Sex in the cockpit is much more common than many people–both pilots and non-pilots–like to either consider or admit. Of course, as I detailed in a previous post about the Mile High Club, I’m not referring to coitus, whether interrupted, consummated or even a remote possibility. It’s the underlying sexual tension that can cause some men (and women) to act in a manner that can (and does) create dangerous situations. Back in the fall of 1996, I was trying to sell an article on the subject of sex in the cockpit to an aviation publication when a fatal crash occurred that I believe illustrated my point. No matter, I still didn’t sell the concept, but I still believe PIFD (all pilots love acronyms so I coined this one for Penis Induced Flight Decisions) contributed to the aforementioned crash.
At the top of the post is an image of a Beech King Air A90 similar to the one aircraft involved in a ground accident at Quincy, Illinois, in November, 1996. AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation provided an analysis of the crash in December 1997. I’ve linked the report for those interested in more specific details of the incident. As the ASF report details, accidents between corporate aircraft and scheduled airline flights are quite unusual at non-towered fields. This is the only case in the ASF records dating back to 1982. One might add the caveat that very few scheduled airlines operate in and out of non-towered locations. (Quincy had a tower but it closed earlier in the afternoon.)
What caught my attention concerning the crash in Quincy was the background of the Beech A90 pilots. Retired USAF, 63 years old, male, type rated in a vast multitude of aircraft (Boeing 377, 707, 720, and 747; Douglas DC-9, Lockheed 382 and L1011; and North American B-25) with 25,000 hours of recorded flight time. Formerly a TWA Captain, he’d been demoted to flight engineer due to unspecified flying deficiencies. His co-pilot in the Beech was a 34 year old female CFI who was trying to accumulate multi-engine time in the hope she’d one day be hired by an airline. She was taking instruction from the 63 year old while he demonstrated the A90 for some potential buyers. They had landed at Quincy to drop off the buyers then were returning to their home base.
The male pilot in that A90 recorded a gear up landing in a Cessna 172RG just a few months earlier. FAA had given him the option of remedial training which he had yet to complete. An FAA examiner made note of the pilot’s attitude: not one of compliance. My own speculation was that he was angry. After all, TWA had demoted him and the feds called for him to take remedial training when he had more hours in the left seat than any five examiners tied together with a rope. Plus, he was 63 years old. His glory days were over. He would never again sit behind the controls of a B25 as a young, virile, hotshot pilot. He would never again wear the four gold stripes of an airline pilot on his epaulets or his sleeve. In fact, depending on his health–he had a current 1st class flight physical–he might not have too many years of flying anything. His hair was either gone gray or was turning white. I’m not sure but there’s a fair chance his belly might be overlapping his belt. Even if it wasn’t, he had to work like hell to keep his weight down. (Ask me how I know…)
How do I know so much about him? I grew up with his friends, his colleagues, his commanders and likely his subordinates. I experienced my father’s anger when the USAF grounded him because of vision problems. He was particularly upset at having his flight status ended immediately after returning to the states from flying a tour in Vietnam. So it goes. I also knew what he was like in the company of attractive women. Was he capable of PIFD? Did Andy only allow Barney one bullet? Is the Pope Catholic? For that matter, I can draw on my own PIFD experiences.
Was the young female pilot (1,500 hours recorded flight time) likely in awe of her older companion? Had he told her any of his war stories? She was a part time CFI for the same Air Force Aero Club as he was; surely she knew his background though she might not have been aware of some of the darker details. Without question, she wanted to gain this man’s approval. She might have endured some less than tasteful remarks–speculation on my part based on many years of association with pilots and many years of flying experience of my own–believing that she could deal with the situation.
When the A90 taxied into position on Runway 4, how closely were the two pilots monitoring radio traffic? There was a commercial airliner, a commuter flight doing a straight-in approach on the 13 Runway. Radio transcripts indicate all the necessary calls in the blind were made by the captain of the Beech 1900, PNF (Pilot Not Flying), while the first officer controlled the 1900’s approach.
