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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor

“We Need to Do Something.” Or How NOT to Make Things Worse in a Hurry

At times I get frustrated with politicians.  Like almost all the time.  And at the risk of offending some or all of you, I’m going to use some recent political examples as metaphors for something we run into in flying.

Without a doubt, the multiple murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School are tragic.  Equally without a doubt, every single one of us wishes such things wouldn’t happen, but we’d also like to be able to do something to keep things like that from happening.

However, the overwhelming desire to “do something” is at least as dangerous as the problem we’re trying to solve.  Without commenting on my opinion of the proposed actions in the Sandy Hook case (though you may guess from the context), it is far more important to do “the right thing” than to do “something” or even worse, to “be seen to be doing something” – the lowest form of cynical political filth.

“Doing something” in the political arena results in actions that often have little or nothing to do with the problem at hand – have you noticed the otherwise unbelievable amount of pork in the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill, things totally unrelated to the damage caused by the hurricane?  Things not even in the states hit by the hurricane?  But they’re “doing something.”  And they’re doing it in a hurry.  A cynic could cite lots of reasons for taking action in a hurry – none related to the actual need for immediate action.

Exactly the same thing happens in aviation.  When things go seriously wrong, it’s really easy to take a bunch of actions, some or all of which have little or nothing to do with solving the problem at hand.

In politics, when things go wrong and politicians have the overwhelming urge to “do something”, we simply waste a few billion or so, make lots of new laws when enforcing existing ones might be a good start, or ride the wave of hysteria to enact measures that don’t actually fix the problem.

Those are bad enough, but in aviation, “doing something” can kill you if it isn’t the RIGHT thing.

Whether it’s politics or aviation, it seems to me that “do something” takes three forms in an iterative process: Planning, Training/Execution, and Analysis, and it’s a process that works for routine actions as well as emergencies.

Planning, the first, and perhaps most important form of “do something” actually takes place before a flight.  It includes such things as preflight planning, weather and airport review, performance and weight and balance calculations.  Even more important would be things like the pre-takeoff briefing, which considers the conditions as they exist, and lays out a specific plan of action in the event the spaghetti hits the fan.  That (the planning part), of course, is something we see little of in the political arena – it’s so much easier to second guess and blame than it is to plan and proactively prepare for things that can go wrong.  Not that we see enough of it in flying.  I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve flown with Phase Check students that don’t give me a pre-takeoff brief, and if they don’t do one then, what do you suppose is the likelihood that they prepare a mental one on other flights.  One of the Laws of Flying and Life states, “If you don’t have a plan, you can’t execute it.” 

Training/Execution is something we do on most training flights.  We practice maneuvers; we practice emergency procedures.  And it seems to me that in aviation (and I could make the argument regarding politics, as well) there are only a very few emergencies that require “doing something” immediately – and those things HAVE to be the right things.  Those cases include engine failure immediately after takeoff, a stall warning on the base to final turn, a fire most any time, and depressurization at altitude.  Almost any other maneuver or problem can be addressed at your leisure (or nearly so).  Manufacturers of complicated airplanes often capture immediate action items in Memory Items that are either highlighted or outlined in red boxes in their checklists.  The ability to perform these actions (Execution) in the proper sequence, and at the correct time is a result of Training.  And yet, after getting our license, we rarely practice these maneuvers except during a Biannual or an aircraft checkout.  When’s the last time you practiced a stall recovery, a power off approach to an emergency landing field, or an emergency descent  triggered by a simulated fire?  If you do a proper pre-takeoff briefing, you may include a statement like, “if the engine fails after takeoff but before pattern altitude, I’ll get the nose down and land straight ahead.”  Have you ever had the power pulled at 200 feet and landed on the runway (doesn’t work at PAO or SQL)?  Few people have, yet if you haven’t practiced it, the chances of executing it successfully are pretty low.  And PLEASE don’t do this one without an instructor on board!!

Analysis, the final form of  “do something” is what happens after the immediate crisis has passed.  Properly done, it begins with an analysis of what happened, what systems had problems, what the problem indications were, and what actions the pilot (and others) took.  It continues with an analysis of why the problem occurred, and what the most appropriate actions would be to prevent similar problems in the future (in all three forms of “do something”).

Finally, it’s important to understand that this is an iterative process:  once Analysis is completed, the results should be rolled back into the Planning and Training/Execution processes.

In politics, most often, the problem is stated rather than analyzed and a solution is mandated with no causal analysis or iterative process.  I suppose that sometimes this produces the right answers, but it’s not where I’d put my money.

Our cities, counties, states, and country would be far better off if our politicians followed an appropriate form of “doing something”. 

Perhaps our flying would be better if WE regularly followed this methodology, as well.