“All but one man died
There at Bitter Creek
And they say he ran away
Scorned as the one who ran
What do you do when you’re branded
And you know you’re a man?”

Actor Chuck Connors wasn’t just the Rifleman; he also played Jason McCord in 48 episodes of the popular TV series Branded between 1965-1966. Those of a certain age remember the story, so I pondered the differences betwee courage and cowardice when I heard the news that a Bonanza went down in Lake Michigan, and I remembered when a Cessna 206 went down several years ago near the same place.

Most consider courage an excellent character trait, cowardice, not so much. After all, we give medals for courage, but not one for running away in the face of the enemy. However, not all enemies are created equal, are they? Essayest Joe Epstein said: “Courage is nine-tenths context. What is courageous in one setting can be foolhardy in another and even cowardly in a third.”



It was one thing for Medal of Honor recipient Col. Bruce Crandall to fly his unarmed Huey into the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam twenty-two times under intense enemy fire to resupply and rescue wounded soldiers. When asked if he ever thought about not going back in, he said it never occurred to him not to go if soldiers needed him. That’s remarkable courage.

But is it courage to fly our airplanes into ice, thunderstorms, or go below minimums to sneak a peak on a low approach?  Well, color me yellow every time. I won’t take my shirt off, but every year the yellow streak down my back gets wider and brighter. I’m a coward and proud of it because turning away from these enemies is never cowardly.



The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are full of shalls and shall nots, but it’s pretty easy to stay on the good side,  as long as you avoid the gray areas. However, experienced pilots also know that just because the FARs say you can do something, it doesn’t always mean it’s safe or prudent.

For instance, I’ve been criticized for not extracting the full utility of my airplane. Just because FAR Part 91 says it’s Okay to take off in zero/zero weather doesn’t make it a good idea. Indeed, my personal minimums are just about the same as VFR. One engine, one generator, one battery, and only one pilot in low IFR is not a good bet. What if the engine quits, what if there’s a fire, and I could go on but lives trump utility.

That brings us to the Bonanza that was over Lake Michigan but is now in Lake Michigan. I won’t bore you with the math, but it’s 52 miles across that cold dark water. You’d need to cross at an altitude of 14,500 to assure glide to land at the worst point. There’s no rule to stop people from flying single-engine airplanes across the Great Lakes, but is it worth the risk?


In 2011 I went through the challenges of getting an IFR reservation into Oshkosh, but my clearance read: direct Kokomo VOR, direct Kalamazoo VOR, direct White Cloud VOR Victor 30 Badger VOR, direct Oshkosh. Well, I expected a full route clearance, but not that one. I said: “you mean like over Lake Michigan?” So I refused the offer, and when the controller asked my intentions, I replied VFR Northwest bound. I’m not flying a single engine piston engine airplane over all that water at any altitude.

If you fly with me you’re flying with a chicken, but I’ll never take you where I’m afraid to go, and sometimes that takes courage. Besides, being afraid of looking like a coward is the worst reason for doing anything.[/fusion_text]