expert as Spad died in a crash, what chance do I possibly have? I didn’t mention this in the blog because I wanted to focus on my memories of him not so much as a pilot but as a person and, frankly, because I don’t think that. I suspected it would come up in the comments, but that’s the extent I gave it any thought. Some of those messages implored me not to give up in the wake of this tragedy.

But Richard is not the first friend I’ve lost in this flying game. None of those losses caused me to switch off the lights and curl into a fetal position. I’ve applied the same calculus to skydiving, a sport which has taken a few friends, too. Throughout my flying career, I have always believed that no matter what happened, what extremis I got an airplane into or what mechanical mayhem befell it, I would survive it by force of will, even if I shredded some aluminum in the process.

If you’ve made it very far in your flying career and thought about it much, you will recognize that as the very self-delusion that allows us to tamp down whatever fears we might have and carry on with the flight at hand. It’s where self-confidence comes from, the first cousin of self-delusion, maybe. It’s a complicated thing to sort out fear from the rational analysis that causes you to rightly say yes to one flying risk, but rightly no to another. All of us do this routinely and maybe talk ourselves into believing we’ve left nothing to chance.

But that’s never entirely true. I think the best any of us can do is leave as little to chance as possible and then just get on with it. Fortune usually smiles or, maybe, more accurately, disaster intervenes only as often as one of those tiny negative exponentials the cold data has always told us it would. When the bell tolls for a friend, it may seem to loom larger, but it isn’t. His or her accident has no effect on your odds.

And so I’ve always thought it a mistake to vicariously assume that if someone we consider highly skilled and vastly experienced crashes or dies in an accident, the same would happen to us. But we all get our own shot at making a judgment—or our own opportunity not to make a mistake. Many a pilot with hands of stone has crawled out wreckage for having done maybe one thing right. I once watched a 172 cartwheel down a runway shedding parts sure that EMS would recover bodies. An hour later, the pilot was in the lounge having a Coke.

A few months ago, I saw a bit of graveyard humor in a bumper sticker attached to a 1960s panel van. “No airbags. No seatbelts. We die like men.” What one friend wrote to me echoes that, without the grim humor. It relates to the age of the GA fleet which, despite pumping a few thousand new airframes into the flock every year, remains geriatric. He’s been an examiner and has seen various airplanes downed because of sheer wear, poor maintenance or crappy design to begin with. “What the hell am I doing voluntarily putting myself into small airplanes, with applicants trying to kill me, just to get out of the house and make a few bucks?” he wrote. That’s what kind of effect an accident like Richard’s can have. It gives pause. I had to concede the point, but admit to being more encouraged if the airplane was a Cirrus or a Diamond, where I’d at least have improved crashworthiness going for me. (Thus the consistently of self-delusion.)

In 1955, before his second phase of being a household name, Chuck Yeager’s little known ghosted first book, Across the High Frontier, explored the nature of a test pilot’s fear in surprising depth. At the time, Yeager admitted to real fear, especially in those quiet hours before he knew he would be flying an edgy test card. I think most of us would recognize this as those startling screamers that escape the subconscious in the drowsy twilight between sleep and wakefulness. He told author William Lundgren, “That’s the way fear is in the air. It’s always there but it never bothers you until it bothers you. Then it makes every minute worse.”

But he didn’t say anything about surrendering to it.  

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  1. Been at 54 years lost many many friends over those years.Airplanes fly for scientific reasons I always said the first crash a friend gets killed in that is unexplainable I will quit flying for good but that has never happened looking forward to several more years but no one knows better than me that it’s only the next hour that counts!

  2. “One day you will walk out to your airplane, and know it is your last flight…”One day you will walk out to your airplane, and won’t know it is your last flight”

    • I’ve been involved with the first part twice, Retirement from the US Navy and from the Airlines. I am aware that the second part is just the next flight away but I still do fly and accept less risk but it is always there.

  3. Decades ago, having been assigned to fly for a public health and development program in central Africa, I was reading files left by one of my predecessors when we got word that this very predecessor had lost his life in a weather related accident at his new post. I had regarded him as a mentor and one of those pilots whom if it could happen to him, I had no business flying in that extremely challenging environment. During the immediate 24 hours after my mentor’s accident I took a long hard look at the kind of flying I had committed to for the long term, vacillating back and forth about whether or not to continue with this commitment. I finally resolved to continue flying the program but with the highest degree of intentional safety mindfulness, backing off when conditions merited even if it meant erring on side of caution. I credit this top of mind safety mindfulness for being able to successfully complete that flying commitment and believe it is adaptable to both amateur and professional flying alike.

