Acceptable Risk

cargo-ship

Dutch pilot Jaap Rademaker recently landed his Foxbat A-22 on the deck of a new kind of cargo ship which features a completely flat top deck. The resulting video has been making the rounds on the internet, and was recently picked up by AOPA. From the comments posted therein, the prevailing opinion seems to be that Rademaker’s landing was an ill-conceived stunt by a low-time pilot with poor judgement.

I really don’t see the big deal. Yes, there was some risk involved with the landing, but so what? There was advance planning, coordination, and the pilot had considered the worst case scenarios. So he’d never landed on an aircraft carrier before. The Wright brothers had never flown a powered aircraft prior to 1903 either.

Bruce Landsburg, head of the Air Safety Foundation, compared the landing to other “questionable” piloting choices.

Is our perception situationally based? Here are some common GA scenarios:

Land in a greater-than-demonstrated crosswind
Tackle an area of widespread thunderstorms
Land with minimum fuel
Fly in to an area of icing with a non-approved aircraft
Land out of an instrument approach “right at” minimums
Take off or land at a really short strip

If everything works out you’re the ace of the base, but foul it up and we think of you as a dummy! How many times have you done something in past flight experience that you reflect on afterward and think, “That just may not have been my finest aeronautical moment.”

I’ve got news for you: you’re going to be thought of as a dummy if you foul anything up, period. That’s how aviation works. You don’t even need to be near the aircraft to be castigated by your loving peers. You could be sitting at the airport cafe having lunch and you’d still be spoken of as an idiot if your aircraft got scratched due to jet or prop blast. The wags would be saying you shouldn’t have parked there, you used the wrong knot, you didn’t chock all three wheels, you shoulda shoulda shoulda…

I don’t necessarily see an issue with Bruce’s scenarios. Landing after flying an approach that breaks me out of the clouds at minimums? Professional pilots do that all the time. Even newly minted instrument pilots are trained and tested to perform that task. Landing with minimum fuel? Every time I fly the Pitts, I’m landing with minimum fuel because that’s all it holds. Flying in areas of icing without “known icing” approval is something pilots in the Northeast and Midwest sometimes do in winter. If you’ve got turbine or turbocharged powerplant(s), solid VFR, and/or non-freezing temperatures above the MEA along your route, it might be perfectly safe.

My point here is that people want to apply their own personal flying standards to everyone else’s operation, and that just doesn’t work. That’s why they’re called “personal”. For example, as a fixed-wing pilot living in the L.A. area, I think I’d be crazy to fly a single-engine aircraft all day at 1,000 feet or less above the dirt. But I’m not going to say nobody else should ever do it. Single-engine helicopters pilots, banner towers, aerial photographers, ag pilots (yes, they exist even in downtown Los Angeles!) and others spend their whole careers down there.

Perhaps it’s just because I don’t fly the same airplane every day, but the concept of “acceptable risk” is a moving target, even for an individual aviator. If I’m flying solo aerobatics in an Eagle, my risk profile is higher than if I’m flying the Gulfstream with paying passengers on board, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even on a single flight, the level of risk one is willing to accept can change (think: weather). As long as it’s an informed decision made with all relevant factors in mind, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it.

So who are we to condemn Rademaker for his so-called stunt? He felt it was worthwhile enough to invest his time and money in the venture and put himself and his airplane at risk. He took precautions by coordinating with the ship operator, using safety equipment, and waiting until he felt comfortable enough with the approach to follow through with the landing.

I say “good job”. What say you?

