A few months ago, a pilot in Australia, Rod Lovell, contacted me about a book he wrote titled From Hero to Zero. The book details his experience ditching a DC-3 shortly after takeoff, the subsequent investigation, and the effect of that investigation on his aviation career. Having written a book about an aircraft ditching myself and another book about a botched accident investigation, it sounded like an interesting story.
The first section of the book details Rod’s flying experience before the accident. I was struck by how similar his background was to mine. I didn’t start in the military like Rod, but we both spent a lot of time in general aviation. We both also had instances where our aviation careers were derailed by people with ulterior motives.
Aviation has always been a cyclical industry. Some people have perfect timing and have never experienced unemployment. Rod and I both had the misfortune of rotten timing.
I soloed at age 15 and have been flying ever since. But I have also had long stretches of unemployment. In some cases, my unemployment was my fault. In other instances, I had no control over the events that took me out of the cockpit. The same is true for Rod, with one exception. When Rod had his pilot’s license suspended for questionable reasons, his path back to the cockpit was blocked.
The incident that caused such heartache for Rod occurred on April 24, 1994. Shortly after takeoff, with the co-pilot flying, the left engine failed. Rod took control. He feathered the left engine but soon discovered that the aircraft was unable to climb. With only seconds to analyze the situation, Rod chose to ditch straight ahead into Botany Bay. Everyone survived.
The subsequent investigation zeroed in on Rod from the beginning. The aircraft was overweight; he waited too long to take control; he should have been able to return to the airport or land on a nearby runway under construction. Investigators glossed over details such as the fact that the left propeller didn’t feather fully, and both engines had maintenance issues, including a large percentage of spark plugs that were not working correctly, if at all. The investigators didn’t consider Rod’s claim that the aircraft wasn’t generating enough power from the right engine to overcome the loss of the left engine. They didn’t account for the limited time he had to assess the situation.
There is no question in my mind that Rod made the right decision that day. There’s also no question that if given a chance, without interference from authorities and a faulty safety report, Rod could have continued his career as I have.
Rod talks about suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His PTSD, however, is not related to the ditching. It’s related to the treatment he has received in the years since. “It’s been the last twenty-five years of callous treatment by the authorities that has caused me endless grief,” Rod states. “My desire to right a wrong has been my overwhelming priority for 25 years to the point where not a day goes by without my thoughts turning to how to resolve the issue.”
It’s too late for Rod’s book to help right the wrong done to him, but perhaps someone from the agencies involved can acknowledge their complicity.