Look Before You Leap

The yellow and orange Aeronca Champ reflected off the bright morning lake as the pilot drew his craft ever closer to the water. Full throttle in the morning sun, he eased nearer and near the glassy surface, wheels now flying just inches above tiny waves. Ahead was The Target, a bridge spanning the midwestern reservoir. He was a Dam Buster, a German baron, almost tasting the Blue Max … or maybe he was a Nakajima “Kate” pilot lining up on the first torpedo run at Pearl Harbor. Then — faster than his eye could blink — he flashed under the bridge and through to the other side, nearly missing a sailboat. With a yell of élan to the smiling passenger in the Aeronca’s rear seat he hauled back on the stick and banked gracefully into a chandelle. Mission complete, returning to base.

Too bad someone on the sailboat got his N-number and reported him to the FAA

I would NEVER condone this sort of aerial risk-taking, which took place many years ago. Private aviation gets enough bad press already without stunts like this making us all look bad. But the pilot of the Champ (NOT me, but a friend of my wife’s — who lost his Commercial certificate and had Private privileges suspended for a year as a result of this adrenaline-filled moment) did more than just fly under a bridge and almost collide with a boat. This pilot undertook his “mission” without even looking at what might be on the other side. This sort of risk-taking shows up all too often in airplane accident reports.

Mishap reports are replete with instances when the pilot apparently did not “look” before he/she “leapt” into a hazardous situation. For instance:

  1. Preflight Inspection: How many reports have you read that describe a pilot taking off with the towbar still attached … or with a pitot tube cover still installed? What about fatal crashes with control locks installed, or even with control surfaces removed? It happens far too often. Private Pilot magazine Senior Editor LeRoy Cook points out the “warning signs” of rushing to get into the air:
    • starting up without removing chocks,
    • hastening or skipping altogether the run-up and Before Takeoff checks,
    • even literally running to the airplane, jumping in and taking off.

    Natural selection has developed an inbred need to thoroughly check airplanes before takeoff, because these soulless machines may be trying to kill us. Take a good “look” at the airplane, its systems and its proper operation before you “leap” into the air.

  2. Fuel: Did you really check the fuel level before takeoff? Many a pilot has put it down in a farmer’s field — or died trying — because he or she thought there was enough fuel on board to make a trip. There are plenty of things that can happen (or not happen) to your fuel when you least suspect it.
    • Fuel sometimes vents out on very hot days, and
    • it’s not completely unheard of for a thief to siphon fuel from a parked airplane.
    • I’ve come back to the FBO and found my fuel order unfilled.
    • I’ve even signed to pay for fuel, only to later find it was pumped into someone else’s airplane (and mine was unfilled).
    • …and you never know when someone will fill you tanks during a rainshower.

    Playing It Safe: In the Raytheon Baron I fly, you can’t even see fuel in the tanks when they’re less than about 7/8ths full, so the two of us that fly it have a system. To make sure it has enough “gas” — we visually check the tanks, if they’re thought to be nearly full. Then we check the “sight gauges” on the top of the wings, which accurately show a range of partially full readings. Then we look at the panel-mounted fuel totalizer, which records the fuel level when last run. Then we consult a book we keep in the cockpit where we log dates, amounts and hour-meter readings for fuelings. Then we check the airplane’s panel fuel gauges themselves. Your airplane may not have as many ways to check fuel loadings, but how many checks are too many? Use whatever you do have — and don’t be ashamed to invest in more. The thing won’t fly (long) without fuel.

  3. Weather: In the majority of accidents where weather is a factor, there is no record that the pilot obtained any weather information before flight. In fact, in about half of all cases of attempted visual flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), the pilot held an instrument rating. This suggests that many pilots aren’t “looking” before they “leap” into cross-country flight — they aren’t prepared with escape routes or alternative plans, or they’re overconfident in their ability to handle low-visibility flight. There are so many different ways to get an “official” weather briefing these days that you really have no excuse to “look” at the weather before you “leap” into it.
  4. Traffic: Disturbing incidents at AirVenture-Oshkosh this year include the pilot of a Piper Cub who landed in the grass opposite the direction of traffic, and a Lancair/Boeing 727 incident where communications procedures. Whether your flying with airborne traffic detection systems (like the BF Goodrich “Skywatch,” which displays altitude, distance and bearing to other transponder-equipped airplanes), radio communications (at controlled and uncontrolled airports), or with simple eyesight, make every effort to “look” at the total traffic picture before you “leap” into the fray.

BOTTOM LINE: While very, very few of us show such poor judgment as to fly under a bridge — especially without first looking at what’s on the other side — many more of us apparently are willing to take similar risks. Personal aviation is a great privilege and freedom, but it can also strike down the unwary without warning. “Look before you leap” into the air, and beware when your personality or outside pressures tempt you to skip or cut-short your piloting responsibilities … they may not be the only things cut short that day.