Impressive Piloting

Q: Contrary to lurid mishaps like that of Aeroflot, what do you think represents the most impressive feat of piloting in the face of disaster?

This is a question with no real answer. (And one, also, that appears on page 137 of my book. A plug, if you don’t mind, for the season’s most ideal stocking-stuffer.)

When things go bad, pilots do more or less what they have to do, so there isn’t too much room for talent to save the day. Luck is a bigger factor. Which isn’t a knock on, for example, Captain Al Haynes, who, nobly assisted by three other pilots, gallantly crash-landed that United DC-10 in Iowa in 1989. (The plane’s control systems had been rendered useless thanks to an engine that became a giant fragmentation grenade, bleeding the aircraft of its vital hydraulics.) It’s just that most pilots in his position would have done the same thing with, give or take, the same results. I’ll get shouted down for saying that, as everyone loves a hero, but it’s true.

At heart, this is a question about pilot error, and diametric to successes like those of Haynes are some disgracefully infamous blunders. Among many, including the aforementioned Aeroflot fiasco, were the Saudia crew that delayed evacuation of a burning L-1011 at Riyadh, and the KLM crew at Tenerife that commenced a takeoff without permission, among many. But the quantity of negligence — the act alone — usually isn’t relative to the amount of subsequent carnage. For instance, Captain Van Zanten and his colleagues at Tenerife misunderstood a takeoff clearance and 583 people died. But botching a clearance, in and of itself, is hardly the rarest sin in the aviation world. Do we judge the crime by body count, or the nature of the infraction?


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.