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Decisions we make

Consequences of making the wrong move cut deep and linger

I led the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilots through a gap between large sliding doors and into a cavernous, World War II-era hangar.

Natural light seeped in behind us and through high windows along the side walls. Ahead, just out of the shadows, a woman stood next to a glistening Thunderbird aircraft. She fidgeted slightly as we approached, belying an otherwise elegant poise. Immediately, we knew this was no ordinary FARKLE, a special VIP access we granted to Friends And Relatives, Kin, and Likely Extensions to meet the team and see a jet up close. She stood alone, no team member escorting her, no family tagging along.

She moved down our sequential lineup, pausing with each of us, searching our eyes as she shook our hands. We explained our operations and described the impressive capabilities of the red, white, and blue F–16 beside her, which she greeted with polite but manufactured interest and a hint of impatience. She wasn’t there to see the airplane. We finished the talk and asked if she wanted to step up and look in the cockpit. “No.” She knew time was limited.

She began to ask questions about us, and we broke our stiff lineup and closed around her in a scraggly semi-circle to hear clearly in the echoey hangar. Her questions were unusually personal, but something about her demeanor kept them from being inappropriate. She turned to me. “What kind of ice cream do you like?” Vanilla. “The only choice for true ice cream lovers,” I quipped. Her giggle struck me as delightfully incongruous with her genteel carriage.

“What is your favorite color?”

“Any color as long as it’s blue,” I cracked.

“Oh, you’re kind of a jokester, then?”

It wasn’t casual banter, she was intensely interested in my answers. She found insight into the minutiae of our personal tastes far more interesting than anything we’d explained about our operations or our airplanes. She continued: What kind of music did I like? What was my favorite movie? Did I have any hobbies?

Her eyes brightened when I mentioned spending time with my children and that I had a 6-year-old daughter. “Oh!” She stepped closer. “What kind of things do you do with her?”

She found insight into  the minutiae of our personal tastes far more interesting than anything we’d explained about our operations or our airplanes.“We play!” I answered. “After work, she’ll often host me for dinner in her toy kitchen. The dress code is specific. I can wear my flight suit, but she insists I remove my boots, which I think she’s connected with me staying home. We also have epic pillow fights, and I’m teaching her how to ride a bike.”

She smiled, closed her eyes, and inhaled. After a bit, she looked up and said quietly, “Thank you. My dad was a Thunderbird pilot. He was killed flying when I was very small. I have memories of him, but they are faded. Mostly, I know him by hearing stories from my mother and others who knew him and from leafing through pictures in old scrapbooks. I know he loved flying and loved being part of this team. I can, on rare occasions, conjure up his smell and remember the coarseness of his flight suit. I never got to grow up with him,” she said. “So I never really got to know him, and know what he was like, what he liked. He probably had a lot in common with you, so I think that by getting to know you and details about what you like and things you do, I get to know him just a little bit better.”

We embraced. She slumped, lost the battle to contain her tears and stopped fighting. She was not, in that moment, a professional woman, a wife, a mom, an adult. She was just a girl, hugging her father—or the closest proxy she could get to her father—whom she had missed so deeply for so long. Physical amputees sometimes report feeling pain in their missing limbs. Her pain emerged from her missing father-daughter relationship, amputated by his crash.

When a pilot perishes in an aircraft accident, suddenly—in an instant—they’re gone. They blast a hole in the lives of spouses, children, grandchildren, and close friends that can never be filled by anyone else. The mourners learn to cope with the loss, but they never get over it.

Our lives are just one of many influenced by the decisions we make in the cockpit, even when we fly solo.

Instagram: SpadMcSpadden, TikTok: PropBlast

Richard McSpadden
Richard McSpadden
Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden tragically lost his life in an airplane accident on October 1, 2023, at Lake Placid, New York. The former commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, he served in the Air Force for 20 years before entering the civilian workforce. As AOPA’s Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President, Richard shared his exceptional knowledge through numerous communication channels, most notably the Early Analysis videos he pioneered. Many members got to know Richard through his monthly column for AOPA's membership magazine. Richard was dedicated to improving general aviation safety by expanding pilots' knowledge.

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