Thursday, May 14, 2009

'Fortunately, only the pilot was killed.'

Whenever a single-engine plane or a commuter jet goes down in some tree-lined suburb and the disaster that could easily have resulted somehow is avoided, the media typically report the news in language that reduces to the line I chose for the title of this post.

Five years ago today
at around breakfast-time on May 14, 2004a small courier turboprop went down outside BWI; the "only the pilot" who was killed was my nephew, 34-year-old Capt. Thomas Lennon. It must have taken a heroic bit of last-minute piloting ingenuity for Tommy to crash-land the plane—a notoriously troublesome Mitsubishi MU-2*—in someone's driveway. He surely could have taken out a row of homes in the middle-class neighborhood.

Tommy Lennon was the youngest of my older sister's five children and her only son; he had been married for just a few years. Most folks thought he bore a striking resemblance to his father, who also died at a tragically young age, in his case of cardiomyopathy. Tom
Sr. had once been a pilot, and young Tom's dream was to follow in Dad's footsteps. It took a great deal of diligence—for one thing, Tommy stood 6-7, and the Navy deemed him too tall for the cockpit of its jets. But Tommy persevered. He took private training, and after a number of menial flying jobs that he worked mostly (if not entirely) to accumulate the requisite flying hours, USAirways gave him his first real set of wings. What a proud moment that was in the family. A picture of Tommy, resplendent in his new pilot's uniform, is prominently-yet-tastefully displayed in my sister's living room. He lost that job in the carnage that befell the U.S. airline industry in the wake of 9/11, and had to settle for a position piloting cargo aircraftlike the MU-2that tend to lack some of the safeguards, redundant systems and overall refinements built into today's commercial jets. Thus, in a sense, did my nephew become one of the many unsung victims of September 11.

Tommy was a joy to know and be around. He was a good kid, a nice kid—the kind of guy of whom acquaintances said, "He'll do anything for you," and it wasn't just something to say. Yet Tommy managed this without ever seeming corny or nerdy. Pa
rt of it was his devilish sense of humor. His sister Christine, who now lives in Boston, might fall back on the local vernacular in describing her brother's wit as "wicked sharp"...and oh was it ever! When we were all younger and got together more frequently, the occasion never passed that those of us sitting nearest him weren't convulsed in laughter due to some patented Tommyism. Did he have his faults? Of course he did. He was human, like the rest of us. Maybe I'd have to concede that he drove his sportscar a bit too fast, a bit too often. (I'm told that is common among pilots, as among race-car drivers. When you're used to zooming through the skies at 550 mph, I suppose 65 doesn't seem like much.) But this is not like those eulogies where mourners have to strain to find positive things to say, selectively editing the narrative of the deceased's life or the laundry list of his personality traits. You didn't have to go to any special lengths to make my nephew sound good.

We celebrate far fewer family occasions nowadays, as the kids all move deeper into their independent lives and concentrate on their own busy family schedules. Like the ever-expanding universe, the relationships veer off in other directions, far from the original nucleus that bound us years ago, when Kathy and the kids and I would cavort with Tommy and his four sisters and their parents on a sandy lakeside beach near Jackson, New Jersey. But every now and then when we do get together, there comes a moment when I walk into the kitchen, look at the closets and think, There's a plate in there somewhere that will go unused today...that shouldn't.

We miss you, Tommy. On this sad day and every day.

* About a quarter of the total MU-2 fleet has been involved in fatal mishaps. In a report published in December 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conceded that the MU-2 is seven times more likely than similar aircraft to crash due to a loss of control. All told, between 1965, when the aircraft was certified for flight, and 2004, there were about 100 fatal MU-2 accidents—some 70 in North America alone. If a commercial jetliner were at the heart of a similar cluster, there is not a chance it would it still be flying. (The sometimes-maligned DC-10 has suffered 15 fatal events in its entire commercial-aviation history.) At least at the time of Tommy's death, such grim truths usually ended up buried beneath the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation bureaucracy. The agency's standard approach to investigations, known as the "party system," conscripted representatives from among airplane manufacturers, engine makers and others with an obvious vested interest in the outcome of the inquiry. Though publicly the NTSB defended its practices, internal memos obtained by one Denver TV station revealed that the agency knew its efforts were "compromised by the fact that the parties most likely to be named to assist in the investigation are also likely to be named defendants in related civil litigation." Hence, the result of many investigations is "pilot error."

