Never too early to speculate?

November 30, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

This  accident attracted national attention in mid-November. It involved an 82 year old pilot who was flying the Oklahoma State Girls basketball coach and assistant coach on a recruiting mission. The 1964 Cherokee went down in Arkansas with four fatalities. Good VFR weather prevailed and was not a factor but witnesses said the “engine was spluttering” and the aircraft ” nosedived into the ground.”  The professional media was a bit more restrained on their speculation than GA pilots, at least in the reports I read.

The pilots’ discourse was spirited, ranging from old aircraft, old engines that must be overhauled (not correct), old pilots, possible fuel “starvation” and so on.  A few vented their frustrations about the cost of flying and avgas – not sure what that had to do with this accident but hey, it’s the Internet where any inanity is allowed and in some quarters, welcomed.  In the immortal words of writer John Lawton, “The irony of the Information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.”

The Air Safety Institute and AOPA fielded a question from a reporter musing about aging pilots, their safety record and whether there ought to be a mandatory age limit for GA pilots. The reporter mentioned the age 65 retirement requirement for airline pilots. Our response was that aging is a highly personal variable and as recently shown by the Part 121 rule change in the U.S. from age 60 to 65, it also tends to be arbitrary. The airline-flying public can and should have quite a different expectation regarding safety than those of us who fly Part 91 GA. In commercial operations there is some rationale to limiting pilot ages although with two crew members it becomes a little less imperative.

The reality with aging pilots is that we have no denominator by which to judge exposure. Older pilots often have more time and are perhaps wealthier than their younger counterparts and thus may fly more hours. Obvious incidents of incapacitation remain rare but subtle deterioration and subsequent accidents involvement is not easily ferreted out. The Air Safety Institute has a course for aging pilots that will debut in the next few weeks so, if you have “a friend” who fits the category be sure and tell them about it. We’ll provide appropriate links here.

This accident was a hard reminder for OSU which lost members of its men’s basketball team in January 2001 during a charter flight in a King Air 200. The school changed it’s travel policy for team members but not for coaches. A reevaluation is now likely.

Perhaps it’s human nature to guess about accident causes before there is evidence and for what purpose? To show off our expertise, get a job, keep a job, help the media, create conversation—the list is endless. Having been wrong too many times myself, I now mostly follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice, ” It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Rob Greenberg

    Certainly a trajedy….and warrants a close and prudent review. BUT caution in creating a widespread “rule” in response.

    What shall we do with these?

    and of course…

    It may be age (of the pilot and/or plane), or skill, or distraction, or bad luck. A tragedy nontheless.

  • Andy

    You seem to be focused, intentionally or not, on pilot age. This gets mixed into your discussion of other pilots discussing accidents without knowing all of the facts. I’m not entirely sure what your point is.

    The real point of your story SEEMS to be “maybe a discussion about age (when it comes to accidents and this accident is particular) is premature/not relevant/insert-conditional-here”.

    I, as a relatively low time pilot, personally learn a hell of from the discussions about the possible causes of accidents. I am forced to think/consider outside of my experience envelope. Getting insights from the vast experience pool out there is very very helpful to me, and I suspect to any other pilot who is willing to forego the ego and consider other folks’ opinions.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    I attempted, and perhaps not successfully, to make two points: First, that speculating – especially in public on accidents does not always serve GA well nor advance the cause of safety, because it is frequently wrong.

    Secondly, age was one the mind of the mainstream media and there are some points I wanted make that without discussing this accident in particular. There was a shameless plug for an upcoming onlilne course for later this month and we never like tomiss an opportunity to let everyone know about new learning opportunities.

    The hangar flying, refered to in your last paragraph can be valuable but like so many things it needs to be filtered carefully. I mentioned John lawton’s quote earlier. The other adage that applies is that “a lie can be half way around the world before the truth even get’s its boot on.” The internet facilitates that.

    Appreciate your comment – it keeps me honest !

  • Jerri

    Since when does the age of a pilot cause an engine to “splutter”?

    If one ignorant reporter accuses some random person of murder, do all the other reporters in the country need to repeat the accusation and then call it unfounded?

  • Kent McIntyre

    I knew Olin for more than twenty years. I’d have flown with him anytime. He wasn’t a kid but he was okay.. I agree age doesn’t make the engine sputter. It’s a shame to be remember for a crash among all the good he and his wife did.

  • Howard Martin

    I believe the quote is by Mark Twain and not
    Abraham Lincoln

  • Bruce Landsberg

    To quote another famous American, Groucho Marx, ” Quote me as saying I was misquoted.” I’ve also heard it attributed to Sir Winston Churchill – now I’ll have to go look it up for sure! K8s