It’s hard to explain sometimes how a good pilot can crash because unless you have an unrecoverable spontaneous catastrophic mechanical failure (and I’ve only known of one flight where that happened), then the accident pretty much always contains an element of pilot error which means the pilot screwed up. But a friend of mine was a good pilot. Right up until the day he crashed he was one of the best. It is hard for me to believe that it has been seven years since he flew and his life since that day has not been what he hoped. Crashing derailed him for far more than a day and far beyond his career.

From The Map of My Dead Pilots:

My friend Adam was a good pilot. One day he was flying into Bethel on a routine cargo run and he crashed. He had this moment he said afterwards, a split second when he realized that the plane was bouncing off the tundra and he realized he was no longer flying but just along for the ride. “The weather had turned to shit,” he said, but it wasn’t really bad; it wasn’t the worst he’d ever seen. “I was bringing it down, shooting the approach just like I knew it and then that was it, I wasn’t flying anymore.”

“You crashed,” I said.

“I was crashing,” he corrected. It wasn’t until the plane stopped moving that he believed he wasn’t going to die. In that sudden stillness after so much chaos, he and his co-pilot sat there, stunned, both of them breathing like there wasn’t enough air left in the world. It was quiet he remembered later, but the noise in his head filled up everything, the noise in his head was enough sound to fill the world.

That moment when Adam realized he survived was the last good thing to happen in his life for a long time.

I think it was hardest for him now just to be the guy he is – the guy who crashed. He is one of those guys. Once he was past the accident part of it and all the responsibility and the first inkling of the impact on his career, then some guys would be okay. But not him – he was just too good of a pilot for that.

“I still don’t know how it happened,” he says. “I mean, I know I fucked up and it was my fault and I should have just gone around. But I didn’t think we were that close. I don’t know how we got there.”

He thinks about that a lot; how you can be flying one minute and hitting the ground the next; how a crash can surprise you. How you can be so wrong without knowing it.

“You know the worst part though…the real bitch of it?” he says. “Now I’m one of those guys that I always used to laugh at; another asshole who couldn’t keep his plane in the air.”

But he’s not; he’s never going to be one of those guys. And that makes it even harder. Because he knows he was better and he still crashed anyway. Even though he was the best on the line, he still destroyed a five million dollar airplane anyway.

And there was this part as well:

“Nobody was flying that airplane,” Adam told me. “I listened to the two of us on the CVR and we were shooting the shit like we were up at 15,000 feet and didn’t have a care in the world and there was nothing to do. I don’t get it – I was there, it’s my voice and I still don’t get it. If somebody told me they did this I wouldn’t understand how it could happen; it doesn’t make it any easier trying to figure that out just because it happened to me.”

That’s the question dead pilots never have to answer: how did this happen to me?

I have dissected this crash endlessly, poured over the accident report, analyzed every line, talked to him again and again and again. The reasons behind it are complicated and all of them pilot error. He was tired, he was distracted over a fight with his wife, his co-pilot followed his lead and didn’t ask any questions and more than anything, he really just wanted that day to be done. And maybe he was so sure that he was so good that it didn’t occur to him to take it easy, not to push it. Good pilots never think about taking it easy but then again, good pilots never have to.

“I was the best pilot at that company,” he told me and I believed him. And when he said he was still one of the best I believed that too. Crashing didn’t make Adam a bad pilot; it was just learning to live with knowing he crashed that was so damn hard. Everybody has a fight sometimes; everybody gets tired; everybody tries too long to be a company man. But what you can get away with on the ground and in the air are two different things – they’re worlds apart and that’s the biggest part of what makes flying so hard. There’s no room for all those little human faults up there, not when the weather can go to shit so quickly, not when you and the co-pilot aren’t talking enough about flying, not when neither one of you can see the ground. There’s only room for doing the right thing on final approach in a snow shower with a gusting crosswind; there’s only room for knowing that you have to do the right thing.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he said. “How could I do that? How could I crash?”

“Would it matter?” I asked. “If you could explain it, would it matter?”

“It would be something,” he said, looking around at what he has left now, seeing all that was gone. He works in a cubicle in a place where no one understands what it means to be captain of your own aircraft; what it means to be pilot-in-command. “At least if I knew, when I thought about it there would be something to make it clear.”

“If I knew what to remember, there would be something I could forget.”

I wish I could help him because he’s my friend and because he was one of the best once, and he deserves better than this; he deserves better than being only the final moment in his career.

You can’t imagine what it is like to go from being the senior line pilot, the best on the job, and then just another guy who crashed. What’s most interesting is that the physical crash is really only part of it – there are all the other crashes that follow that are the real surprises. Those are the ones that really get you; the ones that keep you down, the ones that make you realize how much you left behind.

The ones that make a conversation even seven years later hard to take and yet you make the phone call anyway; you still find yourself talking about again.