The Mortal Triumvirate

Death comes in threes. It’s a traditional notion even in my family. I remember as a kid hearing the news of two relatives who I didn’t know (or didn’t know well) who had perished about the same time, and my mother told me that Death comes in sets of three. We waited for a week or so for the family grape vine to report a third fatality, and none came. This week, David Bowie died and then Alan Rickman both were beloved performers. Both died at 69 of cancer. And people around me are wondering when the other proverbial shoe will drop.

Take your pick.

Death is a scary thing, and we are desperate to control it however we can. The same ability for our brains to delineate dangerous snakes from similarly colored harmless snakes favors false positive pattern recognition over false negatives (especially when false negatives can be dangerous). Visual or aural false positives (such as Jesus in a pancake or voices in background noise) are called pareidolia. When we interpret false positives as cause-and-effect, they become superstition. For instance, it’s bad luck for a smoker to share a match with two others, death befalling the third, according to an old WWI tradition. War is full of luck charms and death superstitions, because war is an easy place to die.

And, man, we’d really like to avoid dying.

On Saturday, September 17, 2011, my mother called to tell me my cousin had died. It turns out he was with his son at the National Championship Air Races. During the race the The Galloping Ghost a heavily modified P-51D-15-NA Mustang rounded the last pylon and was headed towards the grandstands, its port elevator trim tab failed causing the plane sharply pitch up. Pilot Jimmy Leeward experienced 14Gs of acceleration and lost control of the aircraft, and probably consciousness as well. The Ghost veered, inverted and careened into the spectator area, blasting the audience with shrapnel from the disintegrated fuselage.

Seven people died at the crash site, including Jimmy Leeward. Four more, including my cousin, perished in the hospital. Sixty-nine others were injured enough to require medical care. The son and another boy, a friend, both survived, shielded by my cousin from the explosion. So it’s quite possible he saved the boys at the cost of his own life.

Of course, I was crushed when it happened. It was an all-I-can-eat season pass of sad. But the public and the news were angry. They were considering closing the National Championship Air Races. Are air races safe? The news was asking. At my cousin’s funeral, there were a lot of questions about God’s intention. There were no satisfactory answers. My cousin was a really good guy, and he had children to raise. Why was he gathered to Heaven at a mere forty-six?

Death doesn’t work that way.

We like to pretend that it does. Death may seem to come in threes because we fictionalize things in threes. We also fictionalize death and risk as agents because most of the dangerous patterns we’ve encountered had agency. Heck, death itself is now a movie franchise.

Really it comes down to risk. Living safely and healthily will increase your chance of living longer. The more risky behavior you indulge in, the higher your chances of dying become. But some people will get lucky and survive danger, and some people will get unlucky and die despite their safety. Some risks are worth the additional danger.

Not many people die at air shows once you factor in how many people go to air shows. At the time of the 2011 air race, it was the only event in the year that was filling the Reno hotels, so no, the city wasn’t going to cancel it.

Most air-show deaths are pilots, but they kinda bought that ticket-to-ride (speaking of choosing thrills worth the risk). Was the Reno disaster preventable? In fact, yes. Leeward reused worn-out single-use locknuts which failed when the fuselage vibrated due to too much stress. Furthermore, he was flying faster than the fuselage could tolerate, and ultimately was going to fly the plane apart. But these failures were much more likely to occur along the course somewhere that wasn’t rounding the final pylon and into the benches. In most cases only Leeward would have perished and it would have been spectacular.

Will the FAA make our air races safer? Probably. Some worn-out parts are likely getting replaced. Assuredly some safety inspection protocols have been reviewed. Assuredly P-51 pilots are reinforcing their elevator trim tabs since those are known to fail. These precautions may save a couple of lives. But not a lot. We’d certainly save more by, say, disbanding the TSA so that air travelers long dissuaded to drive instead might return to flying again. But often our priorities are less about saving lives as preventing particularly visible tragedies in favor of more obscure ones.

Death doesn’t care.

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