I found and read this on Free To Adventure site written by one
David Zuniga. I think its important enough for all flex micro
pilots to read.
Original article can be found at
Between April 21, 2010 and May 17, 2011 there were three
similar trike crashes in Hawaii, each resulting in two
fatalities. Six deaths in 13 months, all over water. The
last four deaths should have been avoided, and might have been,
if the flying community had done its job, as I'll explain.
An old aphorism holds that there are old pilots and there are
bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. The
aphorism comes from generations of tragic lessons. If these
three lessons don’t teach trike pilots not to conduct overwater
flights with passengers, then I recommend we grant the Darwin
Award to the next pilot who kills himself in an overwater crash.
People have commented elsewhere on freetoadventure.com that Steve
Sprague was a great pilot and all of the usual condolences after
a fatal accident. The deceased pilot was a great guy, the
very best…don’t know how it happened…blah, blah. I submit
that these commenters either didn’t know Steve Sprague very well
or are trying to be polite. Of course it’s heartbreaking
that Steve killed himself and his passenger; what’s needed now to
hopefully prevent more such avoidable ‘accidents’ is blunt
honesty. If my friend Steve was still here, I’d kick his
ass. But because he refused to take the obvious lesson from
the irresponsible flying of Tedd Hecklin and Jim Gaither before
him, Steve was the most irresponsible – I’d say criminally
negligent – of the three.
It’s critical to the future of our sport and to the lives of
future trusting passengers that pilots exercise sound
judgment. So I'll disagree with these glowing assessments
of Steve’s piloting with actual data from my personal experience
with him, and then I’ll offer up a few other hard cautionary
tales of tragedy.
Young pilots need to hear from old pilots like me because, as
with some other sports, flying can be totally unforgiving.
As you read this story, think of the pilot or pilots that
you know, whose flying style throws up red flags for. I
think all of us have a duty to confront such pilots before they
kill a passenger.
I distinguish between solo flying (Part 103 or otherwise) and
carrying trusting passengers. In a free country, I say that
what a man does with his own life is between him, God, and his
life insurance company; but when you involve a passenger –
especially when you do so for hire, advertising the relative
safety of our sport and yet operating in a foolhardy manner,
every responsible pilot you know should call you out for
If more of us confronted the ‘bold’ pilots in our lives that way,
it might help the Darwin Award winners from destroying our sport,
raising our life insurance rates, and destroying the families of
those who are the passenger on their final joy ride.
My triking instructors were Paul Hamilton and Samantha Moore in
Carson City; professional operators and meticulous about their
aircraft and operations. But when I returned to Texas,
Steve was the only trike instructor in our area so after my
initial training I took about an hour of dual time with him, and
I saw red flag #1.
At Steve’s home airport as we assembled the wing on his training
aircraft, the old Aquilla looked as though it had been sitting
for a decade in the sun and had endured many hard landings.
The airframe was so un-airworthy in fabric, fittings, tubes, and
gear that as we were taxiing to takeoff, I knew better than to go
aloft. The old Aquilla was not the trike that Steve and his
passenger died in; my point is that Steve was definitely not a
conservative pilot. Any pilot who knew him should have
known that, but his vacationing passengers had no idea; that’s
the worse tragedy. Perhaps because Steve’s father had been
with FAA for years, he felt he was genetically
immune to the consequences of irresponsible
Red flag #2 came when I noticed that Steve’s training area
was under the floor of the Randolph Air Force training base
MOA. Low-time jet jockeys blast along at closing speeds
that will blow you away like a bug before you can spot their
approach. I was fairly new in trikes but had been a
fixed-wing pilot for 30 years and I never felt uneasy about
flying with Paul Hamilton or Samantha Moore. After that
day, I never flew with Steve again.
