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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor

Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde

The many people that have flown with me at West Valley or elsewhere, and the people that have worked with or for me in my various professional incarnations think of me (I believe) as a relaxed (mellow, to use a 60s term), very patient guy rarely getting flustered regardless of the amount or variety of spaghetti that happens to get into the fan.  Most would be as surprised as I was to find that there is a monster hidden inside.  This article describes how I discovered Mr. Hyde, what happened, and how I SHOULD have dealt with it.  The number of other people that have similar monsters could be anywhere from no one else, to everyone else – and YOU could be one of those people.  The answer is probably somewhere in between, and for those of you that have that monster, but haven’t met it yet, I offer the advice that a smart person learns from his own mistakes, a wise one learns from someone else’s.

This occurred during my annual three-day Pilatus recurrent training at SimCom.  As often happened, I was at the recurrent training with a group of friends, all of whom I greatly respect, both as pilots, and as people.  And, despite the fact that there is a lot of repeatability from one recurrent to the next, I always look forward to the training – you get to do things that you either CAN’T, or don’t WANT to do in an airplane.  I’ve actually experienced some of those problems in the real world, and know the value of the training.

In a seemingly unrelated thought, as you may know, through my church, I work with people that are going through the bad stuff that happens to all of us at one time or another - loss of a job, death of a family member, divorce, health issues, and so on.  It is a one-on-one confidential ministry, in which we provide a care receiver on-going support during times of crisis.  Normally I wouldn’t be able to discuss anything about my care receiver or his situation without having received approval, which I now have.

The evening before our first classes at SimCom, a care receiver I'd been working with for over 6 months called me complaining about his situation (which didn’t seem to be getting any better) and saying that he was considering suicide.  Despite the immediate actions I took which were successful in keeping him safe, I flunked the IM SAFE check for flying as my stress level went off the scale for the next couple of days.  If I had been scheduled to fly an airplane the next day I would not have done so any more than I would fly while under the influence of alcohol, but would have called my student or client to postpone the lesson or flight, or called in another qualified pilot to cover for me.  However, because the training was already scheduled, because I was already there, and because it was "only a simulator" I chose not to mention the problem (since I couldn't talk about it) and proceed with the training.  I also attempted to act like my normal self, though I’m sure my training buddies noticed that I was different.

Simulator training is a very stylized series of events that require the trainee to perform to the training standards in a series of scripted scenarios varying from hot starts to engine failures at various altitudes and a variety of equipment and avionics malfunctions combined with a variety of different visibilities, ceilings, temperatures, altitudes, winds, approaches, and airports.

When my turn came up on the first day, I put my phone in “airplane mode”, cutting me off from my care receiver’s text messages, which in turn started me thinking about what might be happening with him.  The fact that I had trouble with the landing is probably not an unrelated event.  Now, landings in a simulator lack the peripheral vision of the real world, and even the better sims present the takeoff roll and the landing roll more like the plane is on ice than on a runway – I’ve been in initial and recurrent over 20 times, so I know.  Yet for the first time, I bitched about it.  In previous years, I’ve gone around or just had fun sliding along sideways on the “ice”, but the frustration of things not working the way they should combined with the stress resulted in an action that is the reason we do the “stress” check that’s part of the IM SAFE checklist

That evening things hadn’t improved for my care receiver, and I spent a bit of time on the phone with him, mostly sick that he was just agreeing with me verbally, with no intention of actually taking care of himself.

The next day I committed one of the most irresponsible acts of my flying career – I got into a loud and angry (on my part) argument with our ground instructor.  Our instructor and the expert he called in to help were both as professional as I should have been (and always had been in the past) when discussing differing opinions regarding various techniques of flight.  I look back on it and wonder how a potentially interesting and enlightening discussion became something else, and where the monster came from.  And I am deeply embarrassed at how I treated a pair of professionals that didn’t deserve that from me (or from anyone).

But I wasn’t done yet.  Nope, I was in a hole, and just wouldn’t stop digging despite having already hit a gas pipe.  Even though we all are qualified to fly the Pilatus single-pilot, we always train as a crew because we fly that way in this Pilatus.  I even go out of my way to take people along in the right seat when I’m flying otherwise empty legs.  The Pilatus and the jets I fly are really easy airplanes to fly when everything is fine, but when the first domino starts falling, whether it’s a mechanical or avionics problem, or a last second change on ATC’s part, it’s REALLY nice to have someone else along if only to read a checklist or operate a radio. On the final day of training, I was so focused on my care receiver’s issues, that I tried to do everything myself, cutting out the otherwise very valuable assistance of the guy I was training with.  Perhaps because there was so much going on in my life that I had no control over that I felt the need to control what I COULD control.  I’m not completely sure, as I’m still thinking things over, but that seems right.  Thankfully, my flying bud pointed out (more politely than was warranted) that if I was going to do everything, he had better things to do than sit and watch me.  He didn’t finish the thought out loud, which might have included, “…make a donkey of yourself” which I totally deserved.

And to top things off, I got furious that a simple thing like the seat wouldn’t stay in its notch, and no matter how I set and tested it, it would drop back at an inconvenient time – Murphy’s Law in action.  I even said some profane words instead of treating it as just another “system failure” scenario to be dealt with.  Thankfully, we completed the training before I did anything ELSE inappropriate or stupid.

So, here’s what I learned:

First, my use of the IM SAFE checklist would have kept any of this from happening in an airplane.  I just hadn’t realized how directly the checklist applied to me, or the risk I would run if I ever violated the IM SAFE checklist, or that problems would surface even in a simulator.

Second, my flying bud said that I was totally professional while I was acting as the non-flying pilot, reading checklists, verifying frequencies, handling radios, monitoring approaches and calling out altitudes – if you lower the stress level, things get better.

Third, I now know that I have a monster inside me, and that I can become a different person.  The good news is that I know what triggers the monster.  Granted there is a single data point, but since I’ve had any number of flying-related stressful occurrences, anomalies, and emergencies (both real-world and simulated) without the hysterics, I think we can conclude that it’s the combination of flight-related stress layered on top of non-flight stress.

Fourth, after some thought, I know how I SHOULD have handled the entire situation.  I should have told my training buddies that I had a critical situation with my care receiver (which wouldn’t have revealed any confidences), and told them that it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to fly a plane, or even get into a stressful training situation, and that I should probably either go back to the Bay Area, or just run errands or fix meals.  Flying, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, is a team sport – I should have pulled in the rest of the team and let them know what was going on.  One of the problems with being pegged at the “introvert” end of the social scale is that pulling other people in and having a personal conversation like that is not the first thought that occurs to me – even when it should be.

Bottom Line:  You may or may not have a monster inside you.  Yours may or may not have the same trigger as mine.  Regardless, training in a simulator MAY help you find that monster.  As I know from personal experience, meeting your monster for the first time is a lot better in a simulator than in an airplane – regardless of how embarrassing and humbling it is.