C.W. Gusewell


Aloft and alone in a cockpit? I'll take my chances

It is the furtive little fear that sometimes lurks, unspoken, deep in the psyche of a non-aviator who finds himself or herself riding in the passenger seat of a small plane.

What in God’s name would I do if the person beside me, the pilot, were somehow disabled?

By and large, the concern is unwarranted. The average number of flights by private aircraft in the U.S. exceeds 27,000 a day. And all but an insignificant fraction of those are uneventful.

But a Wisconsin woman, Helen Collins, recently lived the nightmare. The event merited coverage in the national press.

Returning from a trip to Florida in the couple’s twin-engine plane, Mrs. Collins was horrified to realize her husband, John, had fallen unconscious at the controls. In fact, he had died.

She reported her predicament by cellphone, and an instructor pilot, who took off to fly alongside her, coached her by radio through the landing procedures and successfully talked her to the ground.

The touchdown wasn’t pretty. The plane was damaged and she suffered some moderate injuries, but she survived.

It was the possibility of just such a crisis that, more than 50 years ago, concerned a cousin of mine, Ed Middleton.

He was an electrical engineer for a defense contractor that designed guidance systems. His work obliged him to travel often on the company plane.

Ed was in his 30s, with a wife and two small boys.

And he decided, out of responsibility to his young family, that he should take flying lessons.

In the afternoons, after work, he went regularly to a small suburban flight school. The training went well. On the last session before he was scheduled to solo, the instructor suggested Ed would enjoy piloting a new plane that recently arrived from the factory.

They went up together. It was winter. The windows were all shut tightly against the cold.

It later was reported that a defect was found in the plane’s exhaust system, causing carbon monoxide to be pumped into the closed cockpit.

The gas cost both men use of their extremities. Though quite possibly still aware, they were unable to react as the plane nosed over and, under full power, plunged straight to the ground.

Due to a failure of communication, Ed’s wife and two sons, watching television as they waited for him to arrive home for supper, were devastated to learn of their loss from a report on the news.

That was, as I’ve said, all of a half century ago. Never once since have I had the least desire to learn to fly.