Healthy Skepticism: The Go/No-go Mindset

The night before, Flight Service reported a morning forecast with a 900-foot ceiling, visibility at two miles in rain showers with heavier rain showers along my route for the planned very-early-morning departure in the company Baron. That’s not too bad for a well-equipped airplane (which I am fortunate to fly), and a trained and current pilot (which I am fortunate to be).

The phone woke me out of a sound sleep around 11:15 pm, a company Vice President — also a Baron pilot — was leaving a voice mail to warn me of a minor landing gear problem. ‘You have to cycle the gear switch twice to get the gear down,’ he told me in the recording. ‘We don’t want to slide it on its belly,’ he added… as if this isn’t a priority of mine as well.

What to do? I wondered. The gear problem might be simply a dirty switch contact or a lone, burned-out gear motor brush … or it might be the result of bent and binding pushrods or other parts of the gear mechanism that could eventually jam its movement. A gear extension anomaly might be a symptom of a larger electrical problem. Did I really want to fly an hour in the dark, through heavy rain showers, just to fly an instrument approach while wondering if the gear would go down? If the electrical extension failed altogether, I’d have to manually crank the wheels into position. Then again, I might lose not only landing gear operation, but also all lights, communication and navigation capability if the entire electrical system failed… and that would be bad.

At 3:30 am I was on I-75 southbound, driving down in time to teach my class. Rain fell in buckets, but as I reached my destination the sky began to lighten and I could see that visibility was about as expected, but the cloud deck was significantly lower than the 900-foot forecast.

I felt a bit like a wimp for not flying down anyway — after all, I literally ‘wrote the book‘ about manual landing gear extension in Barons. I consoled myself (through what turned into a 16-hour drive/teach/drive day) by remembering some of the things I’ve learned over the last decade of flying:

  • Mechanical problems get worse, not better. Airplanes aren’t like computers — you can’t ‘reboot‘ and have things be ‘all better‘. Broken airplanes don’t fix themselves. They sometimes lull you into complacency by appearing only intermittently at first, but then failing when you need them most.
    Danger: It’s easy to fall into the trap of compensating for one outage long enough that it seems ‘normal,’ when it’s not. ‘Small‘ failures tend to spread to other systems like a cancer — and if you don’t treat the disease, it can be dangerous … or fatal.
  • Weather is almost always better or worse, but not exactly as forecast. Compare forecasts to what really happens and you’ll see. In my case, the winds were much stronger and the clouds much lower than the briefing I’d received — which would have made dealing with an errant landing gear, a manual gear extension, or an electrical failure all the more challenging.
    Danger: A ‘better‘ forecast can lull you into the expectation that things aren’t as bad as they seem or set you on a course of preparation/execution that can be difficult to cancel when things don’t turn out as well as expected. ‘New‘ weather is a new situation that deserves a brand new reaction — independent of whatever you were planning for.
  • Peer pressure may defeat your better judgment. I got the impression that the company VP had been flying with this anomaly for a week or more (I’d not flown that plane for a while). Subconsciously I thought he’d think I should’ve taken the trip, in part because of my background in these airplanes, and in part because of his hard-charging, ‘can do‘ business philosophy. I had to dismiss that thought for my own self-preservation and to keep his airplane in good repair. I had to consciously decide I wouldn’t let others, even my boss, influence my decision.
    Danger: A no-go decision will let other people down and that’s not something that a good employee is eager to do. However, a good pilot has a higher responsibility — only he/she is in the position to truly understand the threat. Only he/she can respond appropriately.
  • ‘Invulnerable’ pilots eventually learn of their vulnerability. Pilots must have some sense that they can handle what comes up. The best pilots are those that can constantly improvise to safely negotiate changing conditions. But extreme confidence grows a pilot that feels ‘invulnerable‘ — one that says, ‘It won’t happen to me.’
    Danger: Experience is good, but don’t let it make you think you can handle anything, because frankly, nobody can. The fact that ‘it‘ hasn’t happened before increases — not decreases — the odds that it will happen this time. This is especially dangerous in someone (like me) who has a lot of experience in one particular type of airplane.

It’s better to be on the ground wishing you’re in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.’ ‘Nuf said.

With some scheduling flexibility I could still have flown instead of driving. I might have waited — until daylight — that would have significantly reduced the risks of handling a power outage. I might have delayed long enough to get better weather at my destination, or at least a better nearby alternate. I could have made a quick, local flight to check out systems myself before launching toward my destination — to have a better idea of what I was up against. In the end, though, I needed to be at my destination at a specific time, so I chose to drive instead of fly. I may never know if my choice was wise, or foolish.

BOTTOM LINE: A pilot is a lifeguard. Employ ‘healthy skepticism‘ in making your go/no-go decisions. Evaluate weather, your airplane, and your own abilities honestly and objectively. ‘Alter the experiment‘ to reduce risk if you’re dealing with an unusual situation. Make sure you decide to fly, or not to fly, for the right reasons. People will remember you as trustworthy, sensible and cautious … or they will sit around and discuss when they think your luck will run out. It’s your choice.