Here’s where we spread culpability, or, as the FAA likes to put it, “build the accident chain.” The pilot–he shall remain unnamed, though I’m aware of who he was, where he was from, and the angst his family suffered in the aftermath of the crash–was not alone in responsibility. The Beech 1900 crew was running almost two hours behind time. They, both the captain and the first officer, had been on duty for twelve hours. The 1900 was making a straight-in approach to the 13 Runway, though the prevailing 8 knot wind favored the 4 Runway being used by both the King Air and a general aviation Cherokee.
Had the 1900’s captain chosen to enter pattern via a downwind or even a base approach, possibly the accident chain would almost certainly have snapped as there would have been a clear view of the A90 on the runway. Had the Piper Cherokee pilot, a low-time Private ASEL certificate holder, not answered a call from the 1900 and affirmed that he would stay in position and hold…maybe the chain would have been broken. The 1900 would have landed, the King Air and the Cherokee would have departed and twelve lives would have been spared.
That isn’t what took place. The 63 year old pilot of the King Air likely asserted his command as PIC and began the take-off roll. It wasn’t a 747 but the A90 beats flying a C172 doing basic maneuvers. Even if the woman pilot building time in the A90 felt uncomfortable, likely she would not have tried to stop the take-off. The Cherokee pilot is out of the equation. He didn’t have enough flying time to know what was unfolding in front of him. Had he, possibly a radio call to the King Air, assuming that the two pilots in the King Air were monitoring the CTAF (Common Traffic Air Frequency), might have saved the day.
Still, responsibility for determining that departure could be safely undertaken, was the responsibility of the pilot at the yoke of the King Air. Indications are he heard the CTAF announcements that a Beech 1900 was inbound for landing on the 13. He was familiar with the Quincy airport and, had he thought about it, might have realized the incoming commuter crew was unlikely to see his King Air as it gained speed down the runway.
How likely was this experienced pilot–a pilot with some problems in his past but certainly a very experienced aviator nonetheless–to have committed the same errors had he been alone in the cockpit? I would speculate that he might have had considerably better situational awareness had he been by himself…or even had he been flying with another male pilot. Flying is an ego-driven profession. Even today, not a significant number of female pilots sit in commercial cockpits and those who do can tell tales of their testosterone fueled companions.
Is there an answer to this age old conundrum? Certainly, if we’re willing to accept that the danger exists. People in the aviation field spend endless hours studying accident reports in the belief that they can learn from the mistakes of other pilots. In researching this post, I read several analyses of the crash situation, both from the FAA, NTSB, AOPA and other pilots. Not one referred to the possibility that the King Air pilot’s judgement might have been clouded by the woman flying with him. This is not to assert that he hoped to peel off her flying garb, though that possibility might have existed. It’s merely to suggest that this 63 year old retired USAF officer might have had hormonal decision making (PIFD) raise its head simply because he was flying with a woman in the other side of the cockpit.
My last point, and I’ve discussed this with several other pilots during the past couple of decades since I began considering PIFD, is based on the response I’ve received from my colleagues. I can sum it up in one short phrase: “That’s bullshit.” OK, much of what I think likely belongs on that pile of bovine dung. However, I would expect to hear at least a few pilots say my hypothesis was possible for some aviators under some conditions. That hasn’t happened. Well, with one exception, and I think it’s an important one. I talked to a young woman who recently completed her studies at a prominent university that specializes in aviation. She’s already earned her ATP, she’s a CFII MEII. She agrees with me.
Can we learn from knowing that a situation exists? Certainly. I’ve learned to recognize danger signs when flying (or preparing to fly), when riding a motorcycle, driving a car or even when I sling a leg over a bicycle. In future posts, I’ll write about what I think I’ve learned and whether I think I can apply the knowledge.