The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘TNFlyGirl’ as a Metaphor

Posted on | December 22, 2023 | Comments Off on ‘TNFlyGirl’ as a Metaphor

Tragedies can be instructive, if you pay attention, and the death of Jenny Blalock, a/k/a “TNFlyGirl,” could be a useful lesson in many ways. Blalock was a 44-year-old University of Tennessee graduate and successful businesswoman, founder of Luxe Homes and Design.

A couple of years ago, Blalock bought a Beechcraft Debonair airplane, which costs about $100,000 and carries four people, including the pilot, and took lessons to become a pilot. She had about 15,000 followers on her YouTube channel, which featured videos about her flying excursions. She wanted to have the plane fly on autopilot, so she had a Century 2000 autopilot system installed and, apparently, this was her fatal mistake, ultimately resulting in a crash that killed both her and her father, Buck.

After the December 7 crash, but before the National Transportation Board (NTSB) had issued its report on the incident, veteran pilot Juan Browne examined the available evidence on his YouTube channel.


Browne zeroed in on Blalock’s misunderstanding of how to use the autopilot as the likely cause of the crash. She simply did not know how it worked, but kept trying to figure it out, without the instruction of anyone competent to explain it to her. On her fatal flight, she was on a planned 500-mile flight to Bryant, Arkansas, where she planned to have work done on the plane. About 30 minutes into the flight, the plane began a series of “oscillating” climbs and descents, going up and down, its airspeed varying rather drastically. What was going on? The autopilot has “up” and “down” buttons, but it doesn’t have control of the throttle or trim, requiring the pilot to adjust those accordingly. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Browne says at one point in his analysis of Blalock’s crash — which includes clips from her YouTube videos — and it’s clear that her misunderstanding of the autopilot function was related to the “oscillating” trajectory of her fatal flight. Blalock was still trying to figure out how to make the autopilot work, going up and down as a result, and ultimately ending in an uncontrolled dive straight into the ground.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and one doesn’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but the element of hubris involved here cannot be ignored. People who are intelligent, competent and successful — which is certainly an apt description of Jenny Blalock — are not immune to the temptation of thinking that, because they know what they’re doing in their regular daily life, they will automatically be competent in whatever new endeavor they may undertake. A successful businesswoman becoming a flight student in her 40s may have had difficulty accepting the fact that she didn’t know what she was doing. Her business expertise did not translate to automatic competence in the cockpit. She expects to succeed, and is frustrated by any failure, e.g., “Why isn’t this autopilot working?”

What Jenny Blalock needed — what she didn’t get from her instructors — was a “tough love” approach that would include warnings like, “Hey, you need to stop f–king around with that or you’ll get yourself killed.”

My brother Kirby was for many years a long-haul trucker whose job sometimes required him to act as a trainer for new drivers. He used to tell them to forgot about everything they “knew” about driving because most people’s driving “skills” are just a collection of bad habits that will get you killed if you drive like that in a semi rig. When I told him about “TNFlyGirl” and some of the videos she’d posted with her flight instructors, Kirby said, “They took her money, though, didn’t they?”

Ouch. Hit the nail on the head there. It probably wouldn’t have taken more than a few hours for a competent instructor to fully explain the autopilot to Jenny Blalock, and to take her up on a couple of training flights to make sure she was able to operate the autopilot system properly. But that instruction obviously didn’t happen, and at no point did anyone give her the advice that would have saved her life: “If you can’t figure it out, turn the damn thing off and just fly the plane!”

The NTSB has issued its preliminary report on the crash which did not find “any obvious cause,” which is to say, there was nothing wrong with the airplane. It wasn’t a mechanical malfunction, the weather wasn’t a problem. This was pilot error, pure and simple. And it strikes me that this is a metaphor for a lot of what’s wrong in America.

Consider my own profession of journalism. One of the basic problems in the news media is that reporters begin to think of themselves as possessing expertise about the topics they cover, so that you have the TV meteorologist presuming to lecture us about “climate change,” or the Pentagon reporter who imagines himself to be a military strategist. And don’t even get me started on sports writers — looking at you, Albert Breer — with their know-it-all attitudes about football. Two necessary traits for a journalist are curiosity and skepticism. A good reporter is driven by a need to know, a curiosity that keeps him asking questions until he’s satisfied that he’s gotten the right answers, and he is skeptical about everything: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Curiosity and skepticism go hand-in-hand. A reporter must be able to question his own beliefs and opinions, to avoid jumping to conclusions based on whatever unexamined bias he may bring to the story. Yes, of course, you’ve got to be able to follow your gut hunches sometimes, but you’ve also got to be willing to realize when the facts contradict your gut-hunch first impressions. Be prepared to be proven wrong.

Now, think about politics, and think about Donald Trump. His basic problem, as I see it, was that he was used to being the boss, surrounded by people who got paid to do whatever he told them to do. His business success (or, at least, his reputation for success) was a validation of his methods, and he approached his presidential campaign with a similar attitude. But this caused problems. One of the criticisms heard from “sources” in the White House was simply that they couldn’t get Trump to read anything. His staff would supply him with written reports on various subjects, and this proved to be a complete waste of time. His basic attitude toward politics (and toward governance) was that of the guy sitting on his sofa watching TV news and yelling back at the TV.

Trump was (and still is) very popular with a lot of people because the things he yells at his TV are the same things we’d yell. But in terms of operating a presidential administration, this yelling-at-the-TV attitude is less than ideal, to put it mildly. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, though, and it appears that Trump won’t listen to any constructive criticism. People who would very much like to help Trump get elected, and then succeed as president, find themselves frozen out and accused of disloyalty for telling the boss what he doesn’t want to hear.

I voted for Trump and would vote for him again, but it’s frustrating to know that so many of his problems are self-inflicted wounds that could have been avoided, if he would have been amenable to good advice.

When your habit is to get rid of any advisor who’s not a sycophant — “You’re fired!” — your operations will falter due to the lack of dissenting opinions in your inner circle. Ronald Reagan’s advisors were not ideologically homogeneous; he had a bunch of neocons on his staff, but he also had Pat Buchanan as a counterweight to that neocon tendency. And it would help Trump if he had someone other than True Believers and yes-men in his circle of advisers. Even to point this out, however, is to incur the accusation of disloyalty, to be suspected as a faintheart or a sellout, so that no system-wide internal examination with the objective of reforming the Trump operation is possible. If the plane finally crashes (returning to the “TNFlyGirl” metaphor), the after-action report will identify these flaws, because hindsight is 20/20, but that will be of no consolation to those of us who wanted to see the flight land safely.

“You don’t know what you don’t know” — it would be tragic if this were to become the epitaph of the American republic.



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