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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor

The Unanswered Question

We all have a friend or a family member that has dated the wrong person.  Some of us may even have done that ourselves.  Sometimes we’ve even known it before our friend did.  Mostly, at some point, our friend figures it out, and after the (often acrimonious) break-up, always with anger, and sometimes tears, asks, “What was I thinking?”

Of course, we’ve probably asked the analogous question, “What are you thinking?” several or even many months earlier.  The unfortunate thing is that our friends WAY too often proceed to jump right back into the dating pool and do exactly the same thing again.

Whatever the underlying problem was (and we usually have a pretty good idea what it was) there is almost always a process issue, as well.  And that is that even though our friend asks, “What was I thinking?”, the question itself never gets answered.  Well, hardly ever.  Why else would people continue to date the wrong people?  Why do some people go through jobs like others go through magazines?  Why do some people have multiple ex-spouses?  It’s not like collecting ex-spouses is a popular or inexpensive hobby.

This raises the point that experience doesn’t guarantee success the next time.  The only thing you are guaranteed to get is older by the length of time your experience lasted.  If you want to get smarter and avoid the problem, you need to figure out the answer to the unanswered question: “What was I thinking?”  And even if we have a pretty fair Idea what was wrong from the beginning, we rarely pause to figure out what our friend was actually thinking, which isn’t the same thing, at all.  And our friend is even LESS likely to answer the question.

OK, so what does this have to do with flying?  A lot, actually.  It gets to the point of most accident stories in flying magazines, or the accident/incident reports in the West Valley file.  In most cases, we can see what the pilot did wrong.  We can see the chain of events leading to disaster or lesser issues.  And almost always, we KNOW we would never make the same mistake.

However, if you were to ask the main character in these dramas (before they occurred) whether he or she would do what was done in those circumstances, the answer would nearly always be, “no.”  Or perhaps, “HELL, no.” 

However, there are two disturbing facts (at least they are disturbing when considered together): 1) Most accidents (about 75%) are a result of pilot error, and 2) IF the pilot ever recognizes he’s done something wrong, the recognition comes too late to recover even with all the pilot’s skill, and at that point, it’s unlikely the pilot knows anything more than that he did something wrong, but perhaps not WHAT.

Back, then to the unanswered question; “What was the pilot thinking?”  Absolutely guaranteed, it isn’t what you’re thinking when you read the article that describes what happened.  Two thoughts occur to me: 1) “Things are going great.”, and 2) “I’m a little uncomfortable, but things will get better.”  Any more critical (read realistic) thought would have resulted in action that would have broken the accident chain, just as we all would have in our arm-chair analysis.

So, perhaps the actual unanswered question is “why doesn’t the pilot see what’s so obviously wrong?”

My intent here isn’t to answer that question, but to start what I hope is a useful discussion, but a couple of ideas to kick off the process would include: lack of situational awareness, get-home-itis, and lack of personal minimums.