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Proficient Pilot: Fate is the hunter

It could have been me

Those of you who read my monthly quiz, “Test Pilot,” know that I have a penchant for minutiae and fascinating factoids. I have always been like that, and this has been both a blessing and a curse. My first aviation employer, Paul Bell, owned the flight school where I learned to fly. He took delight in telling people at the airport that I knew more stuff that no one cared about than anyone he had ever known.

Beyond being a great pilot, Paul also was an extemporaneous speaker and a skillful chess player—he could play six games against six players at the same time.

I obtained my commercial pilot certificate on my eighteenth birthday in June 1956, and shortly thereafter was scheduled to operate a short charter flight in a Cessna 180. It involved picking up two Aeronutronic employees at California’s Orange County Airport (now John Wayne Airport) near Disneyland and returning them to Santa Monica, my home airport. I was unable to take that flight, however, because I was recovering from minor surgery. (OK. It was a nose job.) Paul took the flight in my stead. It was a spectacular day over the Los Angeles Basin, but that did not prevent the pilots of our Cessna 180 and a Piper Tri-Pacer from attempting to occupy the same chunk of airspace at the same time. All aboard both aircraft were killed.

I have thought often about that flight. Each time I conclude that the midair collision would not have occurred had I been the pilot. I would not have flown the identical route at the identical time and at the identical speed necessary for fate to have delivered those airplanes to exactly the same place at the same time. Paul would not have been killed, and I would not have had to drive to his home to convey the tragic news to his wife and children—two little girls. I would not wish such heart-wrenching duty on my worst enemy.


N707BS was a brand-new American Champion Explorer, a 7GCBC Citabria that I had purchased as a present to myself in celebration of my retirement from TWA in 1998. It was a special airplane, the first Citabria equipped and certified for IFR flight.

My red, white, and blue airplane provided a renewed sense of freedom.In many ways, trading heavy iron for a pair of personal wings was an improvement. My red, white, and blue airplane provided a renewed sense of freedom. It unshackled me from having to fly strictly by numbers and computer solutions. I was no longer straightjacketed by regulations and a company policy manual. I now could whimsically chase a cloud or point a wing tip at something on the ground and turn it into a pylon.

I had seven happy years cavorting about California in my new airplane, but it became outrageously expensive. Monthly hangar rent at Santa Monica rose to $1,800 and kept climbing, and tying down a fabric-covered airplane was out of the question. Compounding the problem was the city’s adversarial attitude, a war of attrition designed to force aircraft owners based at the airport to pick up and leave. The time had come to begrudgingly sell N707BS. The buyer was based at Crest Airpark in Kent, Washington, and the delivery flight along the Pacific Coast created the last precious memories of my beloved Citabria.

Two years later—on November 20, 2007, to be exact—the new owner of the airplane and a passenger were cruising southwesterly at 1,500 feet above Commencement Bay north of Tacoma. At the same time and place, a Cessna 182A was cruising northwesterly at the same altitude. Following the collision, the Cessna pilot was able to land his crippled airplane at a nearby airport. The Citabria pilot could not maintain altitude but had barely enough control to make a survivable ditching. He and his passenger exited in time to notice that the vertical stabilizer and rudder were missing from the sinking airplane. The crew of a nearby boat plucked them from the water.

N707BS now rests at the bottom of Commencement Bay at a depth of 461 feet—too deep to warrant salvaging.

Hangar lawyers claim that the Cessna pilot was responsible for the collision because the Citabria was to his right, which, of course, is absurd. Right-of-way regulations apply only when the pilot of at least one of two intercepting aircraft sees the other in time to avoid conflict.

During my career I have been indirectly associated with two midair collisions. Fate, however, seems to suggest that things happen in threes. If that is so, then I must be especially diligent about not allowing fate to more directly have its way with me.

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years.

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