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Threes


It may be the most widely held superstition in the aviation world, but it's seldom openly discussed:  the proposition that 'bad luck'—that comfortable euphemism for a fatal accident—somehow contrives to visit our ranks in triplicate proximity.

In a discipline enabled by the rigor of engineering and conducted to the dictates of the range equation, there would seem little room for belief not vindicated by a graph in the aircraft operating manual.  At most, pilots will note rule of threes when it evidences itself, but assume it cannot apply to them—as though it were true, but not real.

Even so, prudent pilots overlook nothing to tip the odds in their favor. A superstition may not be real, but what is the harm in trying to incur good luck in place of bad? Take the small rituals pilots develop: the stick of Beemans routinely borrowed before a risky flight; the quiet litany religiously invoked prior to the advancement of the throttle. They are microscopic things and may only serve to provide a modicum of psychological stability for those engaged in fight or a career of flight, but consider this:

Of all extreme air sport, none is as demanding of instinctive stick-and-rudder flying skill than unlimited competition aerobatics and none has so sterling a safety record. It's inherently dangerous as hell to do down low, but the professionalism of the participants trumps that in spades. The tech inspections are rigorous, the ladder of competition long and the gestalt of the sport predisposed to methodical precision, not daredevil taunting of doom. You can count the fatalities incurred in the actual conduct of sanctioned aerobatic competition on one hand and have fingers left over to endorse your logbook. 

It was thus a shock when the current President of the International Aerobatic Club initiated a 1¼ snap-roll on the vertical down line of figure 5 of the known compulsory at the 2009 World Aerobatic Championships, failed to fully recover when the rudder stuck at full deflection and died when her borrowed Edge 540 impacted in the competition box.

The initial irony is that Vicki Cruse took up aerobatics shortly after getting her pilot's license on the basis that the standard FAA curriculum left her less than fully versed in all-attitude control of the airplane.  Aerobatic training was a safety issue to Cruse, a well balanced and broadly accomplished pilot.  As IAC President, she campaigned for entry level aerobatics as a safety adjunct to private pilot training, which they unquestionably are.

The deeper irony is that Vicki Cruse was the only woman ever to qualify and race in the Sport Class at the National Championship Air Races—a decidedly more risky business than competition aerobatics has ever been or ever will be.  She was appreciated by her peers as a competitive pilot who was also safe to race with.

The loss of such a pilot in a routine process—the known sequence, which all competition pilots can fly in the shower with their eyes closed—was fundamentally unacceptable to the those of us who knew her or know the sport.  But such is the nature of aviation and the old homily rings as hollow and as appropriate as it always does—Cruse dared to do what she loved to do and was in the process of so doing when she paid the price. 

But it wasn't fair. 

Vicki Cruse was too collected as a human being, too skilled as a pilot, too experienced in the game to have been victimized by whatever circumstance the accident investigation will ultimately determine got her killed.  (Preliminary conjecture centers on a set of rudder pedal extensions.)

A week after the accident, I had occasion to break bread with a long time friend and a veteran of a half dozen United States Aerobatic Team efforts. The conversation was muted by the loss of one of our own.

It was impossible not to recall the fatal crash a little more than a month prior of Chandy Clanton, who hit a bean field during routine practice for an airshow in mid July. The 36 year old Clanton was a three time United States Aerobatic Team member and a veteran of a over a decade of airshow performance.  She left behind two young sons. That wasn't fair, either.

The coincidence of the two deaths was unavoidable and I wondered aloud—in the vague disbelief reserved for those who can't comprehend the ephemeral workings of blind fate but dare not to defy it—who would be next.  Two down, I noted. The unspoken rule of aviation risk assessment said there would soon be a third, although neither of us wanted, really, to believe that.

My mentor cast a baleful eye upon my naive lack of awareness.

"Vickie was number three," he said.

On August 16, 37 year old Svetlana Fedorenko was killed on a routine training flight with a Russian aerobatic student when their Yak-52 crashed shortly after takeoff .  Fedorenko was a six time member of the Russian world aerobatic team and 2004 European Aerobatic Champion.

Three world-class competition aerobatic pilots dead in little over a month.

Their gender is irrelevant to their skill and accomplishment, but the simple fact that all three happened to be female only seems to confirm the mythic pattern of threes at work.  My thoughts drifted to Reno in 2007, when a trio of race pilots were lost in separate incidents over the course of one event—rarely does one see the pattern evidence itself so blatantly. 

But on too many occasions statistics seem to fit the phantom pattern. Bobby Younkin, Jim Franklin and Jim LeRoy, three high performance biplane pilots in one airshow season, if you want me to start. Reno in 1975.

Is Ernest Gann's unrelenting Fate so methodical as to follow some paranormal coda requiring the conclusion of lives in triplicate? Or is the old adage of the ramp just the rational mind working overtime, trying to find signal amid random noise?  Was Vicki Cruse destined to a fatal accident because of a supernatural ground rule in the ballpark of extreme air sport? Is the pattern of threes only there if you look for it ? Is it merely a psychological shock-absorber for inexplicable loss?

I don't know. 

I don't know that I want to know.

All I know is that, once again, three talented and experienced pilots have been unjustifiably lost and that the marks are too close on the calendar for comfort. That fact is scant solace for their absence, much less an explanation.

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