38 comments

  1. Hi Ron-
    As the movie line goes “Darwin would think he had made a mistake, when he sees those young men and the chances they take”.
    You carefully backed yourself up by saying each risk is a PERSONAL one and one that should be considered on their own. You also made a good point in that, even though your A/C gets blown away by jet blast and you used the wrong knot or didn’t Chock all three and people will always find you at fault.
    My problem is that, OK, you write as an aviation blogger, and the reason why I like your blog, is because you give aviation tips and advice pass life saving knowledge actually not found in any syllabus or any training manual. (how many blogs have you done JUST on prop safety alone!). However, what does this, and I’ll use your word “stunt” teach us or advance us in anyway? Take the guy in 2012 who happened to roll his SR22 near Paso Robles at 200 Ft AGL. Sure, he rolled the SR22 50 times before but this time, he didn’t make it. (I believe he was a Cirrus Salesman as well). Was a capable pilot. Sure. but he flew down below FAA legal mins. Sure, Some Airshow pilots fly to the surface, but again, its a personal risk, and I don’t see too many Airshow pilots doing it in a Mint SR22.
    When the right brothers flew, they were just trying to get off the ground. I’m not saying he didn’t need to land on the cargo ship. Ive often tried to land the Learjet on flight simulator on the Carrier, and I’ve done it. Sky divers try all sorts of spot landings and when flying helicopters, by the very nature of the helicopter itself, you are ALWAYS doing interesting things in interesting places, each and every time you go up. I’m surprised this post doesn’t enhance aviation in anyway, but how would it look to our industry if it went afoul? I’m all about aviation advances (except the flying car, I wish they would stop taking (stealing) investors money) and trying new things, but this Rademaker doesnt teach us anything. I prefer watching some guy in a wing-suit cross the English Channel.

    1. Good question. The SR22 aerobatics accident was quite a bit different because the pilot was grossly and repeatedly violating numerous regulations and operating limitations with aerobatic flying performed at perilously low altitude. He also spent a long time buzzing rather unforgiving terrain and did so on numerous occasions with passengers on board. I don’t believe he took any precautions or made any preparations for what he was doing, either. It wasn’t a carefully considered flight, but rather an impulsive action.

      For what it’s worth, airshow pilots have flown airplanes of that type in performances before. Super Vikings, Twin Commanders, Bonanzas, and many other ordinary GA airplanes have been used for air shows. Sean Tucker used to perform aerobatics in a Columbia 300. But there’s a huge difference between Tucker’s carefully planned and executed sequence and what that rogue SR22 pilot was doing.

      Rademaker’s flight may not have taught a revolutionary lesson, but he did bring attention to the capabilities of a flat-deck cargo ship that might have not been apparent before. I think only helicopters would have previously been able to land on a transport ship of that kind. The flat top might be useful for all sorts of applications. I recall that the earliest aircraft carriers were ships converted to that purpose. Could a flat top cargo carrier be useful for bringing people, parts, or supplies aboard via fixed wing aircraft if needed? Could civilian aircraft carriers ever be a possibility? Could they serve as emergency landing locations? There are an awful lot of GA airplanes capable of landing on a flat surface of that size, especially with a headwind across the deck.

      1. That is True. I totally forgot about Bob Hoover and his Twin commander and I didnt know about the C-300 in use. I did know that since Super Viking has a wood wing, the salesmen would actually perform A- Rolls on their demo/sales flights :-)

    2. I was a low time pilot at a friends house trying my hand at
      his simulator,my approach to land being a little low a crash was
      expected as I became inverted I applied power, pushed forward on
      the controls,gained a little altitude rolled over then did a go
      around and made a decent landing. His remark was,” You can’t do
      that. I said you never know until you try. My attitude has always
      been never panic, keep your cool. I could tell of many times it has
      got me out of some not so good situations. Sullys actions when he
      put that Airliner down in the river is a prime example of doing the
      only thing he could do without any sign of panic And that made a
      bad situation have a good ending.

  2. Life is full of risks. The bad part is if you take a risk in an airplane and you crash it can end up on national news. My daughter is a rock climber and races bicycles. My brother has 10,000 hours at or below 500 feet. I don’t feel I have the right to tell them not do to that because it risky.

    1. You’re right, airplanes are high visibility and frequent targets of the media, who always love a sensational story. The recent brouhaha over the Southwest pilot using the phrase “we’re going down” to 10,000 feet instead of “we’re descending” to 10k is a good example.