  4. I have run fuel tanks dry on 3 occasions in my career. The first one was my fault, not paying attention. The second one was a mechanical issue and the third was a first flight in a new platform and found the gauge was off by a lot. Everyone one of them had a pucker factor that kicks in the fear level pretty high. Changing tanks resolved that, but the memory of the fear factor remains. I am sure there are others here that have had more severe levels of that experience, but it makes one think about how you will react when (not if) that higher level of fear factor rears it’s head. Hopefully, I will never know…

  5. Over the 23 years I jumped as a skydiver I lost too many friends due to landing accidents and plane crashes. Fear always kept me alert and heightened my situational awareness. You learn to use it to keep from being complacent, at least on my part.

  6. What would I do if I had no fear? Nothing. I couldn’t, because I would be dead. I would be dead a couple times over, for that matter. The caution bred by reasonable fears kept me from getting in too deep in situations that deteriorated to the point that, in hindsight, were clearly beyond my ability to resolve. One of these situations killed a friend who chose to press on. Thank God for fear! But I don’t let it rule me. It’s a matter of observing personal minimums.

  7. I’m a firm believer in the value of anxiety. Not from fearful anticipation, that’s useless (or worse, paralyzing), but from the memory of having done something less-than-wise and lived through it. Better yet, I try to put myself in the position of someone who wasn’t as lucky as I’ve been. I lost my father to a departure stall/spin in our perfectly good airplane when I was 26. I’ve survived flying for sixty years now, and if I shuffle off my mortal coil in an aircraft, all I want is for the report NOT to say “pilot error”.

    That sad irony of our loss of Richard is that just over two years ago, he conducted a test of the “impossible turn” on departure, in a selection of aircraft. The conclusion was, with instant recognition and action, it was possible in some aircraft but not others. The Cardinal wasn’t one of the tested aircraft, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were impossible from that altitude. Had Richard been at the controls, that understanding might have affected the outcome. Landing it the treetops usually has a better outcome than stalling into a solid berm. IMHO.

  8. As a long-time owner of a Cardinal RG, Richard’s accident struck pretty close to home for me. With the gear extended, there is a portion of the nose gear doors that sits in front of the gear strut and makes a very effective speed brake on approach. As a result, the plane will develop a pretty significant sink rate if you pull the power back to idle. It would have been interesting if AOPA’s testing of the impossible turn had included a Cardinal to see how well it would do in such a situation. Having survived two engine failures in my flying career, the fear of losing power on takeoff lurks in my subconscious whenever I advance the throttle and start to roll. Whether that is a good thing or not I can’t say, but it does make me more aware of what I would do (or try to do) at various altitudes as I climb out. As you say, Paul, fear is a two-bladed axe. It can motivate you to be more aware of things you can control, but it also can paralyze you or cause you to stop flying altogether when you realize how much of flying you cannot control. My first engine failure was partially my fault; deferring maintenance on a backup system that didn’t work when the primary broke. The second was a supposedly reliable turboprop engine that came apart due to a flaw in an internal part. There was no way to predict or prevent that one. The first one taught me a lesson – always fix something that is critical to flight, no matter how innocuous it may seem. The second one taught me another lesson – that there are things over which you have no control. Fate is the Hunter, as Ernie Gann told us.

    • Thank you… Here for your own personal input on this type of aircraft… At least with your own experiences, and that at least leads to our added knowledge of these extra dangerous conditions even experienced pilots face in that type of airplane… As an added layer of what was part of the accident sequence…but also know there were some more things going on to bring this airplane down to a fatal conclusion…

  9. Agreed Paul. But as one of those who commented on ‘if it could happen to Spad…’ I still think there are some of us who don’t know what we don’t know and so the risk is infinitely higher. Perhaps my sentiment is mischaracterized but it does get you thinking…

  10. The scariest pilots I know, or on 2 cases knew, as in past tense after fatal accidents, did not appear to have any fear. Fear is good, unreasoning fear, as in fearing the wrong things is the problem.

