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 it.
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 actions?
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 90% determinative.
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 respond.
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 stuff.
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 more, too.
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 enough.
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, dangerous flying?
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 immune.
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 Darwin Award.
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 buddies.
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
Comment by Chris Brandon 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 flight.
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 NO decisions.
M - Medication (are we under any influences that may affect our judgement.
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.