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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI (Jet Junkie) and Aviation Safety Counselor

Great Expectations

I recall (vaguely) reading Great Expectations in Junior High (it’s called Middle School now), and thoroughly hating it.  Part, I’m sure, is because it was required reading, which means I was forced to read it.  Like many of you, I dislike being forced to do things.  Some have claimed I’m stubborn; I prefer to think of it as being resolute.  However, for a more complete treatment of this subject, you could consult my wife.  That aside, a couple of generations later, I reread the book and found it far better than I remembered – a bit short in unpredictable plot twists, but well written, subtle, and groundbreaking considering the literature of the time.

So, what does all of this have to do with flying?  It has to do with mindset.  When we start a flight, we have great expectations: a successful flight, an on-time arrival, happy passengers, beautiful scenery, …  We even have very specific performance expectations, such as a 70 Knot climb at 800 FPM in a 172, and therein lies the problem, or at least a potential problem.

It’s easy, and even normal to get so focused on what you expect to happen that you forget what COULD happen.  As you begin motoring down the runway, you expect and are ready for the next thing, which is rotation, followed by takeoff, climb, gear up, flaps up, Vx (or Vy) climb, climb power, interspersed with several calls to all kinds of ATC, until eventually you get to cruise, then things slow down and you can take a breath.  And most of the time things actually happen that way.

More importantly, sometimes your expectations don’t happen, and things go wrong.  It’s really easy (I know) to be focused so intently on a particular aspect of flight and what you’re expecting next that it takes a second or two of disorientation before getting mentally into sync with what’s really going on.

For example, I was flying with a multi-engine student (back in the days when West Valley HAD multi-engine planes), when in the middle of a maneuver, the left engine quit.  Worse, it feathered all by itself, thus eliminating most of the steps in the engine failure checklist.  It took a couple of seconds to sort out what was really happening – although we did level the wings and do the “forward, forward, forward, identify, verify, feather” engine failure memory items.  Still the expectation was that we would have to feather the engine, which had already happened.  On the other hand, that difference in expectations is probably better than trying to feather the engine, only to have it remain in the normal pitch range. 

A less extreme but far more common example might be when we tell the autopilot to do something, and the plane goes off seemingly with a mind of its own and proceeds to do something else, something we didn’t expect.  For a more complete treatment of this subject, see my article titled, “The Scoreboard.”

In extreme cases, expectations can be erroneous and even delusional.  Even with all the fun situational awareness enhancing equipment that’s in our airplanes, pilots occasionally will expect an airport to be in a particular place, see an airport there, and proceed to land – at the wrong airport.

So how does this happen?  The clues were all there, even in cases of limited visibility.   It’s so easy to get one clue that supports our expectations that we fail even to SEE the other clues that say “this isn’t right”.  Sometimes they say THIS ISN’T RIGHT!”  Yet on occasion they still get ignored.

The thing that all runways have in common is that when we’re at 500 feet or less on final, we’re fixated on the relationship between the runway and the plane, and that will be the same regardless of whether it’s the right runway or not.  One of the ways to ensure that our expectations are being met is to look for the defining characteristics of an airport.  Runway heading isn’t the one – take a look at the runways in the central valley.  Most of them have a runway with alignment within a few degrees of all the others.  However, some have crossing runways, some have the hangars on the west side, some on the east.  Some are south of the town; others have differing orientations. 

This is exactly what we’re taught to do in the “lost” scenario.  First determine what you actually see THEN compare it to what’s on the chart.  In this case, determine what you see then compare it to what you expect.  If it isn’t the same, something’s wrong.  And as many of you may remember from the Laws of Flying, Life and Business, “If something feels wrong, it probably is – figure out what it is before you make any serious decisions.”

It is not a common practice, nor is it comfortable to look for things that will hint, indicate, or worse, PROVE that we’re wrong, so think of it as looking for additional evidence to prove that you’re RIGHT.  And, of course, if it does turn out that you’re wrong, you can recognize it and make the appropriate corrections before you land at the wrong airport, land on a taxiway instead of the runway, or blast right through an altitude when you were certain that the autopilot had it captured.  I’ve even seen cases in which a pilot wondered what the autopilot was doing, when, in fact, the autopilot wasn’t even engaged.

Your great expectations for any particular flight are far more likely to be met if you continually verify that they ARE being met.