4 Live, Three Die

July 19, 1999

Friday July 16, 1999 - Two flights, Saratoga I, and Saratoga II.

Both airplanes are high performance, the Saratoga II - about 50 mph faster.

One owned, one rented from a friend.

Both pilots made mistakes

One pilot, 32 years of experience, the other a little more than a year of flying. One rated to fly without being able to see outside of the airplane, the other licensed to fly only when the ground could be seen and visibility was at least 3 miles.

In one case, three people died, in the other, the flight continued on, and a second and third flight was made over the weekend.

I loaded up the airplane Friday afternoon about 1:00. It was hot, and I was in a hurry, partially because I was so hot. In hot air, airplanes don't fly so well.

Having done a lot of flying with the family, I guess my biggest mistake was thinking that my kids were, well, little kids. But they are teenagers now, and both weigh about 135 pounds each.

The Saratoga has two doors. The pilot and front seat passenger get in on the right side of the airplane, and the rear seat passengers enter through a door on the left, at the rear of the airplane. The 4 rear seats face each other.

The kids sat in the rear 2 seats, facing forward, and the baggage compartment behind them held about 100 lbs of various bags.


The airplane was not overloaded, just loaded improperly.

With the tail heavy, the airplane pitched up on takeoff - and immediately lost airspeed and settled back down onto the runway. I realized the problem and figured I could fly out of it. Keeping the airplane back on the ground until additional speed built up, I let it rise back off the runway, but only ever so slightly. Basically we flew down the runway only 50 feet off the ground until enough airspeed was built up to begin to climb.

The combination of a heavy airplane, a hot day, and improper loading, made for a dangerous departure. The lift warning buzzer kept going off, (meaning the airplane was not happy, and the wings might quit flying, unless something was fixed) so I turned and asked my son to change seats and move to the center of the airplane.

Son says, What?

A mother, with panic in her voice, QUICK, MOVE TO THE CENTER OF THE AIRPLANE. Evidently she was quite unhappy about the noisy warning indicator.

I turned, and said calmly, "No panic, just sit on either of the two seats for a couple of minutes till I get higher up.

Mom was frightened, but hearing the calmness in my voice, she seemed to relax.

I had made a mistake.

However, 32 years of flying experience and thousands of takeoffs and landings, gave me the perspective to instantly know what the problem was, and decide on the best course of action. A novice pilot would have probably made the instinctive reaction to pull up, not push the nose down. That takeoff could have become an ugly accident.

Next time, the calculator comes out, and I will balance the airplane by formula, not in my head.

Later Friday evening, I took off again, with 3 Norwegian teenagers in the airplane, off to do some sight seeing. The flight was like many others, uneventful and without mistakes.

The other guy, as we now know, was not so lucky. He had 4 months flying experience in the high performance airplane, compared to my 6 years in the same airplane. I got my instrument license in the Saratoga, and still only use it rarely. Many pilots will not fly a single engine airplane after dark no matter what the weather. The Kennedy situation added two more risky variables, almost instrument weather conditions and a flight over water.

I don't know that I would have attempted such a flight, unless I had done it many times before. I certainly would not have attempted it at night.

We both exercised poor judgment. I was careless and hasty, he flew into weather conditions for which he had no training. Imagine sitting in your car with the windows painted black and trying to navigate the interstate at 200 miles per hour.

I got to learn from my mistake, it won't happen again.

Tomorrow I am off to the Rockies for a speaking engagement and the Friday night my middle child flies out to join me, and hopefully next week I will be able to tell you that she made the summit of a 14,000 ft mountain. (not to worry, we are just walking up).

This next week, the rider will be doing a lot of walking, and hopefully some mountain biking with a blue eyed blond haired angel. She has been waiting for this climb for many years.

I'm thinking that we will share it with you.