Red flag #3 for me with Steve Sprague came when I learned that he
was also operating a ‘balloon adventures’ business and had been
accused by many past clients of ethical lapses. I did a
search for his name and ‘balloon adventures’ on Google and found
the San Antonio BBB site. I discovered that he had an
accident that was nearly fatal to one of his balloon
passengers. Rather than reconsidering his activities in
that sport, his posts all denied any wrongdoing or judgment
lapses. He continued operating as before, with more
complaints about his ethics. Business ethics is not
directly related to airmanship but it indicates judgment; when
you read “pilot error” in an NTSB report, judgment is
Red flag #4 with Steve Sprague was after I had finished
assembling a new DTA Voyager – an expensive SUV-style airframe,
the most robust in the industry. Since there was no one
else in the San Antonio area, we hired Steve to be our test
pilot. He started to taxi out for the initial test
flight…with his safety harness dangling along behind him.
We waved him down to signal him to buckle up. In an
enclosed aircraft, it’s a basic checklist item, but in an open
DTA Voyager your harness is a life-safety item.
Then came red flag #5, when Steve posted videos of himself
committing clear FAR violations, flying a trike at night over
terrain where no possibility of emergency landing existed.
I emailed him about it; he didn’t acknowledge the email or
Red flag #6 came for me after Steve moved to Kauai for a clean
start, far from his past ballooning accident and reputation.
No one knew him in Hawaii. Those who signed up to fly
with him had no idea what kind of judgment this pilot had; they
would log onto his site and read glowing testimonials from past
joy-riders visiting Hawaii and being treated to breath-taking
flights over forbidding mountains, waterfalls, and 10,000 foot
deep ocean! When I saw Steve’s new website videos, I
emailed him, strongly advising him not to operate overwater with
passengers. No response, no acknowledgment.
Red flag #7 was when I noticed that Steve advertised his Kauai
sightseeing tours as ‘introductory flight training’, to avoid the
stricter FAA regulations for tour operators. As with most
balloon and helicopter joyride operations, customers assume that
the operator is proficient and of sound judgment. When
passengers sign a liability waiver, they sign away their life –
or at least make it nearly impossible for the family of the dead
passenger to sue the operation for the pilot doing something that
any responsible commercial operator should never do.
Federal Aviation Regulations Part 103 makes triking and flying
powered paragliders a self-regulating community; we fly under our
own recognizance under Part 103 because the pilot can only kill
himself. Yet an LSA pilot can, by bending the rules as
Steve did, operate for hire and seemingly follow the letter of
the FARs with respect to equipment and certificates, yet still
operate as a ‘bold’ pilot, making all our lives harder when he
dies. Witnesses said that they saw the trike “doing steep
turns no more than 60 feet from rock cliffs”, and that looks just
like what you see on his website videos. Darwin Award
This article is designed to be such self-regulation; a cautionary
tale to all my fellow pilots who may call me dirty names for
saying hard, true things…but just because you can do something, doesn’t
mean you should
do it. THINK before you fly.
Steve Sprague was trained and knowledgeable; he knew perfectly
well that overwater flight even with a BRS, poses fatal risk for
pilot and passenger in case of in-flight failure. Not only
structural (as may have been the case here) but even in an
engine-out failure. Jim Gaither, the ‘instructor’ (tour
operator) that Steve replaced on Kauai had killed himself and a
passenger in the ocean just 90 days before Steve’s fatal
crash. Why did Steve refuse to heed the fatal lesson given
to him by Jim’s crash in the ocean off Kauai that killed
passenger Kim Buergel? Why did Steve refuse to learn from
the double fatality (Ted Hecklin of Ted’s Flying Adventures and
passenger Grace Moran) one year prior, on the big island?
The lesson is: no
overwater flight in a trike without floats.
Three pilots took the lives of others as well as their own.
As the third on in Hawaii in 13 months, Steve not only knew
better; he had been warned about that specific danger and did it
anyway because he was criminally negligent and misrepresenting to
the public what kind of operation he was running so that he
wouldn’t have to face FAA scrutiny of his operation. Just
because he could. Similarly, the flights he was
doing over forbidding granite mountains with no possible
emergency landing spots, pose just as grave a life-safety threat:
zero error margin for pilot, airframe, or powerplant. Steve
knew this, but didn’t give a damn because Steve was a bold
pilot. Steve was immune.
Ask yourself…is this your attitude when you fly?
