A Tragic Weekend for General Aviation Hits Close to Home

It was one of those days that I was thinking how fortunate I was to be a pilot… It was this past Saturday and I was lying on State Beach on Martha's Vineyard soaking in the sun thanks to the only hole in the sky that existed from the Hamptons to Nantucket. I had left Westchester County Airport that morning and picked up some friends in Farmingdale and headed east planning to go to Block Island. But as we approached West Hampton at 7,500 feet, a marine layer was visible along the shorelines eastward… As we approached Block Island, that marine layer had made its may over the Block Island airport. I listened to another plane fly a missed approach after trying to fly into Block Island. A re-check of the weather showed that the marine layer was also "socking in" all the choice beach destinations in the Cape Cod area and would likely take a couple of more hours to burn off – except that the Martha's Vineyard airport (MVY) was reporting clear. So we overflew Block Island and headed to Martha's Vineyard. When we got in sight of MVY, it was evident that the favorite southern beaches were also under a marine layer, but the eastern side of the island, the State Beach area, was clear! We decided to land at MVY, check in with the FBO (Fixed Base Operator – where I parked the plane and bought gas – at over $6/gal!!! ), and got in a cab. A quick stop at the sandwich shack and we were on the beach in 15 minutes. Every hour or so, while on the beach, I'd check the blackberry to see if the marine layer had burned off at Block Island yet. On the third check, it had finally burned off. I smiled and told my friends we just bought 2 hours of extra beach time… It was a good day to be a pilot… But on that third check, I also saw 3 voicemails and a couple of emails from friends asking me to reply back…. I had a feeling that something bad had happened and when I listened to the first voice mail from my mom, I knew from her voice that I was right… Before I called her back, I wanted to know what was going on… I quickly googled "plane crash" and the first hit explained it… a plane had taken off from Westchester County airport (HPN) just a few hours after I had; but it experienced some kind of an emergency (probably engine related) and tried to return to the airport, but was unable to reach the runway and crashed in one of the heavily wooded areas surrounding HPN… No one survived the crash or the ensuing fire… I called my mom back. I would know, from unfortunately way too many prior occasions, how to handle the call… Whether it was during my Navy career, when a Navy plane crashed near where I was stationed or at sea when I was on a carrier, or after the Navy when I started flying general aviation aircraft in and around the New York area, I would simply have to let her know in a calm, matter-of-fact manner that I was okay, and let her think/believe that it could not/would not happen to me… Like all pilots, at least part of me has to believe/think that too… but there is a part of me that knows otherwise…. There is only so much we as pilots can reasonably be expected to handle… Others have to do their jobs as well; aircraft manufactures, aircraft maintainers, air traffic controllers and others each play a distinct and critical role in aviation safety. After turning the conversation with my mom to the more mundane, I could sense her voice becoming more relieved. After we hung up, I thought about those that had just perished near my home airport… and their loved ones… surely there were frantic calls being made trying to find out what happened… trying to confirm that their worst thought/belief/fear was not true… but they never got that call that my mom just did… On Sunday, I celebrated father's day and was still learning more about Saturday's tragedy. I learned the horrific news that an entire family, the Weiner family, was on board. Keith and Lisa Weiner, their 14 year old daughter, Isabel, and a family friend, Lucy Walsh, another 14 year old girl all perished. Keith Weiner was the pilot and was very seasoned and a highly experienced flight instructor. He kept the plane he was piloting at the time of the crash, a Cessna 210 N210KW, at the same FBO I use at Westchester County airport, Panorama. I recall seeing him around the FBO, but I never knew him. I have been used to losing friends and to others losing loved ones for over twenty years as a result of my flying career and my work as an aviation attorney, but this was a particularly tragic result… As I contemplated the prior day's tragic events, I learned of yet another tragic general aviation crash that had local connections. Dr. Viswanathan Rajaraman (Vishy) a renowned brain surgeon, and his wife, Mary J. Sundaram, also a doctor, were taking off from Rickenbacker Airport in Columbus, Ohio returning to Franklin Lakes, New Jersey when the Cirrus SR 22 aircraft, N526PG, that Dr. Vishy was piloting crashed, also, close to the airport. Dr. Vishy flies the same type of plane I do and I remember emailing with him about a year ago about possibly forming a partnership in a plane. That partnership never materialized, but when I heard the victims were Vishy and his wife, it triggered how small a community of pilots we are, especially local New York pilots. Thinking about Keith Weiner and Vishy, I contemplated that no matter how experienced you may be as a pilot, there is only so far your skills can take you. Ultimately you have to rely on others as well if we want to safely enjoy this avocation and passion we know as flying… As I sat on that beach in Martha's Vineyard, I couldn't help but think that man (and woman) have only been flying for slightly more than 100 years… We are truly fortunate to live in a time where we can break the surly bonds of earth, but we can never forget with that privilege comes the responsibility for everyone involved in aviation to do their job to make it as safe as possible so that no loved ones' telephone call goes unreturned…

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