It was drive time in Austin, and I was on Texas 71 East in my 4Runner making good time—the improvement in Austin’s traffic is one of the very few benefits of the pandemic—on my way to pick up my daughter from her job and listening to a local newscast, when the reporter broke in to breathlessly relay the news that Austin Police had an emergency in progress. There had been numerous reports of a plane crash near the 360 Pennybacker Bridge, under which spans part of Lake Austin.
More details began to emerge. It had been a small plane that had crashed into the water near the bridge. Were there survivors? Was this a smaller-scale repeat of the Miracle On The Hudson? Was help on the way? We all wanted to know!
Still, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, while making my four-lane merge to get off at Woodward, “What if it was a seaplane? Nah,” I reasoned, “that would be just too…” I searched for a kinder word than “stupid” before settling precisely on that descriptor.
A few minutes later the reporter came on to say that the “emergency” had been downgraded. I wondered how an emergency could be downgraded, into what? Seems to me it’s kind of binary—either an emergency or not an emergency. Downgrading misses the point altogether.
As I was nearing my destination, the reporter came back on, saying that it might have been an airplane that’s designed to land on the water.
As it turned out, that’s exactly what it was, a SeaRey amphibian, in fact. The owner and pilot, Shåne Tørgersen, got what one friend described as his 15 minutes of fame. Despite the fact that by that point it appeared there was nothing to see here, Austin PD sped up to the plane in their boat to make sure that…help me out here…that this seaplane had really intended to land on the water? Once satisfied that there was not only no emergency but nothing of interest to law enforcement, the officers said, “Later,” and that was that. Tørgersen said the officers were “super cool.”
Even after listeners and viewers—it was on local news channels, too—learned the truth, there might have been some residual terror still. My reaction, however, was, “I didn’t know that people were flying LSA amphibs off of Lake Austin! I wanna do that!” Though I admit, my take wasn’t typical.
The typical reaction, and this is an educated guess here, because this kind of stuff doesn’t get reported by the press, was that the pilot did something reckless, which endangered many lives. It’s a wonder the bridge was left standing!
That was the real story.
Airplanes are a mystery to people who aren’t like us, which is the vast majority of people in the world. They know only a few things about them, that they go really fast, and that if you crash, you stand 100% chance of being killed—I exaggerate, but only a little.
It’s that fear of and fascination with the potentially deadly unknown that seems built into the human psyche, and plane crashes trigger that part in the brain that reacts. It’s there with pilots too, though we’ve learned to override it largely.
We’ve also learned that there’s not much we can do about this state of affairs. We can, and do, educate the media on such things…our member and industry organizations actually do a great job with this. But it doesn’t really take, besides, the media is selling a product, and they know what their readers want to hear, and that is indeed all about a plane crash near the Pennybacker Bridge, whether it actually happened or not.