    There is no question the yellow stripe up my back is lot wider than it was 30 years ago I have personally arrived at a point where I am good with the risk reward balance of flying. It means too much to me to give up even though mourning friends lost in airplane accidents has driven home the risks in a way that is hard to ignore

  11. Why do we still talk about “the impossible turn”? If as much emphasis was placed on “no 180 deg turns below 1000agl” and “consider the risks before operating into airports without good engine-out landing options” as we do the “impossible” turn (which of course just makes it a challenge to some) we would have slightly more damaged aircraft and far fewer fatalities.

    I believe strongly in personal minimums ( or maximums) and fully appreciate that light aircraft are pretty fun, but not the most reliable way to travel. The red-line safety margin we have to be willing to commit to is very restrictive if it’s to be effective. For me it’s a hard cutoff for flying at age 70. I’ll have fun until then and then it’s time to have fun in something else.

    • I agree, re: the so-called “impossible turn”. What makes the whole discussion about it worse is that it most defininitely is NOT an “impossible” turn, at least for some aircraft once they reach a certain altitude. So the very fact that it is possible in some cases but we refer to it as an “impossible” turn means the messaging is at odds with reality, and our human nature means many (most?) of us ignore the negative messaging and simply assue that it is always a possible turn.

      I believe it was Barry Schiff (or maybe it was his son) who put it best in saying that the RTLS (return to landing site, to steal from the Space Shuttle terminology) maneuver is a high-risk maneuver and should only be attempted when it is more risky (for both the aircraft occupants and those on the ground) than landing straight ahead (or nearly so). And it should only be attempted if it has first been practiced at altitude in that specific aircraft.

    • For one thing, because in some airplanes trying to turn back at 1000agl won’t work; and in others, going ahead at 600 agl won’t work – but turning back could have.

      You can’t really give any fixed altitude rule because the minimum altitude you need to turn back, depends very much on your stall speed.

      It turns out that, to turn 180 degrees, plus another 30 degrees, then glide back to runway centerline, plus allow for pilot startle and roll-in/roll-out, with a 35 degree bank angle, an airplane with a 61-kt Vso would need to be at least 1,000 agl at the start of the turn – IF FLOWN PERFECTLY. However, an airplane with a 40-kt Vso could make do with less than 500 agl, again IF FLOWN PERFECTLY.

      This explains why in the AOPA experiment, Richard could make the “impossible turn” in a Super Cub, while pilots in faster planes could not. And in a WWII P-51, forget it!

      PLEASE NOTE: These are THEORETICAL values; in the real world, few pilots could accurately fly a 35-degree banked turn, close to the ground, while seeing the ground – just 500 ft away – coming up at about 700 fpm, and roll out at exactly the right time. That’s a VERY challenging maneuver, under pressure, and the temptation to pull too hard (resulting in a stall without any chance of recovering) would be nearly overwhelming.

      By the way, we don’t seem to know what happened to Richard and Russ Francis. This may not have been a close-in turn-back. The facts I’ve seen appear consistent with, for example, making a more leisurely turn-back farther out with partial power, only to lose that power in the final seconds, turning a “we can just about make the runway” situation into an impact with rising terrain.

      • “few pilots could accurately fly a 35-degree banked turn, close to the ground, while seeing the ground – just 500 ft away – coming up at about 700 fpm”

        Change that to “few pilots without training”, and I’ll agree with that. With training, 700fpm descent rate close to the ground is quite doable; that would be a rather leisurely auto-rotation in a helicopter, which can sometimes exceed 1500fpm.

        As long as the RTLS maneuver is done within the envelope of that particular aircraft, with proper training I would argue that it’s a maneuver that any reasonably competent pilot could perform (though still a high-risk maneuver). The difficulty is that it’s hard to practice the maneuver; a power-off 180 can get close, though.

  12. Sailors have faced the problem for at least 10,000 years longer than pilots. Having worked for years on smaller vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Beaufort Sea gives many more hours of experience than any pilot acquires. Two ships sank after I left them with loss of all hands. Both losses due to age and poor maintenance and pushing weather one more time. Some guys are smarter, some are luckier. I think I was luckier. As one ol’ guy I knew slightly said; “It’s better to be a lucky geologist than a smart one.” He was both and also a good pilot.

  13. Preaching to the choir: no individual or accident prevention system is perfect, even experts can get hurt or killed. The goal of accident prevention programs is to make flying safer, while realizing that we can’t eliminate all hazards or fears with the understanding that one might fly uneventfully for decades always facing the unfortunate possibility of getting hurt or dying due to the complex interface of human, weather, and flying machine. So, at 81, no more airtime or running with the bulls for me.