If it is, then for you, carrying passengers is criminally
negligent. I don’t know what Ray Foreman’s widow (who took
a “training flight” with Steve to celebrate his 25th
anniversary) or his 10-year-old son think about it, but Steve’s
persistent bullheadedness and daredevil flying cost them their
husband and father.
So yes, I’d kick his ass today if I could. But I’m not
singling Steve out here; I mentioned Tedd and Jim, the other two
Darwin Award winning pilots in Hawaii. I’ll offer a few
Over 20 years ago when I flew ultralights, a friend named Bobby
in south Texas used to be a daredevil, flying aerobatics in
unrated ultralights; even landing atop a moving semi-trailer just
to prove that he could! Watching Bobby fly was always an
edge-of-your-seat proposition; he was incredibly skillful, but
Darwin’s Law catches up. We all should have given Bobby a
hard kick in the ass and a good chewing out…but none of us ever
did. We in the ultralight community screwed up because
today, my friend Bobby is a quadriplegic. Not from a flying
accident; the stunt that finally did him in was a long wheelie at
high speed on a superbike in traffic.
When you hear a spirit of immunity and invincibility in a pilot,
who speaks highly of his qualifications yet exhibits bad judgment
– call him out on it. Then tell someone
else. If they’re married, tell his wife to watch him
carefully, and if you have mutual friends who fly, have them tag
him too. If he offers rides to passengers, for free or for
hire, tell your FAA FSDO if you think the pilot is dangerous
Considering themselves immune to the aviation community’s
collective wisdom, these pilots give all of sport aviation an
undeserved reputation with the public and with life insurance
underwriters. These pilots go up when they shouldn’t…they
fly in places that they shouldn’t – where there’s no chance of
making an emergency landing…they fly in such a manner as to
always appear very courageous – or at least like a lot of fun, to
people who have no idea of the life safety issues. These
pilots invite a tragedy. Then they brag about it; they
publish photos and videos.
Is it right for the rest of us to remain mute? Should we
offer them posthumous kudos for being “a great pilot and a great
guy”, when the public is depending on our collective judgment to
self-regulate our sport? If we remain quiet about these
fools, who deserves the Darwin Award more – them? Or us,
for keeping quiet about what we know very well is stupid,
Your aircraft’s airworthiness is as critical to your life as your
airmanship, weather decisions, or decision to fly over impossible
terrain or water. My friend Roger Nathanson was president
of the Kerrville, Texas EAA chapter not far from my home.
I’m a Christian and Roger was atheist, but we still got
along wonderfully. I considered him a meticulous pilot and
mechanic, and as a person he was just a prince of a guy.
Unlike Steve and Bobby, my friend Roger was no daredevil.
But believing you’re immune to airworthiness issues can kill you
just as dead.
In March 2009, Roger bought a used Northwing trike from Oklahoma
and had it trailered to Kerrville. When it arrived, we
inspected it at my airport. Being a structural engineer, I
pointed out that both wing spar tubes had undergone severe
localized flexural stress at the same point. Inadequate
support and attendant abrasion and cyclical impact loading on the
long trailer ride evidenced incipient stress fracture at both
locations after 800 miles of bouncy trailering. I made
Roger promise me that he’d replace those spar tubes. I
should have followed the rule I mentioned earlier; should have
told his wife not to let him fly until he replaced those
spars. I just assumed Roger would follow through. He
promised but didn’t do it. A successful business owner, it
was no question of money; Roger just didn’t install new wing
spars because even though an engineer had shown him the incipient
failure points in his wings…Roger felt
On May 24, 2009 the news reported that Roger and his passenger,
Dr. Jim Stokes of Kerrville on a ‘training ride’, had died.
The trike had no BRS; witnesses said they saw one wing ‘flapping’
as the trike spun in from altitude.
That totally avoidable double fatality was worse than ‘pilot
error’; beyond a reasonable doubt it was criminal
negligence. Two stress-fractured wings spars were not
replaced; the wreckage photos confirmed it, as I reported to the
local FSDO. Damn it, why do some pilots feel immune when
they intend to carry innocent passengers!?
