Vale. An Aviator and One of Life's Gentlemen. An Aviation Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's a sad day here at the aviation blog.

Yesterday I received the news that a friend had lost his life in an aircraft accident. He was an experienced pilot and an absolute gentleman.

As the details of the accident filtered out through an unreliable media, I chose to reflect on some good memories and interesting conversations that we'd had in those long hours on the darkened flight deck.

My thoughts are with his family at this time. As I said, he was a true gentleman.

Rest in peace, mate.

 

Unforgiving.

 

Over recent months tragic news seems to have become all too frequent for the aviation community. While on the other side of the Indian Ocean the loss of the two Albatross aircraft dealt a single massive blow, here a series of accidents in just a few days has further added to the count. The national broadcaster’s senior helicopter pilot and crew were lost, just as the news of an ill-fated mercy flight filtered down the wire. Only hours later, a senior sports pilot and his passenger went missing with a fatal outcome. The terrible loss of life in New Zealand when a hot air balloon was destroyed and only this week, a Tiger Moth crash saw the passing of John Fisher; a man who had once flown his Tiger from the UK to raise funds for charity. In the cruellest manner, it seemed we were all reminded that tragedy is the ever-present companion in the skies we seek to transit.

As the son of a fighter pilot who'd flown in combat, I had grown up around the potentially fatal nature of aviation. As I flicked enthusiastically through photo albums of fading photographs of fast jets, my father would answer my questions in an even tone. Often my enquiries with reference to individuals was met with, “He got clobbered by ground fire near Haeju”, or “I think he put a Mirage in off the coast during a training exercise”. Their young faces beneath flying helmets still stare back at me so many years later.

My own first encounter with the harsh lessons of aviation started as a student pilot. Still a paramedic by trade, I stood at the Royal Aero Club counter as the crash horn sounded and the ominous black, oily plume rose from beyond the runway’s end. Off duty, I drove my car the short distance around the airfield perimeter and entered the factory where the Cherokee Six had plunged vertically through the roof. One burnt survivor has been thrown onto the rooftop, while I dragged another from the smoke-filled building. Four remained in the wreck, still strapped into their seats; lifeless. Any complacency about aviation that youth may have been tempted to bestow on me was nullified at that very moment.

In the losses of recent times, as is so often the case, there are not necessarily any common themes. Each was in a different category of aircraft, with the weather varying from despicable to fine and clear. The pilots ranged vastly in experience and their operations covered the spectrum from private flying to commercial aviation. The only shared trait seemed to be the tragic outcome.

I flicked through the various news reports with a strong dose of suspicion, borne of decades reading of ill-informed, sensationalist reporting. Details seemed to change by the hour and rumours took on the status of fact until the next piece of hearsay could be generated in the public domain. What could not be disputed was life-altering impact of these accidents upon so many. To such a backdrop, one by one I recalled the faces of those that I had seen lost at the brutal edge of aviation. As I penned each name, the sobering truth was rammed home to me; no one is immune.

 

                     

The list of names was far longer than I had anticipated. They ranged from pilots with whom I had shared a meal and conversation, to close friends and work colleagues. Nearly all of them were commercial pilots eking out a living in general aviation, though some had also been taken pursuing their passion just for the love of it. Some were just starting their journey, excited at their first gainful employment and some were experienced mentors in the service of the national aviation regulator.

One by one I recalled their faces. The ‘old hand’ Bill whose ultimate oversight in forty years of safe flying was not spotting the glider that sheared off his Bonanza’s tailplane. And Brinley, celebrating at the local restaurant at the news he’d secured a position with an airline only to perish nights later, circling into a black hole in rural Australia in the foulest of weather. Trevor, whose single-engined fish spotting aircraft had force landed at dusk into the frigid waters only to survive the impact, but not the swim to shore. Alan and Peter, who had been searching for another aeroplane when their Cessna’s had engine failed over inhospitable terrain. Fernando, who descended gently into the ground in the wee hours with a full load in his Beechcraft. My fellow freight pilots who had been lost within a couple of months in a bleak, wet winter of low cloud and icing levels. And my close friend who’d tried one too many hair-raising flying feats at too low an altitude, only to pancake into the rising terrain. On and on the list continued as face after face stared back at me.

Admittedly, there were those who had been sticking their neck out further than the rules and common sense would advise. But for most it was simply a case of the odds stacking up against them in a series a compounding smaller events; the classic ‘Swiss Cheese’ model of Dr. James Reason. For a few it was the simple bad luck scenario of wrong place-wrong time. Universally, however, they are all still with me; even though I had not thought of many in recent years. They are with me as I flight plan and as I retract the gear. They are with me as the day becomes night and as the weather turns dark and walls of water confront me. They are with me always.

They are not evil spectres awaiting my demise, they are those who have gone before and paid the ultimate price. They paid for their harsh lessons with their lives and I am now the benefactor of their loss. In many ways, I owe them for the joy I have experienced in the skies above. They may have gone before, but they have stayed behind to tell me when enough is enough and when danger is lurking. They are there when the hair stands up on the back of my neck. They level the playing field and stand on the kerb whenever the temptation to cut a corner may exist.

They were acquaintances, colleagues and close friends who lived and breathed for aviation. I count myself as fortunate to have thus far safely encountered my way, but this is not an automatic right. It requires an ongoing commitment to safety and discipline in all circumstances and anything less is to dishonour those who have sacrificed so much. We call the skies our home and it is not a dangerous place to encounter. However, as those who have been lost recently and in the distant past can attest, that aviation can be very unforgiving.

Clear skies, mate.

                                

                                                       Dusk at Caboolture.

 

 

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