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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor


A (Partial) Confessional

Some of you may have wondered, from time to time, why I write newsletter articles.  And at last count it’s well over 100 of them.  Occasionally, as the deadline for them approaches and I have no idea what I’m going to write about, I wonder about that myself.  There’s nothing like adrenalin to get the creative juices flowing.

The actual reason is complex yet simple.  It all goes back to how much I love aviation.  And how much I love precision and perfection – though I have occasionally fallen spectacularly short on both counts.   One of my favorite Laws of Flying and Life is that, “A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from someone else’s mistakes.”  And though I’ve written frequently about things that have happened to me and other pilots and how to handle those situations, there is also a rich supply of lessons that can be shared based on the mistakes we’ve made – many of which result in situations that need remedy.

In one sense, every flight has small mistakes – I’ve never had a perfect flight, though a few times I’ve had portions of the flight that were perfect (like a steep turn, slow flight entry, or downwind in which the needle started at the correct altitude and looked like it was painted on the altimeter for the entire maneuver, or a perfect landing) – and to a significant extent, flying is the continual process of correcting from what you have to what you want.  On the other hand, there are times that it feels like if there is a mistake that a pilot can make, I’ve made it.  Mostly, I like to make mistakes with enough altitude below me that I can recover from them, but …

Perhaps the smoothest (and least embarrassing) way to ease into this is to give a partial list of things I’m trying to improve – the things I’m not as good at as I want to be.

Procedurally, I try really hard not to leave out checklist items, but I’ve missed some important ones from time to time.  But that’s why there are checklists.  And sometimes I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to use the checklist – that’s when it’s needed the most.

I’ve drifted off altitude and heading more times than I care to think about – and a couple of times have been reminded about it by ATC.  Once with the dreaded, “I have a phone number for you to call when you get on the ground.”  Fortunately, THAT time, the altitude bust was the result of a collision resolution alert in a Citation, so my empennage was covered – on that occasion.

I’ve missed ATC instructions because I was talking with a student, another pilot, or a passenger when I should have been maintaining “sterile cockpit” discipline.

I’ve continued an unstable approach right on down to the landing because I thought I was so damn good I didn’t need to go around as I should have – fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to get away with it.  And have kicked myself mentally every time for unnecessarily jeopardizing the plane and my passengers.

I have gotten complacent on routes I’ve flown hundreds of times and done less than a truly professional level of planning.

I’ve flown when I was so sick I had no business being in an airplane to say nothing of flying one – but in self-defense, on that occasion, it was a choice of being dog-sick in Mexico or being dog-sick in the US.  I’m not sure that qualified as an emergency – thus allowing me to deviate from the regs we are otherwise required to follow – but I think a case could be made.  A contrary case could be made that my judgment was affected by how sick I was.

I’ve flown into weather that was on the wrong side of questionable.  Remember the saying about, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground”?  Well I’ve been on the wrong side of that saying a couple of times, and regretted it (and the visits to the dentist to replace the filling that got shaken out by the off-the-scale turbulence).

I’ve come far closer to exceeding various limits in Section 2 of the POH than I ever wanted to.

I’ve attempted to fly an instrument approach with the wrong nav set in – and found the mistake before it involved any cumulo-granite formations.

In VFR conditions, I’ve lined up on the wrong airport.  Not just the wrong runway, the wrong cotton-picking airport.  In the central valley, they’re all lined up the same direction.

I’ve bounced a landing so hard that you could have driven a semi under the bounce.                        

And, yes there are others that haven’t made this list – some less embarrassing, some more.

Now, there are two points I’d like to add.

First, on all of these occasions, I’ve seen the mistake and initiated the recovery in time to keep the mistake from becoming a disaster or an accident.  Still, recovering wasn’t ever enough to keep me from feeling like a donkey – I’d far rather not have been in that situation to begin with.  “The superior pilot uses superior judgment to avoid situations requiring his or her superior skill.”

Second, if you think none of these (or a similar mistake) has occurred to you, you’re either in denial or have finished fewer than three instructional flights.  Others WILL occur, but if you can learn from MY mistakes, then I’ve accomplished my purpose in writing these articles.  If you want an interesting discussion, ask your instructor about his or her mistakes, miscues, etc.

Every once in a while I do something so well I want to go out and get one of those “DAMN I’M GOOD” bumper stickers.  Then I think back on the amazing list of things I’ve done that have fallen spectacularly short of “good”.   It may be a while before I buy that sticker.  And even longer before I even THINK about putting it on my car.