Sylvia Spruck Wrigley sees Aviation beyond the miracle of skyes and the liberty of open sky. Since she was following the course to obtain the Private Pilot’s Licence, she met Fear. Fear to make mistakes, fear to have the responsibility for the passangers. For her, Aviation means attitude towards risk, it means understand and improve, make things better for everyone. Her journalist curiosity made her to deepen the knowledge in this field, making her more and more fascinated in discovering the reasons which lead to making mistakes. Thus, she began to write about aviation accidents as she always liked to tell: in everybody’s language.
Sylvia Spruck Wrigley becamed “the voice” of Commercial Aviation. Pilot and writer, she demistyfy this field for over 10 years in the eyes of general public. Over time, she collaborated with newspapers like The Guardian, The Guardian, Piper Flyer and Forbes, and also as Aviation expert for Discovery Channel, for the AirCrash Confidential series. Also, she is the owner of FearOfLanding.com, a true reference in the field of aviation accidents investigation, and numerous books – the most well-known being “Why Planes Crash”.
Sylvia manages to treat people’s fear of flight from an unexpected perspective, answering the question: „Why airplanes do not collapse?”
How did Aviation apeared in your life? When?
My first flight was when I was two, travelling from Germany to a new life in the United States. International flights were a normal part of my life after that; I don’t have any memories of being aware of flight but many childhood memories of watching the tiny cars filling tiny freeways across Los Angeles and the forests giving way to the urban setting of Frankfurt. Flying was as natural to me as taking a train or a bus.
I didn’t think about it again until much later, in my 30s, when I did my PPL. That’s a long story which I wrote about in You Fly Like a Woman but the short version is that I went along to the lessons on a lark and ended up addicted to flying.
What becamed Aviation for you?
There’s the obvious answer that aviation is about freedom and the wonderous miracle of flight and the wide open skies. But for me, the attitude towards risk and management is also extremely inviting. From the reliance on checklists to the interest in human factors to the power of Just Culture, the emphasis on making things better is defining. Not just more efficient or more available to everyone or more of a profit maker for corporate airlines, but better for everyone. I find this incredibly appealing. It speaks to my desire to understand and improve.
I know you also wrote a book, “You Fly Like a Woman”, as your memoir from your flight school…
Learning to fly was hard for me on a number of levels and I felt that the course expanded my horizons in a lot of unexpected directions. But when I was on flying forums, it seemed like people doing their PPLs were always told to hurry through it. There was a lot of emphasis on how few hours someone had done before their first solo. There were lots of self-congratulatory posts about how easy it was. And that just wasn’t my experience at all. So initially, I started writing essays about how I felt. I wanted to write about the fear: the fear of being in control of the plane, the fear of screwing up, the fear of taking passengers and being responsible for them too, my god, the fear of looking stupid in front of ATC, all of that. At some point, I realised I had enough to say that I could put it all together, so that there was context for the journey as opposed to individual snapshots.
If you have the opportunity, what advice you would give to Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, the rookie from the flight school?
Oh, the big one would be that it doesn’t matter how many hours you fly before you solo. It seemed such a big deal at the time. There were people talking about doing their first solo after ten hours or sometimes twenty. It took me forty, and even then my instructor had to push me to do it. That’s another one, actually: I would tell myself to have more faith in my instructor, that he wasn’t going to let me do something stupid.
Could you tell me three things you learned through Aviation. As a pilot, and also as an “investigator”?
People make mistakes. One of the fantastic things about aviation is that we *know* people make mistakes and we accept that as part of the equation. As a pilot, it’s finding security in the routines and checklists and standard procedures, all of which have been put together to minimise the risk of mistakes. In terms of accident analysis, it’s seeing how these things came to be refined over years, with procedures and regulations changing to support pilots (and everyone involved, really) rather than just attacking mistakes. That’s changed my thinking in a lot of ways.
Which one is the most beautiful flight you ever had, as a pilot?
That is difficult! I think I’ll have to say flying to St Mary’s airport, Isles of Scilly. It’s a beautiful location and there’s always something special about flying to an island location that would be awkward to get to without an aircraft. It was a cloudy day and to stay VFR I ended up having to do the entire flight at 2,500 feet, so the view was amazing. As we approached St Mary’s, the controller asked me if I’d like to do an anti-clockwise circuit of the islands and invited me to descend to 1,000 feet for the best view of the archipelago. It was fantastic.
But the most dangerous one? How did you managed it?
Hmm. I know there was one where I joined a busy circuit going in the wrong direction. The controller worked out what was wrong before I did and had me climb out of the way immediately. There was another where I entered military airspace and ATC blustered a bit and then instructed me to speak to the military controller directly, who asked me if I was aware that there was bombing activity along our proposed route. Well, no, not really. Air Traffic Controllers have done a lot to save me from myself, it has to be said.
How and why did you getted “obsessed” of Aviation safety?
