“I have an obligation to get you to your destination. You have an obligation to pay. What else is there? We don't need 24 pages of legalese.”
Playing the blame game
Last july and august, nascar internet discussion boards swirled and smoked like a winning car churning victory donuts after a race. Jack Roush had just wrecked his jet (N6JR)-his second serious crash flying "little" airplanes. The auto-racing legend and founder of Roush Fenway Racing walked away from this one-staggered, actually-bloodied, blinded in one eye and with several cracked bones. The crash was high profile since it happened in front of the crowd at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.-the world's largest aviation event. With all the authority that comes from sitting anonymously behind a keyboard, chat-line commentators advised Roush, a veteran pilot and well-known aviation enthusiast, to leave the flying to the pros-especially if it involves anything as demanding as a jet.
That reaction among nascar fans was a bit odd, considering some of the key differences between auto racing and flying. nascar fans expect drivers to be daring, pushing the safety envelope to the point of deliberately bumping competitors' cars at close to 200 mph. They call it "swapping paint." In contrast, pilots adhere to a deep-rooted safety ethic, and they severely chastise anyone who has a crackup-even though the criticism sometimes isn't fair. So while a spectacular wreck on the track might be expected under the mantle of "good ol' boys being boys," there's little room for excuses among pilots when someone bends any metal on an airplane.
The sentiments expressed by nascar fans after the Roush crash also sounded like what non-pilots often say when they're trying to make sense of an airplane accident. Lots of people drive cars and can imagine racing, but the number of pilots among nascar fans must be relatively low, just as it is among the general population. Since the fans couldn't understand clearly what was happening during the last moments of the flight, many went straight to the blame game in their Internet commentaries, talking about "pilot error" or speculating that the air traffic controller had messed up. The posts from some others sounded like the language grandparents hear from younger relatives, cajoling them to hang up the car keys after they've absentmindedly taken out a telephone pole: "C'mon Jack. We don't want to lose you this way."
On July 27, the day of the crash but before it, Roush, 68, performed at Oshkosh in the afternoon, flying his ultra-rare World War II-vintage P-51B Mustang, and then flew the fighter back to his home airport near Detroit. These flights went fine, despite the P-51's age and the fact that it was meant to be operated by expert fighter pilots. Ironically, Roush didn't encounter trouble until he flew back to
Oshkosh for a social event that evening in his ultra-modern Hawker Beechcraft Premier 1A business jet.
Was the accident the controller's fault for not allowing the jet enough spacing behind the slower propeller airplane ahead of it? Roush can be heard on tape questioning the spacing. Or was it the pilot's fault for waiting too long to abort the landing and pull up to try again? There's little doubt that both claims hold plenty of water. Which way the scale of responsibility tips probably depends on your perspective.
Would this accident have happened if a professional crew had been at the controls? That's another unknown. With the high concentration of traffic, arrivals at AirVenture are unlike those anywhere else. Maybe professional pilots would have aborted the landing sooner-but no one will ever know for sure. Roush certainly possesses flying skills and experience on par with many professional pilots. It ultimately comes down to judgment. Did nascar-like instincts cause him to push to complete a landing that someone more ensconced in aviation's safety culture wouldn't have tried? Jack Roush has a foot entrenched in each camp, so he's the best one to answer that question. [The preliminary report of the accident is available at www.ntsb.gov.-Ed.]