The Mile High Club: tales of sex in the cockpit abound, particularly among non-aviators ensconced at a watering-hole, imbibing glasses filled to the brim with instant idiot. Many years ago, sitting at the bar (sipping instant idiot) in a downtown Denver hotel, I overheard a conversation in which the narrator–a real raconteur–described having sex with a girl while he was flying a Piper Super Cub over the Rockies. I so wanted to ask him how he moved her from the front seat to the back (or vice-versa) as the Cubbie is a tandem. Two seats, one in front of the other. He was big; I’m not. He looked violent. I’m not. He looked crazy. So am I but I’m not especially stupid. Silence was the order of the day.
However, this post isn’t about coitus in the cockpit, no matter how pretty the pilot’s companion or how skilled the pilot may be or how unlikely it is that one might consummate such an act. (Hmmm…hand on the stick, honey…oh, yes). I’m writing about something far more insidious and much more common. I attempted to sell a couple of stories on this concept a few years ago–just after John Kennedy, Jr. dunked his Piper in the Atlantic–but even an editor who agreed with my perspective said he was uncomfortable with publishing the story.
OK, why now? Because just this past weekend I was visiting a small general aviation field here in Arizona. Weather conditions were worse than iffy, a series of convective disturbances were lighting the afternoon sky over the eastern part of the city, more storms were gathering in the south and a flash flood warning was in effect. I had stopped by to look at a friend’s airplane which was tied down under covered parking. He’s a retired USAF pilot with more than 8,000 hours of military time plus another 5,000 hours of civilian flight, much of it as a corporate pilot and some of the remainder as an instructor. Neither of us would have chosen to cut holes in the sky, not on a day like this. Were there a mission specific task that merited taking a chance and had we examined flight conditions and determined that the risks did not outweigh the value of the mission, maybe. And that’s really maybe, with several other caveats tossed in for good measure. Most likely the decision would have had to be accompanied by an order from above. (Someone in the chain of command, not Gawd. So far, I’ve received no orders from Him, either written or oral.)
Back to the airport. As Jim was showing me his newly acquired Citabria, I observed a Porsche Boxster whip into one of the parking spaces just outside the entry gate to covered aircraft parking. My, my my, I said to myself as I watched (eyed, googled, leched…) the driver and his passenger walking toward the aircraft next to Jim’s. “Why not me?” I asked myself. “Well, ’cause you’re old, you don’t have any money, your teeth are crooked and you fart frequently,” I answered myself. I was being kind to myself, too. No matter, there, just thirty feet away, was a young man (in his thirties: young is like incest and nepotism, it’s relative) and a verrry attractive young woman who was wearing verrry tight shorts that truly epitomized the term short. I wondered whether the young woman would find me more attractive with a Neiman-Marcus bag over my head but we’d need two bags: one for me and another for her just in case mine fell off.
The aircraft was a shiny Diamond. The young man gingerly crawled underneath the plane to unfasten the tie-downs, pushed the little bird back out of the parking spot then the two climbed in. Oh, my God what legs. Long, tan…and very quickly out of sight as the little bird roared to life. “No pre-flight, no warning to by-standers, too much throttle…” Jim observed as they taxied away in a cloud of dust, small pebbles and other propwash-blown detritus.
“Yeah, I’d have pre-flighted her,” I murmured, thinking of how enjoyable such a task would be, touching each of the joints, flexing her breasts for proper operation…
“Would you take the girl up for a flight today?” Jim asked.
“No,” I said, thoughtfully. “I would attempt to divert her attention from aviation into more meteorologically appropriate pursuits.”
My description is facetious (fatuous?) but what we watched isn’t really humorous. The young pilot did not conduct a pre-flight examination. He didn’t sump the tanks. He checked nothing on the aircraft at all. Had he used the computer for a pre-flight weather briefing or phoned Prescott to check conditions? Did he select an alternate landing area should the field we were at get socked by those storms approaching from the south and east? Somehow I doubt it. How many hours does he have? Is it possible the ink on his PP-ASEL is barely dry? Was his delightful companion aware of just how dangerous the excursion could be, particularly if they encountered convective disturbances while up in the sky?
This is a paradigm of “sex in the cockpit.” Even otherwise cautious pilots sometimes allow their gonads to do their thinking. Could this have ever happened to me? Captain Willie, that one-eyed maniac ensconced in the crotch of my flying suit, made many decisions for me, some of them disastrous. Fortunately for me, he never suggested when to fly and when not to.Maybe he didn’t care to get his nuts knocked off. Want some examples of PIFD (Unofficial acronym for Penis Influenced Flight Decisions)?
Based on descriptions of the events surrounding John Kennedy, Jr.’s “go-no go” decision-making process on July 16, 1999, I believe Kennedy allowed his manliness to overcome his good sense. He launched into a somewhat hazy late evening sky when he was aware he wasn’t instrument certified or, certification aside, comfortable with flying by the gauges. As long as he was over the city, he was fine. When he turned east over the Atlantic on the final leg of his flight to Martha’s Vineyard Airport (KMVY), VFR conditions were not acceptable from a safety standpoint. Five miles viz at night over the ocean heading away from the coast means no lights to mark the horizon. Kennedy flew into a black hole without having the requisite ability to fly even a simple instrument pattern. What was going on inside the cockpit of Kennedy’s Piper Saratoga that caused him to enter a spiral into the ocean? He had taken several hours of instrument instruction. In this situation, he needed to maintain flying speed, keep wings level, maintain altitude…and if he couldn’t manage anything else, poke the mic button and ask for help. Vectors to MVY…or…even…declare an emergency and get the authorities to send a helicopter to fly his wing to the airport.
Let’s return to Essex County Airport (New Jersey), where the Kennedy flight originated. Another pilot reported overhearing a heated exchanged between JFK Jr. and his missus. According to Kennedy’s personal assistant, Kennedy and his wife were having marital problems. The wife hadn’t want to fly with him then changed her mind earlier in the day when she and her sister agreed to go join him and attend a Kennedy family wedding. The threesome were already running late when they arrived in New Jersey. If they decided to forego flight to Martha’s Vineyard, they would be quite late. John Kennedy made the wrong choice. Did he accede to his wife’s demands to either fly or return home? What was going on in the cockpit when he realized that he was in over his head? Was he sweating? Did he panic? Was his wife upset? Was she voicing her dismay with the situation? Did he think of switching the intercom off? Did he consider ordering her–if such an order would have been effective–to maintain cockpit silence while he sorted out the situation?
Has it ever happened to any of the rest of us? Of course it has. That’s were experience comes from. We make decisions, some bad, some good. If we live through the results of our decisions, we have gained experience. If we don’t, well, we’ve still gained experience but it may not be particularly useful, at least not to us. What did John King of ground training fame say? “The superior pilot uses his superior skills in order to avoid situations where he has to rely on his superior skills in order to survive.”
Not to pick on John Kennedy, Jr., I will follow this post with another example, one involving a 30,000 hour former USAF pilot, former TWA Captain, instructor pilot…who I believe made a PIFD that resulted in two aircraft being destroyed and several people losing their lives.