  3. Ron,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I am also one that feels that risk management is very situational and there is no “one size fits all” container for this stuff. You and the previous commenters have pointed out that there’s a pretty fine line between managing a risky operation and recklessness.

    I also love how you called out how we judge each other – harshly. There’s just two grades, hero or zero. I’m ok with that two, it serves a bit of peer pressure to stay on your game.

    Brent

    1. There’s certainly no shortage of Monday-morning quarterbacking when there is an accident… or, as in this case, even when there’s not.

      I don’t mind the second-guessing or harsh analysis, but it gets dangerous when folks start proposing ever-greater restrictions for general aviation. We’re barely hanging on as it is. Take away night VFR (“they don’t allow it in Mexico!”), prohibit GA over cities (“like they do in France!”), restrict E-AB aircraft (“safety above all else!”). And those are just a few of the arguments I’ve heard from pilots.

      Perhaps that’s why I find guys like Rademaker so refreshing. He’s not an impulsive loose cannon flying low level acro with passengers. He took a risk but did so with forethought and preparation in order to achieve a goal he felt was worthwhile.

  4. Jaap knew the risk and was willing to take it. If he messed, he gets hurt. It wasn’t like he was trying to land in a stadium full of people. There’s a bunch of couch critics out there. If any one of them were in Jaap’s shoes, they’d be defending their choice. Because they weren’t they become a couch critic. Kudos to Jaap for not being a drone.

  5. As a society America seems to have lost the ability to accept, even relish acceptable risks. Hence the plethora of regulations, government creep into ever more of our lives and freedoms, and frivolous lawsuits. It’s pretty sad and can’t end well for this country. That said, in the ship landing incident described, I wonder if the pilot discussed his plans with any experienced carrier pilots, or had a landing safety officer on board to help guide him in. The account he wrote discussed neither logical step. Acceptable risk is one thing–that is why we fly–reducing the odds of a serious problem is something else again.

    1. I’m not sure a carrier pilot would have been much help because Naval aviation is a different kind of flying. They’re putting relatively fast, heavy, stable, turbine powered aircraft onto an arresting system in what would be a crash for any other aircraft. Jaap was flying a virtual kite and had to maneuver around the ship’s “tower” to land. I think a Cub pilot who lands on little gravel bars in Alaska might be a better consult for this sort of operation. They’re using to landing extremely light airplanes in 50 foot spaces.

      1. Talking to Cub pilots makes sense to me. Although I believed he discussed some confusion about how far off the deck he actually was. My understanding is that a LSO directs the carrier pilot close to the deck, and that might have been helpful here. The way untrained sailors didn’t grab the wings in unison was also worrying. Although he did it, and that was impressive.

  6. Thank you sir. I really enjoyed this and completely agree. I’m working on my Commercial license and Instrument rating now and during my commercial solo cross countries, I’ve learned a lot of (self taught) lessons about risk every flight. I’m just under 200 hours and I already have stories of lessons learned but some risks should be taken to get you out of your comfort zone. It’s the only way we grow as pilots. I mean, who was really ‘right at home’ performing their first stall? Knowledge and execution.

  7. When I fly over the Great Lakes (with life preservers, very high, and only in the dead of summer), I keep an eye out for the freighter ships. I am fairly confident that if I absolutely had to I could get the 172 down on one of those decks. This ‘stunt’ shows that it is possible, and gives a little insight to the risks that are involved in trying it. I would probably just ditch near any boat or ship if it really came down to it…

    1. I do the same thing when I’m enroute to Catalina Island. I don’t think I’d necessarily try landing *on* a ship, but if I could land near one, with a bias toward the front end of the boat where I’m likely to be seen, I don’t imagine it’d take too long to get picked up. Especially if I called in a mayday beforehand.

    2. DANthis is my point if you try to land a 172 on a normal cargo tanker with all the normal things sticking up from the deck YOU WILL CRASH AND KILL YOUR SELF.ditching at sea is better.We don’t want to encourage pilots to try this stunt it is for special planes stol only the pilot did not have a lot of hours .He was lucky.

