A Tomcat crashes during testing of a new terrain-following navigation system, killing both crewmembers. Harm and Meg must determine whether the cause of the accident was due to a malfunction of the new system or pilot error. James Reid, the representative for the manufacturer Macroplex, is eager to place blame on the pilot, while Harm refuses to believe the pilot would have made such a foolish mistake. Things are further complicated when it turns out that Harm and the pilot were old friends, which might compromise his impartiality in the investigation.
"Pilot Error" contains examples of the following tropes:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Lieutenant Pendry's duties meant he spent quite a bit of time away from his family. Time that was spent primarily with his wingman, Lieutenant McKee. While the two had feelings for each other, they never acted on them.
- Ace Pilot: Lieutenant Pendry has a reputation for this, and some suspect the crash may have been as a result of him disabling the autopilot and attempting to fly the low-altitude approach by hand.
Harm: Sorry, I'm a little rusty.McKee: You're not rusty, Lieutenant. You're corroded.
- Subverted with Harm. During his investigation, he takes a Tomcat through the same flight plan as Pendry's last flight, including 5 traps on a carrier (a difficult task on a good day) before going on the simulated attack run. He's been out of practice at carrier operations, resulting in five very rough landings, much to the consternation of McKee, who has volunteered to substitute for the RIO for the flight.
- Comforting the Widow: Harm spends time with Pendry's family, having known them when he was still alive.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Macroplex executive James Reid doesn't believe he is wrong about Pendry's responsibility for the crash, but he resorts to some incredibly underhanded tactics to try and prove it, including a character assassination campaign.
- Death of the Hypotenuse: Unusual example in that it was the object of both parties' affection, Harm's friend and Annie's husband, rather than one of the competitors, who dies.
- Failsafe Failure: In the event of a system malfunction, shutting off the terrain-following autopilot automatically puts the plane into a 4G climb to prevent the plane from flying into the terrain. But if the autopilot's instruments are knocked into an inverted state by rough landings (like on an aircraft carrier), this can cause the plane to roll and pull "up" into the ground instead.
- Fire-Forged Friends: Pendry and McKee, leading to rumors that they may have been a Battle Couple as well.
- Graceful Loser: Once presented with solid evidence that the autopilot system may have in fact malfunctioned due to not being designed with the abuse of Navy carrier landings in mind, the Macroplex executive accepts this and promises to have the newly discovered flaws corrected.
- Interservice Rivalry: After making five carrier landnings with Harm, McKee says:Thank God that's over, you're making me wish I'd joined the Air Force!
- Love at First Punch: A Marine officer becomes enamored of McKee after she punches him twice and nearly goes to beat his head in with a handy blunt object during a bar argument.
- Meaningful Funeral: Harm and Meg attend Lt. Pendry's funeral, which is complete with military honors and fighters flying the missing man formation. It is meaningful to Harm because Pendry was his friend and the loss for the son of the deceased mirrors Harms own loss of his father at roughly the same age.
- Red Herring: A growing body of evidence suggests that Pendry and McKee had an affair, including the two going to visit a doctor for what appeared to be an abortion. McKee had actually suffered a miscarriage, and the child was their commanding officer's, rather than Pendry's. Pendry was simply there for emotional support.
- Shout-Out: To Fate is the Hunter, a film with a vaguely similar plot about a pilot investigating a plane crash in hopes of proving his deceased friend was not responsible for the crash.
- Speak Ill of the Dead: Many rumors that Pendry had been having an affair with his female wingman, and that this may have contributed to the crash.
- UST: A significant degree between Pendry and McKee, destined to remain Unresolved due to Pendry being married. Also Discussed between Meg and McKee, who points out that many could make the same claim of Meg and Harm.
- Turn Out Like His Father: Annie Pendry's biggest fear concerning her son Josh, after his father is killed in a plane crash. She points out that Harm became a fighter pilot after his own father went missing in Vietnam, further reinforcing her concern.
- Your Cheating Heart: Pendry was very close to his female wingman, Lt. McKee, leading to many rumors that the two had an affair. Harm, McKee, and Pendry's widow all insist that no affair took place, for different reasons (Harm refuses to believe his friend would have done such a thing, McKee admits to having had feelings for him, but knew it wasn't meant to be, and Pendry's wife insists that their relationship was too strong for such a thing to happen.) McKee did have an affair... with her commanding officer, but not with Pendry.
As you were...