“If only someone had told him……”


When people arrive in the land of Corvairs, they are looking forward to learning a lot of things about the engine. I have a lot to share on the subject, but I do try to share some other things I have learned from many other aviators along the way. When you’re new to homebuilding, people often think of the mechanical things that they need to learn, but over time I understood that many of the most important things you can understand in aviation fall into the categories of judgement, philosophy, and the human condition. These are the hidden truths of flying. Popular magazines never touch these subjects either because the staffs don’t know them, or they would have a hard time tying them into sales of their advertisers’ products. Here, I am restricted by neither of these issues. I am free to share things that other people taught me, things that often came at considerable cost.

Let me share something it took me many years immersed in aviation to learn: One of the most common human reactions to an accident or something going very wrong is an observer saying or thinking “If only someone had told him….This could have been avoided.” People new to aviation often have fears that they may not be told something in their training or building that would put them in such a bad position later. Experience has taught me that this concern is unfounded. In almost every one of the bad situations that I can draw to mind, it was not the omission of important data that caused the problem. In almost every case, the unfortunate person at the center had been told, often previously warned more than once, but they chose to ignore the warnings or discount them for reasons that frequently seem hard to remember after the damage is done. It is not the lack of information, but the willful choice to ignore it that is at the root of trouble.

You can’t reach some people, and it isn’t your purpose in aviation to do so. That isn’t the focus here. What I would like to bring to your recognition is that you need to observe your own information reception from a third-party perspective. You can’t help people who don’t want to listen, but you can make sure that you are receptive to valid information, especially from people with specific experience, when it is delivered.

In the course of my work I frequently have to tell people when something in their plane or the operation of it is a bad idea. We are not just talking about points of style, we are speaking of things that I know will not work or are specifically dangerous.  Close observation has taught me that 50% of the people hearing what I have to say are developing a rebuttal or a defense before I get to the end of my second sentence. This isn’t a productive way to respond. I don’t mind any question, and I am prepared to explain at length. But many times the things I have to say are received by a person with their arms folded and an explanation that cites some local expert, a guy on the Net, or their Tech Counselor. If we were speaking of pickup trucks, sailboats or snowmobiles, you could understand people just wanting to be left alone to do it their way. Aviation has different consequences but often generates the same response to differing opinion, even when it comes from people with very specific experience. If you are new to homebuilding and even yet to solo a plane, I can say with confidence that you will do well, just as long as you are always ready to listen to experienced people who are trying to teach you important stuff.

Would more people listen if I wrote it in shorter sentences? The Manual says “never fly any aircraft you even suspect may detonate.” A month ago I got an e-mail acknowledging this sentence and then asking if “some detonation during routine leaning to save fuel was ok?” I have said in countless places that you must have a cooling shroud on every engine during a ground run, yet you can see people going without it on YouTube for 6 minute videos. There is a big difference between honest errors and people who are trying to develop a rationalization for why they don’t have to follow anything I want to share. I have been working with Corvairs for a long time and I can say that people who read information, ask questions, develop their understanding and accept proven concepts are successful at a rate many times higher than people who treat their engine build with the same respect for directions that people reserve for the ones that come with particle board shelf units from Wal-Mart. Would people listen more if I told them that in 1/3 of the cases of people damaging or destroying Corvair powered planes, they were doing something that I had previously specifically asked the builder not to do in person or on the phone? Maybe a specific example is worth considering…..

Here’s a true story: Several years ago I am in my shop and  working on distributors at nine o’clock at night. I get a telephone call from one of our successful builders (we will call him  guy “A”) who has approximately 150 hours on his flying plane. He tells me that the next day his plan is to take another pilot flying (guy “B”), and give him a check out in his plane. To do this, he will be flying his own airplane from the right seat for the first time ever. Like his plane, guy A has 150 hours.  Guy B is an experienced aviator who has not flown in a number of years.  The last flight guy B had been on was as a passenger, and it ended in a crash which killed the PIC. Guy B was understandably nervous about going flying again.

Upon hearing the plan, I tell guy A that this is the luckiest phone call he will ever make in his life. I flat-out tell him that I understand the good Samaritan motivation, but what he is thinking of doing is not just a bad idea, it’s insane.  If you’re new to flying, here’s why: Flying a plane from the right seat is a normal skill that any pilot can learn, however it is always done with a real flight instructor in the other seat, who can anticipate and catch any transition mistake on landing.  Second, people who have just been involved with an accident are very likely to flinch or freeze when confronting pressure, especially if they are in the same model of plane, or if it were a fatal accident, or both. I told him that likely the flight would go fairly well, but that guy B might have a serious problem close to the ground. The second part was a personal insight from being a crash survivor myself. We spent an hour on the phone and he offered his sincere thanks for my very serious and direct language.

Does my approach sound like sticking my nose into other people’s business? Did I really need to come down on a guy who is just being kind to another builder? Think I was a little paranoid? I mean after all, we are all equals in this world, and the guy sounds like he was going to be careful, besides, you can’t listen to all of the long stories that guy William writes anyway….

48 hours later, I am back on the phone with guy A. His aircraft is destroyed. He had heard me, but the next day had changed his mind, perhaps it seemed that I was blowing the whole potential of a problem up unrealistically. What really gets him is that he tells me that it happened just like I said. Guy B was rough but OK most of the flight, but when he came in for a landing he leveled off about 15 feet above the runway and froze. When guy A said something, guy B just pushed the stick forward and flew the plane into the runway. Neither were seriously hurt, but a plans built plane that took years to build was destroyed. There was no insurance. Guy A who should have had 3 or 4 more decades of flying is soured enough that he exits flying for good.  People who were at the airport who heard who was flying in which seat and the experience level probably thought “If only someone had told him….. “


Postscript: I got on the phone with guy B, who I considered a good guy and a friend. He explained that he was not going flying anymore. He has in his 70’s, and he was now going to hang it up. When I asked, he said that other than the last two flights, flying had been good to him. He was going to sell his home-built, which had only one flight on it. He mentioned that he was concerned about liability as a builder. I made the forward suggestion that he sell off all the avionics and the firewall forward, and turn in the N-number to the FAA and list the aircraft as destroyed. He could then give the airframe to guy A as a gesture of apology, one without liability.  Then guy A, a person who had proven he was a good apple, would back into a position to have  the same shot at a few decades of flight, just like guy B had. I really meant it when I told guy B that it was a real chance to salvage something good, and that he would end his own flying days with a noble act that would stir the heart of anyone who loved aviation. I told him that most people in aviation  pass through it without notice. Some are remembered in a negative context, But the ones how are cherished by the people who love aviation are the ones who chose to do something redemptive, something for the next man. At the moment we were on the phone, I was sure that he was going to do it. But he later changed his mind just as guy A had three weeks earlier. The incident didn’t change my feelings about either guy, but I did come away from it having to admit that I have a very limited ability to communicate with people who are of other mindsets. I sought a mixture of solace and understanding by drinking a few beers and re-reading, Speaking of Courage, a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried.  Norman, the central character in the chapter is destroyed by his inability to find anyone to listen to a bitter truth he knows.-ww

(If you are one of the handful of people who after reading the story might know the identity of the two people above, I ask that you keep it to yourself, mentioning it to anyone will serve no valid purpose. Just take the lesson with you and leave the names behind.)

2 Replies to ““If only someone had told him……””

  1. ,,,wow,,,William,,,wow I rewread that more than twice,,, I cant, and probably don’t want to remember any events, real, or imagined that left me at such a great loss for words,,,mma,,,

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