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My compliments to SP Guide Publications for informative and credible reportage on contemporary aerospace issues over the past six decades.

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Richard McSpadden (1960–2023)

McSpadden once wrote, “Flying has brought so much to my life – in many ways has been my life..... I feel a growing urge to give back, cast a wider net, and expose more people to this splendid experience that can change the trajectory of a life.

Issue: 01-2024By Joseph Noronha

Every accident is lamentable. But when Richard McSpadden, the 63-year-old senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Air Safety Institute (ASI) of the USA died in a plane crash on October 1, 2023, it seemed particularly senseless. The ill-fated aircraft was a single-engine Cessna Cardinal 177RG owned by Lake Placid Flying Service. McSpadden was in the right seat, which is usually not pilot in command in general aviation aircraft. And Russ Francis, former National Football League (NFL) player and long-time aviator, was in the left seat. The purpose of the flight that took off from the Lake Placid Airport was a formation flying photo mission for AOPA Pilot magazine. McSpadden, a former member of the United States Air Force (USAF) “Thunderbirds” team, had many years of experience as a formation pilot and would have taken over the controls for the photoshoot portion of the flight.

However the Cardinal, piloted by Francis, reportedly experienced a critical emergency shortly after take-off and turned back. Unfortunately, it failed to make the runway. Both pilots were conscious after the crash but died before they could be extricated from the wreckage. Later an observer on the ground reported that he had heard the engine shut down and then restart after about 10 seconds. How could McSpadden, a pilot so committed to flight safety, who had spent years spreading the message of general aviation safety, and whose incisive reports on air crashes had served to guide others on how to avert tragedy, have himself fallen victim to death by accident?

Richard McSpadden was born on June 9, 1960, in Panama City, Florida. He began flying as a teenager, inspired by his father who was also a pilot. His childhood interest turned into a flying career of over 5,000 hours on both military and civilian aircraft. Richard taught his son to fly and instructed his daughter to fly solo in the family’s Piper Super Cub plane. He served in the USAF for 20 years. A highlight of this period was his role as the commander and flight leader of the elite USAF Thunderbirds squadron that specialises in a gripping combination of formation and solo aerobatics. Flying in the No. 1 position in a General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon, he led 126 public flight demonstrations. After his retirement from the USAF, he became a commercial pilot and soon acquired the certified flight instructor, multi-engine land, single-engine seaplane, and multi-engine seaplane ratings. He also worked in the field of information technology.

During his tenure as leader of the ASI, McSpadden modernised the AOPA’s safety education facility by harnessing the power of YouTube. He introduced a special video series that focused on expanding pilots’ knowledge and skills and improving the general aviation safety atmosphere. It quickly became popular across the US. The general aviation community also came to know McSpadden through his monthly column for AOPA Pilot magazine, where he related interesting stories from his personal and professional flying days to spread the message of safety. In general, he promoted five safety principles: Take knowledgeable pilots, train them well, keep them proficient, have them fly reliable modern aircraft, and surround them by a culture that promotes good decision making.

Another very useful initiative was the Early Analysis series where McSpadden would use the ASI YouTube channel to try and analyse aircraft crashes, sharing known information and proposing possible safety measures to help other pilots learn from the mishap. This was helpful because official accident investigations could continue for one to two years before a final report was released and the probable cause determined. McSpadden’s tireless efforts were largely responsible for strengthening the culture of aviation safety, making the present era the safest ever for general aviation in America.

Naturally, the aviation community in the US were stunned at the tragic demise of Richard McSpadden. If a highly experienced pilot so dedicated to safety could lose his life in this way, did this not show how dangerous all forms of aviation could be? Should not other pilots think twice before being so foolhardy as to defy gravity? However, it was not what McSpadden either believed or advocated. In one of his popular columns he wrote, “Flying has brought so much to my life – in many ways has been my life..... I feel a growing urge to give back, cast a wider net, and expose more people to this splendid experience that can change the trajectory of a life.” He only urged pilots to be well informed about the principles of flight safety and stick to them. Every column he wrote ended with his trademark call: “Go fly.” As Captain Jack Savage remarked in the aviation themed movie, Fate is the Hunter, “When your number’s up, why fight it, right? And if it’s not, why worry about it?”