  8. Looking at the video of the Dutch pilot who landed on the cargo ship in the English Channel, it does not show any spotters in the water or any crew near the muster stations to deploy a life boat.

    Using Safety Equipment? The video shows that the pilot had on a wet suit but no other safety equipment was shown.

    “Advance Planning”? The video shows other aircraft shooting video, yes. Communication was made with the ship’s operator and crew for a short field takeoff. But, the article says the Dutch pilot admits that he did not even get the full names of the Maritime officers Aalbert and Tom. Professional stuntman know everyone involved with any life endangering stunt. The video does not show much advance planning.

    “Some Risk Involved”? A lot of risk actually. What if the plane had crashed into the water, the ship’s crew would have needed to deploy a rescue boat when the video does not show any crew at the port side life boat or their muster stations? Would the crew have endangered their own lives for a hurried rescue when they were not ready for it? Would the pilot be prosecuted criminally for reckless homicide if a crew member died? Did the ship’s captain or owners (not the ship’s operator) actually consent to this stunt?

    “Wright Brothers”? They performed their stunt with many people around who could render medical attention quickly. Flipping over the side of the cargo ship miles from shore without a manned rescue boat on-call is not remotely similar to the feat of the Wright Brothers.

    Reckless at best.

    1. A few corrections, if I may: first, it was a dry suit, not a wet suit. Big difference. I’m not sure what other equipment you could possibly carry in a Firefox. Second, the owner of the ship gave permission for the landing. Third, as far as spotters or crew are concerned, just because you don’t see them on the video doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

      You might not like his planning, but it was planned. He considered the potential loss of his aircraft, the effect of ending up in the water, and the almost certain denial of any claim against his insurance coverage. This wasn’t a professional film set or big production with a lot of money, so it makes no sense to compare his preparation to that of the U.S. Navy or other entity with what for all practical purposes would be an unlimited budget. The risks he took were his alone. He wasn’t going to do much damage to the ship even if he ran directly into it on purpose. A Firefox’s typical landing takes place in less distance (and on a narrower landing area) than that of the cargo ship’s top deck.

  9. The problem is not the act or even if it goes wrong. I say, go for it. I do not want to tell anyone what to do with his life. However if it were to go wrong and he if he had been killed it would certainly have a profound effect on the rest of us. His widow, orphaned child, parent or whomever would certainly stand in front of a judge demanding restitution from the aircraft manufacturer, the boat company, the individual suppliers that had parts on the aircraft or whomever had the deepest pockets. All it takes is a sad story and the court would grant a settlement for humanitarian reason since everyone knows aircraft companies have tons of money and this poor child has no father. One more aviation company down the tubes just to prove he could land on a container ship, or roll a cirrus, or stretch a fuel reserve. All that being said just think how sensational the video would have been if he’d crashed on deck and burst into flames. That would get a few YouTube hits.

    1. That’s an understandable concern, especially in the overly-litigious United States! It behooves us all to think about how our actions might harm the avocation we care so much about. However, I’m not sure a lawsuit would have made it very far in court. I don’t think it would have been a U.S. court anyway; the pilot is Dutch, and landing was on a foreign-registered ship sailing in the English Channel using an ultralight aircraft manufactured by a European company. The pilot was an investor in the company that built the cargo ship.

      I don’t see this as being analogous to rolling a Cirrus or pushing one’s fuel reserve.

  10. Chop and drop. It’s a FOX STOL . The Airshows performers Kent Pietch and Greg Koontz do this all the time with their super Cub , landing on the roof of a moving truck. Matt Bunch, you’re assuming the Stunt was not pre planned behind the scene. They may not be disclosing the details make it more dramatic … Like a Reality show ????