  14. Another angle: what if we determine that Richard wasn’t pilot flying and didn’t take over the controls. Then his skill had relatively nothing to do with survival. But it shows that to be safe, one has to do so 100% of the time.

    • “But it shows that to be safe, one has to do so 100% of the time”. That would seem to be by definition, since if you aren’t acting 100% safely, you’re not being safe regardless of what you’re doing. It’s just that as the saying goes, “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect”.

      To me, the real takeaway from this accident is the reinforcement of a saying that I once heard is said about motorcycling: “all the gear, all the time”. In an aviation context, it means that there is no “simple” flight, so we should always follow all of our standard practices and procedures on every flight, because you never know when things will hit the fan.

  15. Life is a dangerous game. The best pilot in the world can still die in an automobile accident or a drive-by shooting for that matter. Do your best to prepare but don’t stop doing something just because you’re afraid something might happen. Don’t get me wrong, I get scared plenty of times and sometimes just don’t go because of it. But I try not to let irrational fears get the best of me. I’d miss out on too much of life.

  16. It appears that the comments can be summarized as “in flying one must always be at the top of one’s game…always…and even then, unanticipated or even unimagined events occur that overwhelm one’s ability to solve the problem, at which point chance becomes the sole determining factor”.
    In that regard, flying is like many other life events. The difference however are the consequences.
    Flying is unique in terms of speed and vector and personal protection.
    It took years before race cars were required to be designed in such a manner that drivers could, literally, walk away from 200 mph crashes.
    Perhaps if those standards were applied to GA the risks of death and injury would be reduced.

  17. For me, I TRY to learn something from each and every one of these accidents — fatal or not — and file the learning for future reference. In addition, I’ve had a few ‘scared the crap’ outta me over the many years of defeating gravity. To an even greater extent, those serve me well to fight the temptation to do stupid things with an airplane. One thing I always do is tell myself to sacrifice the airplane and save myself IF I lose the engine. I used to fly with an old motorcycle helmet in the back seat; maybe I should do that again. Mostly, however, I just don’t fly if everything isn’t right. For me, flying is my recreation and not a must do occupation so lots of situations that might be dangerous are avoided. Still … when your number is up … it’s up. Looks like that was the case here.

  18. Paul: A great article, one of many! Thanks. I agree on all points.

    I own a very well maintained 59 year old C-172. I respect its age, but dont baby it, despite the median age of the GA fleet being decades newer.

    My last owner assist annual was a simple open-it-up, IA INSPECT, and close-it-up with a owner completed OC/filter and filter exam. Nor did I add ANY new stuff, yet the cost was still over $3K. Gas is over $7 per gallon — about $70++ per Hobbs hour. The time is rapidly approaching when my income vs outgo can no longer support the machine.

    ‘Fear’ is not an issue for me. I’ve learned the ‘sweet spot’ where mitigable risk is acceptable. LUCK is always a factor to be aware of. Will I find that loose nut or lock ring from a past annual? Will some unseeable part in the engine fail? Will I have a bird strike with a large bird on a vulnerable part of my aircraft? None of these are predictible. They just are. I mitigate by avoiding inhospitable terrain when I can, and by pre-thinking my actions where there are no good options. LUCK becomes an outsize player in some cases.

    After two partial power loss events (an inflight mag fail 50 hours after major OH in my C172, a night loss of one cylnder in a rented PA28-181), and two instances of total power loss (Carb ice at 10,000′ in day IMC over a 4500′ MSL valley – carb heat melted ice and restored power at about 5500-6000′, night VFR catastrophic failure of my corporate C182R that I landed on a busy divided highway between an SUV and and a semi) I firmly believe in three things.

    First: Two is One, and One is NONE! Excellent maintenance will not overcome bad luck. Excellent maintenance is never PERFECT maintenance.

    Second: Aviation runs on gobs of money that ultimately translates to TRUST. Gobs of TRUST! My engine’s insides last saw the light of day 1100 hours ago. TBO is still 900 hours away. I TRUST my eyes, what I hear, the competent A&P’s who maintain it. This also appies to my airframe and avionics. It also appies to the manufactures of my fuel, oil, and every individual part on my aircraft. However, see my First belief above.