Like many pilots, I read aviation articles about accidents – it’s a regular feature in many publications, again with an emphasis on analysing the situation and considering how it happened. I was fascinated by the detailed breakdowns and explanations and soon began reading investigation reports so I could get the whole story. Again, what really struck me was that there was no searching for easy answers or simply allocating blame. Everything was focused on discovering exactly why mistakes were made (because lets face it, somewhere along the line, there’s always a mistake) so that we could better understand how to reduce the effects of those mistakes in the future.
Then there was an occurance that hit the mainstream media – something at Heathrow I think? I don’t actually remember, but I do remember that the headlines were embarrassingly wrong and the front page articles made no sense based on the information we had so far. So I ended up writing a long explanation for my mother about what had happened, stripping away the nonsense. It became clear that a lot of people were interested in reading this and understanding the facts. So I kept doing it because it was interesting and it was helping my understanding and I liked demystifying aviation. Soon, when something appeared in the press, people would be calling me immediately to ask what it was about.
How did you decided to start fear of landing website and write about plane crashes?
I started Fear of Landing when I finished my PPL. By then I knew that I was hooked on flying and I wanted somewhere to collect all my experiences and research and notes. I really enjoyed preparing for a flight to a new place and collecting as much information as I could in advance. So initially, the posts were flight plans and city guides, mainly. Then I started adding more personal information: flights I’d done, things that had gone wrong, issues that I was worried about. It seemed natural to also write about accidents that I’d read about.
I think the first accident report that I wrote about was a plane I saw on the apron on Jersey with half of its wing missing. Someone had taped a laminated copy of the accident report to the fuselage. The aircraft had clipped a pine tree on departure, losing his wing tank and a large portion of the aileron but the pilot had dismissed the THUNK as a bird strike and continued the flight. Only when he realised that the left-hand fuel gauge was showing empty did he realise he had a problem and he diverted to Jersey to check the problem. It was an uneventful landing until he climbed out of the cockpit and saw the ripped remains of his wing.
What were your intentions by doing this?
I studied journalism at college and had experience writing about IT and the Internet in the early 1990s, when there was a lot of curiosity about the revolution that we were clearly undergoing but not yet a lot of knowledge. I found that I was good at taking apart technical issues and translating them into simpler terms that everyone could understand. Initially, I posted about accidents to share information and invite discussion. I learned a lot over the years but even now, I’m very grateful to people who read Fear of Landing and leave comments answering questions I’ve posed or clearing up issues where I wasn’t sure.
How do you feel to know that you combine the passion for flight with helping pilots, media and passengers?
A few people have told me that after reading the Why Planes Crash books, they feel much more comfortable about flying, because it becomes clear just how many safety nets there are and how many things must go wrong for an airliner to actually crash. I find that really gratifying, that it’s not just a case of rubbernecking at an accident but really coming to grips with how planes fly and why they don’t crash most of the time.
Passion is a huge part of it, of course. I have written for aviation magazines but what I love about writing for myself is that I can follow whatever path that excites me. Right now, I’m working on a book called Without a Trace which focuses on aviation mysteries, aircraft which have disappeared. And one fun aspect of that is that I start in 1881, with a hot air balloon. In those early days of aviation, aircraft rarely went missing, they just didn’t have the range. So I ended up learning about airships, which has been fascinating.
What is the most important achievement you did, developing this website and writing the books?
Sticking with it. That’s true of the PPL, where I almost quit after the first lesson, and the website, which I often thought about dropping because it took too much time and effort, and especially the books, which often feel overwhelmingly difficult while I’m trying to learn about aspects of aviation that are new to me. It’s all hard work for a labour of love and often I wonder if it is worth it.
I push myself outside of my comfort zone all the time and that’s really where I gain the most.
I truly believe that knowing how accidents happen reduce anxiety because you have real knowledge rather than vague fears. Many people fear flying because it all seems so out of their hands. The more you know, the better you can understand what is happening. When there’s an odd kerklunk sound or turbulence kicks in, you can be reassured that this isn’t a sign that the aircraft is going to fall apart around you.
What do you think about improving Aviation safety? What could be done to increase it?
I think improving aviation safety is an iterative task. One reason I focus on modern accidents is because if you look at historical accidents, often things were so haphazard, it seems like a miracle that most planes didn’t crash. When you focus on the past decade or two, you can really get an understanding of what we’ve done to improve safety and how many different aspects of a flight have to go wrong for it to end in disaster. It’s almost never one simple thing, especially not with commercial flights.
I think that aviation authorities need to remain well funded and accident investigations around the world should be supported and well funded. One thing that is very clear, when you read a lot of accident reports, is that the US and the UK and Australia and a few other countries are really, really good at conducting and clear and thorough investigation. Many other countries lack the experience and it shows in the final report, where arguments aren’t justified and basic information is omitted as not important. I think that’s something we need to see change in the coming years for aviation safety around the world to increase.
Do you have a motto that inspires you in what are you doing?
„I have control.”
I organize a workshop about fear of flying. What would be your advice(s) for the persons who fear of flying, if you were a speaker at this workshop?
Sebastian, I think you need to invite me to Romania so that you can find out! 🙂