  11. I learned to fly in a Champ without an electrical system. Only way to get it started was to hand prop it. Dangerous? could be. Got the float plane rating in the J 3 which again had to be hand propped. No choice on how to start these planes. The sod strip near the city often had several training planes in the pattern, and no one had a radio. Never had a mid air as pilots knew they had to keep a sharp look out for other aircraft. Took my turn in the marginal freight planes and single pilot hard IFR flying. I ended up with a few corporate jet type ratings and met the new generation of pilots. Great knob twisters with the fancy glass avionics, and no need to look out the windows for traffic. Basic stick and rudder skills lacking. I suspect those moaning about Jaap making an excellent take off and landing from the ship have had little or no experience in light aircraft. Look at the tape again, and figure out what his ground roll on landing or take off amounted to. The guy was careful and safe. To those who are worried about ” risk”, the “what ifs” don’t ever take your car out of the garage – much better chance of getting hurt on the road.

    1. You sound like my kinda pilot, J.T.! I recently spent a few years flying, soloing, and teaching primary students in a J-3 Cub with no starter as well. At John Wayne Airport, surrounded by 757s, bizjets, helicopters, and all the rest! Not only was it tremendous fun, but those students turned out to be fantastic stick-and-rudder pilots who could also get in and out of the most congested airports and airspace in the country with ease. Truly the best of all possible worlds.

  12. You are absolutely correct. All “risk” is personal, subjectively determined, situational, and therefore difficult to formularize. The FAA, NTSB, business aviation, alphabet groups like AOPA or EAA, and instructor groups like SAFE and NAFI share a laudable goal of “reducing the GA accident rate”. But, to what? Zero? And what do we give up? Night and IFR operations in all piston aircraft? Eliminating mountain strips and other challenging (and high “risk” landing sites) where we see a higher accident rate? Eliminate manned ag operations, helicopter operations over wild fires, and other “high hazard” environments? Only when we know the officially sanctioned socially acceptable accident rate can we prune the high hazard operations that contribute disproportionately to the current “unacceptable” GA statistic.

  13. I totally agree with Lundsburg. As an ex-USAF fighter pilot and Apollo astronaut I think I can say with validity that I’m not overly risk-adverse. But as a past Squadron Flying Safety Office with over 12000hrs military & GA I think Rapp is irresponsible in his brushing off this silly Utube stunt. This kind of show off stuff encourages impressionable new pilots of the Risk Generation and mis-calibrates them to make balanced judgment’s for the real hazards of flying. if Rademaker had slid off the ship & drowned I would have been pleased to nominate him for a Darwin award but hardly the Wright Trophy!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Gen. Anders. I admire your many achievements for our space program, aerospace industry, and GA sector. I’d certainly never describe anyone who flew into space — let alone to the moon! — as overly risk-averse.

      I must admit, it is surprising to hear you refer to this as the Risk Generation, because my impression is that on average, today’s pilots (outliers aside) seem to be *less* risk-prone than those of past generations. I wonder, would the kind of person who’d watch a Youtube video and then attempt to duplicate it — something I’m sure even Mr. Rademaker would not encourage — be the kind of individual whose ingrained sense of judgment was so flawed that they were going to come to grief one way or another anyway?

  14. It is not like he didn’t make some careful preparations. Look carefully at the deck. The hatch securing cutouts have been filled with wood blanks to smooth the deck even further. He is wearing a PFD. He has another aircraft along (helicopter?) as a camera plane and presumably to pick him out the water and as I estimated on another forum somewhere else the ship is steaming at 10 knots or so into a 15-20 knot wind. (I’m more familiar with the English Channel weather than I would like from many years crossing it under sail). So he has 25-30 knots on the desk to allow a low touch down speed. Seems like he thought about it and the worst that would be hurt if it went wrong was himself. That ship is also an extremely expensive only one year old ship. I’m sure the owners performed a risk assessment and balanced it against the publicity they hoped to achieve. Good for him.

