The loyalty that binds the flying community is usually one of its most attractive qualities. Pilots, mechanics, and aircraft owners will all go to heroic lengths to help out fellow aviators who have been stranded by weather or mechanical difficulties. They understand that they could just as easily be on the receiving end the next time.
A similar sense of shared destiny probably explains the widespread reluctance to report misconduct to the authorities, even when it’s repeated and flagrant. Ratting out another pilot to the FAA is usually seen as the last resort, to be considered only in cases of bitter personal conflict or imminent threat to public safety—and not always then. Rather than call in the feds or even notify the airport director, pilots have been known to overlook behavior they would never try to excuse, sometimes with tragic results.
A case in point was the October 2007 crash that destroyed a Cessna 172 at Bermuda Dunes Airport (UDD) in Palm Springs, California. The 52-year-old CFI was killed; his 18-year-old student—the grandson of the airplane’s owner—survived with serious injuries. Witnesses saw the Skyhawk doing touch-and-goes in opposite directions, maneuvering sharply at low altitude to reverse course. On the last takeoff, it appeared to pitch up very steeply before turning right and dropping to the ground. Winds were just two to four knots at the time.
The student recalled that after taking off from Runway 28, the instructor told him to close his eyes; when he opened them again, they were on final for 10. The instructor told him to hold the nosewheel off the ground during the landing roll, which he did. The instructor took the controls again during climbout, and at about 200 agl made hard right turns to line the airplane back up with Runway 28 before returning the controls to the student. This time the student was told to fly just far enough above the runway to keep the gear from touching down, but when he lifted the nose back to a takeoff attitude, airspeed began to decay—it’s not clear whether either of them advanced the throttle—and the instructor took the controls again. The student’s last memory was of looking at the ground from an attitude he described as “weird.”
The NTSB found that the CFI had failed to maintain sufficient airspeed to avoid a stall. No surprise there—but the autopsy results raised some eyebrows. The flight instructor’s blood alcohol content was measured at 0.31 percent, far beyond the level at which most people would have lost consciousness. Developing the tolerance to attain that concentration in the first place—much less with any semblance of functionality—requires years of practice, and this man’s vices turned out to have been something of an open secret. The accident investigators noted that
The Sheriff-Coroner’s report states that other pilots were aware that the accident pilot had a habit of being intoxicated during instruction and while flying. On the day of the accident, other pilots witnessed the accident pilot having drinks prior to the commencement of the flying lesson.
An outsider might be shocked to learn that no one saw fit to turn in an instructor who was known to teach while drunk. On the inside, it’s less surprising. Most of us resent outside interference, so we mind our own business and expect others to do the same. Understanding that some threats to the public interest outweigh the virtue of respect for privacy, it’s still hard to acknowledge specific cases, much less take the necessary action. But some things can’t be tolerated.
And there are considerations beyond safety. For three years, this CFI had worked as a contractor for a flight school on the field. Five weeks before the accident, their chief pilot had fired him, citing “the smell of alcohol on his person while on airport grounds” in a written letter of dismissal. As luck would have it, though, the school’s owner died the same day and it suspended operations, so word of the firing didn’t get around. The CFI got the Skyhawk’s owner to pay him directly, claiming that the salary the school owed him was tied up in probate.
After the accident, the student and his grandfather filed a lawsuit against the CFI’s estate—and also against the flight school, arguing that because they hadn’t told his students of the instructor’s firing and the reason for it, they shared liability for the accident. The good news (from the school’s point of view) is that the trial judge ultimately dismissed that claim, noting that the instructor was pilot in command and the school did not employ him, operate the aircraft, or have any knowledge of the flight. The bad news is that the judge’s order granting their motion for summary judgment wasn’t entered until January 2011—two years and three months after the accident. That’s a long time to be left on pins and needles.
While the judge commented that “No evidence has been provided to this Court” that the school was aware this CFI had flown while intoxicated, it seems like a good bet that somebody knew enough to justify making a phone call. His history doesn’t inspire confidence that he would have stopped flying after his certificate was revoked. Still, you have to start somewhere.