The Point of Diversion (POD) – 1

My previous series of articles was written to help pilots stay “ahead” of the airplane, but if you are a pilot I’m confident you have at some time felt “behind” the airplane. I remember my first takeoff in a complex airplane. Between the landing gear retraction, faster speed, manifold pressure adjustments, and propeller control settings, I never looked outside the airplane once. I thought, “I’m glad this flight instructor is in here taking care of everything.” I was so far behind the airplane, it felt like I was sitting in the back seat! The real problem is that “behind the airplane” feeling is a sure sign that situation awareness is gone or on its way out.

Every “pilot error” accident or incident sequence includes the point where the pilot’s view of the situation and reality separate. The difference between what the pilot knows and what there is to know grows and grows disproportionately. At some point, the pilot’s perception of the situation and reality diverge. This is the moment I call the point of diversion (POD). Somewhere downstream from that moment an accident or is bound to happen. The only way to recuperate is to rejoin perception and reality – to wake up or regain situation awareness.

So, when you realize that you have lost it, how do you get it back?

Accidents are often referred to as a chain of events, or a poor decision chain. During the sequence that leads up to an accident, pilots make decisions without knowing all the facts. They don’t have all the facts because they are not fully aware of what is going on around them. Regaining situation awareness can be accomplished by breaking the chain.

There are times when the point of diversion is obvious, other times it is subtle. Sometimes the POD takes place immediately before the accident with little time to regain awareness. Other times the POD takes place and then a long time interval passes before the accident or event. Pilots can learn to regain awareness and redirect the destiny of the flight by identifying a point of diversion.

Like everything else we can improve our ability to spot a POD with practice. But it’s hard to produce a POD in a controlled environment. To help practice, I selected a set of NASA and NTSB reports to use as case studies. In each case, the pilot or pilots arrive at a point of diversion, but keep right on going without noticing it.

CHALLENGE: Read the case study and see if you can spot the POD. Next week we will discuss the PODs you could have detected and let you try your hand at another POD scenario.

NASA Number: 443404

I was southeast of Rhinelander, Wisconsin at 7500 feet VFR and was aware of a line of weather reported from Mason City, Iowa to Marquette, Michigan. Approximately 70 miles north of Green Bay I called FSS on 122.55 and requested a weather update. I was advised that VFR conditions should prevail on into Green Bay airport. Approximately 60 miles north of Green Bay I encountered light rain and strong turbulence. I called FSS and reported disorientation and difficulty holding course and altitude. The FSS was extremely helpful and suggested that I squawk 7700. Then my radio went out and my VOR. This was caused by moisture coming in through the wing air vents. I had great difficulty reducing altitude due to rapidly rising air. Gradually I was able to get down to 5000 feet which placed me back under the weather, into VFR conditions, and out of the developing thunderstorm. I had a portable GPS and indicated that the nearest airport was at Marinette/Menominee, Michigan which was approximately 15 miles away. I landed without radio assistance. I phoned Green Bay FSS at once and reported the conclusion of the emergency flight. The radios have since been repaired and I have enrolled in a program for additional instrument training.

What PODs do you see in this story? Where did the reality of the situation and what the pilot thought of the situation divert? Next week, the answer, and more POD situations faced by real pilots.