    Third: I mitigate risk according to my risk tolerance. I have an IFR rating, but don’t fly in IMC. My aircraft has minimal redundancy. Hence Two is actually just One, and that One is all I have. IMC, either day or night would require me to accept considerable unmitigatable risk. Nor will I fly over water beyond a comfortable glide to a reasonable landing site. Nor do I imagine I will always be on top of my game. So mitigating risk has a sliding scale. There are times when ‘accptable risk’, i.e. my risk tolerance can be much lower than my normal ‘personal minimums’.

    Paul’s discussion of fear touches on a lot of human psychology. If ‘fear’ keeps me awake before a flight, how can’t loss of sleep and agitation cause personal minimums to contract?

  19. It all comes down to personal risk tolerance. For instance, you couldn’t pay me enough to climb a rock cliff even with a safety rope. Yet I rode dirt bikes for many years, even though many people think that is a risky sport. I had my share of injuries. Every rider I ever knew claimed to understand and accept the risks. Some did and some didn’t. I saw some of them have serious injuries and quit. A few years back I was in a plane crash with life threatening injuries. Six months in the hospital and some months of therapy and surgeries made the risks quite clear to me. I am currently flying again. I can’t tell anybody what risks are worth it. The rest of you will have to make your own decisions.

  20. I promised myself that I would not participate in this, but my resolve is weak. Paul, you touched a nerve, (as you often do, well done). Here I am.
    First: I am a Cardinal Driver. It does NOT give me a lot of insight into the crash under consideration. I have owned a 75Rg for 25 years. It is a good airplane, but the last one made, is at least 45 years old. Old flying machines need lots of care. Even with adequate care, the newest least worn, aircraft can fail. What are the relative risks?
    While we usually don’t talk about it, even amongst other pilots, fear is a constant presence. Not only in operations, but in maintenance (I do a lot of my own). Just before takeoff , I often think about that most recent bit of maintenance. I strive to not let fear paralyze me, or even ruin the experience. But I hope I never lose it. Fear keeps me honest with myself (I hope). In discussions, we all work very hard to minimize risks because friends and family would not step near our planes if we didn’t, but flying does have risks. Because of constant diligence on everyone’s part, things do not often go wrong. When they do, the consequences are often greater than those of most other endeavors. I like to think the incidence rate balances those consequences. Fear is a thing which can grow as we get older. Having made it this far, those risks we took when we were young, seem foolhardy now. These days I fear not so much for my own sake, but for my passengers, who are often my grandchildren. As with all human things, fear needs a balance. With balance, fear keeps us honest and realistic, not paralyzed.
    I am somewhat irritated by the speculation about the apparent decision by the pilots (there were 2) involved in this crash, to turn back to the field. This speculation, while irritating (if not abhorrent), is only human nature. Underneath it all, is a hope that we can find a mistake. Something to point to, that we can say : “I would have done that differently”, and thereby keep our fear at bay. This is what allows us to continue after someone as accomplished, capable, and perhaps as close, as Richard, is stricken. By the way, there were 2 pilots on board, and we don’t know what transpired in that cockpit.
    I urge those who would speculate, to take some time with Google Earth, and look at the airport. If I decipher the jumbled news accounts correctly (50 50 chance), they crashed only 350 feet to the right of the departure end of rwy 32 (a miracle of some sort by itself) . Straight ahead was about half a mile of houses. Beyond those, was a very small cemetery, then the town itself (very dense). To the left was rising terrain, and more houses. NO good choices. The right turn seems the only choice, not to save their own skins, but to NOT endanger others.
    I did not know Russ Francis. I would not pretend to know Richard McSpadden. Like many others, I met him once. I doubt he would remember me. I do think he is of a type, cast from a certain recognizable mold. It seems apparent that he and Russ turned away from those houses. knowing that it might not be the best choice for their own safety. I would not expect anything less from someone like Richard. I doubt very much, that he would want fear to overtake us.


  21. One topic not explored is partial engine failure. I’ve had one complete engine failure on take off at 600 feet and two partial engine failures, one at altitude and one at 1000 ft AGL. You know which one is most difficult to manage? Partial engine failures. With a partial failure, there is time for full fear yet there is hope that the aircraft can be landed with no damage. With a full failure there is no time for fear, push the fening nose down and fly the aircraft all the way to the crash.