Twelve days before it fatally crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, an Icon A5 flew under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge south of Tampa. The pilot was Roy Halladay III, Hall of Fame pitcher and amateur pilot, turning the 10-minute commute home to Odessa, Fla., from Tampa into a 22-minute joyride with his wife, Brandy, in the passenger seat.
The Skyway clears the water by only 180 feet; FAA regulations require pilots to stay 500 feet away from “any person, vessel, vehicle or structure.” Halladay seems to have found the trick exhilarating: He noted it in his logbook and a few days later tweeted, “I keep telling my dad flying the Icon A5 low over the water is like flying a fighter jet! His response..... I am flying a fighter jet!!”
The day after he posted that missive, Halladay flew the A5 to refuel the plane. Six days later, on Nov. 7, he took off from the lake in his backyard. He flew north, then west, then south. Over the Gulf of Mexico, he twice rocketed into the air and shot back down, almost skimming the water. On his third attempt, at 12:04 p.m., he smashed into the water.
Halladay's flight under the Skyway days before his death is among the new details to emerge in the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the crash, which was released on Wednesday.
When he died two and a half years ago, Halladay left behind Brandy; their sons, Braden, now 18, and Ryan, now 15; his father, Roy Jr.; his mother, Linda; and two sisters, Merinda and Heather. He also left behind an adoring public who remembered him not just for his 12 seasons with the Blue Jays and four with the Phillies, his two Cy Young Awards and his stoicism on the mound, but also for his journey. He had been off to a promising start to his major league career when he collapsed in his third season: a 10.64 ERA, a demotion to Class A. Brandy bought him a book, The Mental ABC’s of Pitching. He devoured it and began handing out copies to teammates. He made the Hall of Fame not because of his arm, but also because of his brain.
Five hours after the crash, Dodgers righty Brandon McCarthy tweeted, “Roy Halladay was your favorite player’s favorite player.”
Ever since that day, his family has wrestled with questions. According to the toxicology report released shortly after his death, Halladay had high levels of zolpidem—a sedative sometimes sold under the name Ambien—amphetamines and morphine in his system. The report also found traces of hydromorphone, a narcotic often marketed as Dilaudid; and fluoxetine, an antidepressant sometimes known as Prozac. Wednesday’s report also mentions Baclofen, a muscle relaxant. (The FAA prohibits flying under the influence of any of these drugs, which Halladay would have learned when he received his pilot’s license in 2013. If he had survived the crash—or if anyone had reported the flight under the bridge—he could have been prosecuted for violating FAA drug and distance regulations.) As detailed in an SI story in July, he had twice spent time in rehab for an addiction to lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication often known as Ativan. He had told his sister Heather that he believed he suffered from depression. They knew he had struggled with life after baseball, from which he had retired in 2013. They believed that flying made him feel free.
What happened that day? Was this just an accident? Was he too high to know what he was doing? Or did he take his own life?
While the family wondered, the NTSB investigated. It interviewed witnesses and tested blood and reviewed GPS coordinates. The final report fills in some detail: There was that brush with the bridge. At least three people told the NTSB that they had seen a plane they thought to be Halladay’s flying unusually low to the water in the days and months before he died. Halladay’s father, a commercial pilot, told head investigator Noreen Price that he was aware of his son’s struggled with addiction and about three weeks before the accident had said, “What is the situation with the medication? You cannot mix that with flying.” Roy III said he wasn’t taking any medication.
But the report does not take us inside Halladay’s thought process that day. It found no evidence that he intended to fly his plane into the water. It also found no evidence that he did not.
Officially, this is the factual report. In a week or two, there will be a last document: the probable cause report, a brief summary of what led to the crash. It is unlikely to contain any new information.
Wednesday’s report answers some questions about how Halladay crashed. But ultimately it is as unsatisfying as every other development in this case, because no witnesses or toxicology reports or GPS coordinates can tell us what we really want to know: why.