The Ethics of Bailing Out

This week, on the same day, two aircraft from premier military display teams (the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels) crashed. One pilot ejected and survived, the other remained with the aircraft and tragically did not. In both cases, the media credited the pilot with heroically maneuvering his aircraft to avoid casualties on the ground. Captain Kuss, the Blue Angel tragically lost, left behind a young family. As a pilot and father of two I’m personally heartbroken at his loss.

I’m hesitant to speculate on the reasons these accidents happened and why the individual pilots made the choices they made. Very few pilots have been faced with the split second decision about whether or not to pull the ejection handle to save themselves, and since I’m not one of them I don’t think I’m qualified to sit in judgement of these men.

However, I do fly aerobatic aircraft and I do wear a parachute. I also know that in the stress of an emergency, your mind will tend to take over and automatically perform the actions that you’ve thought about or practiced the most. So if you’ve mentally trained yourself to eject under certain conditions, you’ll eject. If you haven’t, you won’t. I’m sure that both of these men had thought through countless scenarios many times and I’m sure their mental practice played a part in their individual decisions.

Making the decision to wear a parachute (or fly an aircraft with an ejection seat) requires that we think about the ethical responsibilities pilots bear when making the decision to leave an aircraft in an emergency. Due to the nature of aircraft emergencies, even a moment’s indecision can be the difference in survival — even having this thought cross your mind during the event could be deadly. The issue must be settled before the aircraft leaves the ground. (For those really interested in diving into the thought that most pilots give to bailout or ejection, an interesting analysis of the human factors in delayed ejection decisions can be found here, and a great series of articles by Allen Silver about the necessity of being mentally prepared to bail out are here. A fascinating video of airshow pilot Sean Tucker discussing his bailout after suffering a control failure is here. There is, surprisingly, little on the internet regarding the ethics of leaving a disabled aircraft).

Sean Tucker discusses his experience bailing out of his disabled aerobatic aircraft.

In 2011, at an airshow in Duxford, England, a P-51 Mustang and an A-1 Skyraider collided at low level. The A-1 was able to land with part of its wing missing, but the pilot of the P-51 had to perform a manual bailout and survived. A manual bailout requires that the pilot make the decision to leave the aircraft (something that surprisingly takes more than a second or two), release the aircraft canopy, unbuckle his seat belt, exit the aircraft, and manually deploy his chute. In this case, roughly 18 seconds passed from the time of the collision to the time the P-51 hit the ground. The envelope for successfully getting out of the aircraft was smaller. Some incredible photos of the event and this close up video show how little time the pilot had to make this happen. In this case the canopy left the aircraft two to three seconds after the collision occurred and the pilot exited the aircraft ten to twelve seconds later. The chute started to deploy within two seconds and did not fully deploy until a second or two after the aircraft hit the ground. Had the pilot waited just two to three seconds, the outcome would have been different. He survived because he’d settled the argument of when to bail out in his mind before he even left the ground, and clearly he had mentally practiced what he would do if he had to get out of the aircraft quickly. The point is there is no time to have an internal ethics debate with yourself about whether or not you should bail out.

Duxford Airshow Bailout

In 2010, a Canadian Air Force CF-18 was practicing for an airshow in Alberta, Canada. During a low level, high alpha pass a small part on one of the engines “stuck”, causing asymmetric thrust, which at low speeds leads to a loss of control of the aircraft. The video of the event is dramatic, to say the least. The pilot survived the ejection. Making this a little more personal for me was the fact that a close friend flying in this airshow was watching from his aircraft in the run-up area. He watched the CF-18 crash a few hundred feet away from him.

Low level ejection from an CF-18

It’s easy to say that pilots have a responsibility to avoid casualties on the ground — but do they always? Does a military pilot who has been ordered to fly low level aerobatic maneuvers over a populated area have a moral responsibility to sacrifice his life because of the decisions of those who wrote the orders? It’s heroic that Captain Kuss made that choice, but if he had chosen instead to eject, would he have been wrong?

And at what point does the pilot’s moral responsibility end? For instance, I make a (bad and illegal) decision to fly aerobatics over a populated area. While maneuvering, the wing spar fails (a one in a billion event). Out of control, there is now a 100% chance someone on the ground is going to get hurt and there is nothing I can do to prevent it. I have plenty of time to get out. Do I? Should I? What if my death will leave behind a young family?

In the case of the Duxford crash, no one on the ground was hurt, but had someone been injured or killed on the ground, would the P-51 pilot have borne a moral responsibility for it? By accounts the aircraft was uncontrollable, but what if it had remained controllable enough to avoid casualties on the ground at the expense of the pilot’s life?

The purpose of these questions is not to judge — again most people on the planet are not qualified to sit in judgement of these men. The purpose is to help pilots determine what their personal criteria are before the next time they strap on a parachute. The more you settle these questions in your mind before you fly, the less likely you’ll waste precious seconds making the decision if you’re faced with it.

Any pilot that wears a parachute must come to terms with the consequences (moral and otherwise) of leaving a disabled aircraft before they leave the ground. Understanding the consequences is complex and morally hazardous and cannot be done in the precious few seconds that are afforded when confronted with a life or death decision in the air. Those that have never been confronted with having to make that decision should tread carefully when sitting in judgement of those that have.

Godspeed, Captain Kuss.

Those wishing to help the family of Captain Kuss are encouraged to donate here.

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