  15. As with everything in life, there is a comfort level for everyone that is defined by their experience, their personal rules and values. The people that decide to judge someone else most often are criticizing something that is clearly outside of their comfort zone. You do not know what you don’t know, unless you were there and part of the team or have done it by yourself. With the comfort zone it is somewhat similar to changing lanes in traffic. A race-car driver is comfortable to “change lanes” within inches of distance to the car in front or behind him, because the differential speed is maybe 2 or 3 mph. My wife is uncomfortable if I get closer than two car lengths to any car in front of me, no matter what the speed. Go to LA and people have a smaller comfort zone (one car legth and less) in traffic just because of the density of traffic, the experience and the frequency of exposure.
    Looking at the video of the landing of Jaap, I could see that he did several approaches while (I am assuming) he was testing out the turbulence caused by the bow of the ship and maintaining a higher relative speed and keeping higher margins in his speed. Only after several approaches did he find the confidence in getting slower and lower. The relative speed of his aircraft upon touchdown was close to zero. If there was a risk that I would have seen in that situation, the only potential that I see that could have caused concern to me, was not staying at the controls while the aircraft was standing. This was obviously taken care of by the people who were holding down the aircraft after the landing and also during takeoff. The potential of injury through inertia (relative speed multiplied with mass) was technically speaking very low.
    Every one of my flights of my 30 years of flying had more potential of injury through inertia than the landing of Jaap on the freighter. That is a fact that I can tell as an engineer. Unfortunately here in the US everything is driven by the fear factor and the comfort zones of those that are the loudest and think that their “Model of the World” should be applied to everyone else. Thus the ever encroaching limitations on our freedoms to regulate everything and stifling and stopping growth. No growth means you are dead by law of nature. If it weren’t for people like Jaap and the Wright brothers or Amelia Earheart and Nicola Tesla, we would not be able to write these comments in these virtual boxes that are then seen by as many people as there are interested in seeing it. Thanks Ron for putting this up.

  16. Ron, Thanks for a well written article. Could it be that we
    have become so safety minded that we are now dangerous? The right
    stuff guys who pioneered the aviation system we have do not share
    the current soccer mom mentality that exists in today’s aviation
    world. Let’s remember that we are still taking thousands of pounds
    of metal/fiberglass through the sky at hundreds of miles per hour,
    in all weather conditions and various states of mind and repair
    with other pilots whose training, background and experience levels
    may be very different than our own. Ad to that the family issues of
    pilots who still might be thinking about the conflict their wife
    gave them as they left the house and the IRS case they might soon
    face and one can distinctly understand that aviation is not 100
    percent soccer mom safe. Ad to that the fact that many modern
    pilots have used the autopilot so much and so habitually that they
    are no longer capable of passing a hand flown check ride, if in
    fact they ever were. I think you did a great job of listing
    everyday situations such as ice, crosswinds, short runways, low
    fuel, etc…that pilots must assess and also in emphasizing the
    risk assessment considerations that must be made for each flight.
    Not just the general ones. The FAA can’t make enough rules to keep
    everyone from getting hurt in every situation. That requires
    personal judgement and experience and still does not guarantee 100
    percent soccer mom safety. When I hear stories about 727 captains
    who refuse to shoot anything but an ILS approach and that their
    hands get clammy on the controls when the autopilot is turned off,
    it causes me to wonder what degree of aviation competence we are
    maintaining across the board. From what I know of Bob Hoover and
    Chuck Yeager, I think it would be safe to say that they would be
    very much at home with their pilot skills and personal judgement
    without clammy hands upon autopilot disconnect or failure. If we
    lose the pioneer spirit that got us where we are in aviation, I
    think it could be argued that we will eventually have to move to a
    completely automated system where the aircraft of the future have
    one dog and one pilot. The pilot being there to feed the dog and
    the dog being there to bite the pilot if he touches anything. We
    are not far from that even as we speak and as the drone crash of
    the last week proved to us so clearly, that’s not safe either.
    Jay

    1. “Could it be that we have become so safety minded that we are now dangerous?” You just blew my mind with that one Jay! But perhaps the law of unintended consequences does apply to some aspects of today’s flying culture. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment…

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