Perhaps the most grievous pilot error consists of the
decision to get in the plane in the first place.


Freelancer said...

I found you through the Skeptic's Guide podcast about 6 or 7 months ago, I added you to my RSS feed and have been reading and lurking ever since.

I want to convey to you and your family my deepest condolences over the loss of your nephew; and as a newly minted uncle, that I can only hope my sprawling family grows in the future to the extent that I can be as proud and joyful as you are in your memories of Tommy.

I have said multiple times, even once this week, that atheists are shit at comforting the scorned, we have no mythology, no grand backstory, but at the same time, we shall not be dissuaded by blankets of delusion and let truth be smothered.

Yes, it hurts. He's gone. And it is all too easy to say that as far as cerebral, liberal, atheism; there is no more to say than that. In terms of how do we get better, how do we move on?

You already know this. I am only 27, and I got this a long time ago. It is as if our love and affection was helium on our lives, lifting us up and enabling us to feel interconnected, but as tragedy struck, grief became something we were vigilant of, proud of. We knew those who had lost, and we were going to be there to comfort. Maybe we weren't there yesterday, maybe we wouldn't be there next week, but understanding and solace would be there today and maybe tomorrow.

[/possible rant] I just know that as much as my huge catholic family would like to think, the wakes, funerals, and rosaries are at least 90% "fake it 'til you make it".

My Sympathies,

Rational Thinking said...

Beautiful tribute, Steve. And I am so sorry for your family's loss.

Pilots - such extraordinary people, who perhaps have access to a rare perspective. I am reminded of one of my favourite poems (by John Magee)"

"Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings"

I'm so glad your nephew is alive in memory.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - Thank you for adding someone special to all our memories. And if it takes those "blankets of delusion" to warm you in sad moments, by all means, snuggle yourself up!

Debbie said...

Thank you for sharing your tribute of your nephew Steve.

My heart goes out to you and your family.

Steve Salerno said...

I sincerely apologize for writing a blanket thank-you in acknowledgment of all of the very warm sentiments that have been voiced here. It's just "another one of those days.") Please don't think my level of response is in any way indicative of my (or my sister's) gratitude, because I can assure you that's not the case.

Elizabeth said...

It's a touching and heartfelt tribute, Steve. My sympathy goes out to your sister and your family.

Anonymous said...

Deeply touching, Steve. I didn't know you were capable of writing anything with this level of feeling, frankly, given the "all cynicism all the time" format. I'm glad I checked SHAMblog today.

Jenny said...

Incredible. "Anonymous," 6:58 AM sure is early in the day to be making condescendingly juvenile remarks about an obviously big-hearted and intelligent person.

Steve, my condolences in your family's loss. I have an Uncle Tom who was a pilot. His son flies, too.

Best wishes to you always.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: Thanks. I wasn't sure how to interpret Anon 6:58's comment when it came through, and I honestly didn't get the same "read" that you did. At least not till your comment came through, and I went back and read it again. Naif that I sometimes am, I was inclined to take it at face value--i.e., that I'd genuinely surprised this person, who was unaccustomed to hearing such naked sentiment from me. Maybe even won him/her over a little bit more than before.

I guess that's just my optimistic nature shining through again.

Jenny said...

It is not evident to me exactly how that person meant it, and perhaps I was just feeling a little testy and defensive as well. After all, I did wake up a little too early myself! Upon reading the comment a second time, I realize I might have jumped to a wrong conclusion. (How juvenile.)

Anyway, did you notice in my comment that I failed to mention your looks? That's right. Not once did I allude to your appearance but just to your fine intellect and good heart.

Steve Salerno said...

Not once did I allude to your appearance but just to your fine intellect and good heart.Point taken. But then again, appearance is pretty much "out there" to be seen and evaluated on its own merits. Whereas people can often fool you with their intellect...and their hearts. ;)

RockitQueen said...

Steve, I'm so sorry you lost your nephew. Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute with your readers...he sounds like he was a wonderful young man.