Light planes and close campaigns can make for a tragic combination. Oftentimes, candidates cannot avoid air travel. In statewide elections, they crisscross the map for one engagement after another, zigzagging from state fair to political barbecue to rubber-chicken fundraiser.
Paul Wellstone, who died in a crash yesterday, was trying to get to a funeral. His plane ran into bad weather and he, his wife, his daughter, three staffers and two crew members perished.
The tragedy triggered memories in the mind of Lauch Faircloth, who served as a Republican in the Senate from 1993-1999. Faircloth himself narrowly escaped death when he was running for North Carolina governor in 1983 and his campaign plane crashed. "I was thinking about it this afternoon when I heard about Paul," says Faircloth from his home in Clinton, N.C. "It was the most horrid part of running a campaign."
During his gubernatorial attempt and as a one-term senator, Faircloth, 74, flew in small planes extensively, even when the weather was bad. "You always feel the pressure to be somewhere. In your heart you know you shouldn't be flying. The pilot probably knows it, too."
Faircloth says he had countless scrapes. The worst was once in the North Carolina mountains. He recalls the exact date -- Aug. 22, 1983 -- when he and a few others were taking off on a short runway in a twin-engine plane. "It had rained," he says. "We hit a big puddle of water and it skewed the plane to the runway. Instead of going straight out, the plane veered into the side of a mountain. The plane went through trees, knocking them down like it was a bulldozer. It fell into the headwaters of Lake James. The water saved us. The plane was on fire from one end to the other and the water extinguished the fire," Faircloth recalls.
"Miraculously -- the plane was beat all to pieces -- the door opened and I was able to get away from it," he says.
Faircloth swam as fast as he could. "Before we were 50 feet away, the plane went back into flame and was burned to a crisp."
He adds that this week Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole visited him. He doesn't believe that she is flying much. "Mrs. Dole has a very nice bus," he says.
Other politicians have small-plane stories to tell. Near the front door of Sen. John Warner's office hangs a color photo of Richard D. Obenshain, as a tribute.
It's also a reminder of the brevity of life and the gravity of leadership.
Obenshain, Virginia's Republican candidate for Senate in 1978, was killed in a small plane crash while campaigning. Warner took his place and went on to win the election.
One political consultant says he remembers some years ago when he was about to get on a very small campaign plane with a 300-pound aide and the pilot looked at the size of the plane and the size of the staffer and said, "It's either you or the luggage."
As American interests have spread to other parts of the world, politicians fly far beyond state lines. Small planes have become the stretch limos of the global village.
The list of politicians who have perished in small-plane crashes is long and bleak.
House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, (D-La.) and Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska) were killed in October 1972 when their plane vanished in Alaska. Less than two months later, Rep. George W. Collins (D-Ill.) died when his plane crashed as it neared Chicago's Midway Airport. The single-engine plane carrying Rep. Jerry Pettis (R-Calif.) ran into a California mountain in 1975.
Rep. Jerry Litton (D-Mo.) was on his way to celebrate his victory in the 1976 Senate primary when his plane went down, also killing his wife and two children.
In August 1989, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) died in a plane crash while traveling to Ethiopia on a relief mission. A week later, Rep. Larkin Smith (R-Miss.) died when his Cessna 177 wrecked in the Mississippi woods.
The plane carrying Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) crashed into a helicopter in Pennsylvania in 1991.
In 1993, George Mickelson, governor of South Dakota, was killed when his storm-tossed plane went down in Iowa.
And on Oct. 16, 2000, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed -- along with his son and a political aide -- in a crash while he was campaigning for a Senate seat.
Royal Masset, who served for about 15 years as political director of the Texas state Republican Party, says that he long ago saw the benefits of plane travel and even considered getting a pilot's license.
"Texas is so large," says Masset from Austin, where he is now a political consultant. "We have several hundred, if not thousands, of landing strips."
As Masset contemplated becoming a pilot in the late 1980s, he says he changed his mind. He talked to a lot of people and decided he would drive a car instead. "The main cause of death is bad weather," says Masset. "You should never fly a small plane when you have to be somewhere at a certain time."
The problem that politicians face, he says, is that they agree to appear at an event and then, when they encounter problems, they take a gamble and try to keep their promise.
In 2000, says Diane Spitaliere, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman, there were 41,800 highway fatalities and only 777 fatalities in all commercial and general aviation. She adds, "That's a relatively low number considering all the planes that are out there."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.