Flight #600

A plane slices through thickening fog, the pilot straining to find his destination ahead; another drones over an empty forest into a fierce headwind, sweat on the pilot’s brow as the fuel gauges bounce closer to empty. ‘Just a little lower,’ thinks the instrument pilot as she reaches Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA), catching brief glimpses of the ground. None of these three flights will end in a crash — or will they?

People perform unsafe acts an average 600 times for every one time there’s an accident, according to a construction industry study. Like construction equipment operators in that survey, pilots use complex machines (airplanes) to perform highly technical tasks (aviating). It stands to reason, then, that pilots do their jobs much like those in the highly technical world of modern construction … and that we pilots, too, make mistakes hundreds of times for every one time there’s a mishap.

When the odds catch up with us, we depend entirely on luck for the outcome. How many times has an accident happened only because a number of unrelated factors came together at the same time? In the construction study, for example, investigators looked at workers who jumped off their machines instead of climbing all the way down the boarding ladder. Hundreds of workers might jump without bad results. Some might lose their balance when they hit the ground, and a few of those would actually fall over. If we look at a large enough group, a couple might twist an ankle, one break a leg, and tragically, one might fall just right to hit his head on a rock and die. It’s mainly a matter of luck — whether contributing factors (uneven ground, rocks, a minor head-cold affecting balance, distraction, wind, whatever) make this a non-event, conspire to create a minor spill, or end in death. In aviation, scud running (for instance) might be successful, or you might nearly hit a tower, have a near-miss with another airplane in the murk, get lost, momentarily lose control in instrument conditions, or fly straight into the ground. Once you’ve committed to very low visibility flight, you’re depending in part on luck.

Taking unsafe actions, and escaping because of luck, reinforces bad decision making and makes it more likely you’re luck will run out next time. This is bad thinking:

  • I’ve done it before. Sneaking in ‘under the weather‘ in poor conditions, landing without enough fuel in the tanks to reach an alternate, or descending below minimums on an instrument approach and ‘breaking out‘ for a landing might convince you it would work next time. A few close scrapes that luckily turn out fine can desensitize you into making this a ‘normal’ mode of operation. Danger: When the edge of the envelope becomes normal, the new edge is a point where the visibility’s a little lower, the headwind’s a little stronger, or the obstacle’s a little higher than before. See below…
  • I can kick it up another notch. If you can find the field in one mile visibility, why not three-quarters? How about one-half? ‘Ten gallons is enough of a reserve,’ you reason, ‘but my fuel gauge shows I’ll only have five left on landing — that’s still enough.’ Fifty feet below MDA usually makes the difference in breaking out on the approach, but today it’s still murky at that altitude. How about a hundred feet this time? Danger: Repeated ‘success‘ at being lucky can goad you into pressing your luck just a bit more — until you cross over the line.
  • The rules are for wimps. ‘You’ve told me and told me to keep at least three miles’ visibility, ten gallons in my tanks, or not a foot below MDA. But I showed you–and I can do it with less. What about all these other rules? They’re for novices. I’m better than that.’ Danger: Ignore one rule and you’re tempted to ignore them all. Just remember — the Feds generally make rules after a crash, not before. Reading the Federal Air Regulations (FARs) is like reading an history of aviation accidents — most rules exist because violating them killed somebody.

Admit it — you’ve done things in airplanes you’re not proud of. I know I have. The trick to long-term survival is to recognize your mistakes and commit to correcting them next time out. If you don’t correct your mistakes, you should start each flight by asking yourself: ‘Do I feel lucky?’

BOTTOM LINE: If you use ‘I’ve done it before and didn’t get hurt‘ as an excuse you’re simply fooling yourself — *any* flight might be your Flight #600. Don’t push your luck.

Editor’s note: If you’ve got a friend who still needs some convincing, try sending them this article — or Paul A. Craig’s article on creeping normalcy.