My responsibility to my fellow aviators (on this site and in
general) is to ask you as you watch such videos right here on
this site…is this a good thing for the future of personal liberty
and of our sport? Anybody that knows me is aware that I
have always complained about the draconian, tyrannical way that
the FAA conducts itself. It just infuriates me that a
government agency is so damned hard on us when all we want is the
freedom to fly. Those who know me, are well aware of my
position about the Nanny State, and liberty of the skies.
As I said at the outset of this long tirade, I make a distinction
for pilots flying Part 103 or flying solo, as with PPGs.
Each man’s life is his own and we’re all going to die sooner or
later; what you do with your life is between you, God, and your
life insurance company. Some people consider the risk worth
the excitement. That’s fine.
But manslaughter is different. When you carry a passenger –
especially passengers for hire – and you fly recklessly, that’s
ALL our concern. It’s definitive criminal negligence, and
that kind of ‘pilot error’ should bring serious legal liability
for the pain and torment and life difficulties it brings to those
left behind. At the very least, your dangerous practices should
bring public scorn from those of us who know you. We owe it
to you and our sport to call out your real irresponsibility
rather than paper over your funeral (and that of your victim)
with platitudes about your having been “a great guy”.
If you’re a ‘bold’ pilot, give the rest of us a break and go
skydiving without a chute. If you’re a responsible pilot of
any ultralight or light sport aircraft and you know pilots like
the ones I’ve been describing, you owe it to our sport to report
that fool’s operations to those who love him – or to the FAA, if
the fellow is a real hardhead. I wish I’d done that with
Steve and Bobby.
If you fly a powered paraglider or are carrying a passenger in
your trike, never fly over water. Any aircraft without
sufficient glide altitude and not float-equipped and rated has no
business in overwater flight. All trike pilots should
enforce this simple rule with our fellow pilots who aspire to the
Never fly over harsh, forbidding terrain with no emergency
landing potential or operate your aircraft in a death-defying
style if you have a passenger. As soon as you take on a
passenger, (s)he puts his/her life in your hands. However
competent you think you are, and however invincible – at least
respect the lives of others.
By all means, pray for Steve Sprague’s family. But if he
had lived through it, I’d kick his ass. I pray for the
families of Grace Moran, Kim Buergel, Ray Foreman, and Jim Stokes
– those pilots’ unwitting passengers. I pray that everyone
who reads my words will learn the lesson of these eight people’s
deaths. Four passengers trusted the judgment of four ‘bold’
pilots whose pilot friends were too easy on their stupid pilot
If you love them, don’t be easy on them. I promise
I won’t be.
Comment by David Zuniga
on November 5, 2011 at 3:51pm
Yes, I know (before anyone else says it)...I found a YouTube
video of trike flying over Kauai's formidable, jagged mountains
and out over the ocean...featuring none other than my trike
flying instructor, Paul Hamilton -- the man who wrote the book on
WSC training. As far as I know, Paul was flying solo
on that flight but in any case, it's insane. Trike flying
fatality statistics will certainly not improve until we all
get serious about our responsiblility to one another and to those
you take flying.
Comment by Chris
on November 4, 2011 at 9:16am
You speak my language. All forms of flight require discipline,
respect and absolute air-man-ship!
Been flying some 40 yrs in delta wings, from the 1970 kite
flying days to hang gliding and since 1982, microlights.
In my life I have lost many friends who as pilots sadly allowed
their judgement of facts over-ride the true indicators of safe
Your words are strong, correct and refect courage.
Providing the trike manufacturers build there machines to an
approved Quality Control Method of Practice, all we need to do
as respsonsible pilots is to fly with a simple rule: Are we
RAMBO is our aircraft AIRWORTHY.
R - Rested, have we slept well & of clear MIND.
A - Attitude, do we have the sound attitude to make good YES or
M - Medication (are we under any influences that may affect our
B - 8 Hours Bottle to the Throttle (minimum)
O - Organise, are we and our aircraft organised, certified and
safe to command the flight we are attempting.
Sadly, the loss of life in aviation reflects on us all, usually
in a negative manner.
Good decisions are the integrity of sound AIR-MAN-SHIP.
Smooth flight my friend.