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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor

Discrimination and Prejudice

Lots of words have an emotional content that is as high as the logical content.  “Discrimination” is one of those words, and “prejudice” is another.  We hear these words and get tight-jawed if not downright angry.  Yet, one is misapplied, and the other is misunderstood.  That’s opinion, of course.

For most of our lives we’ve been told not to discriminate.  And yet …Let’s get back to basics – like the definition of the word.  “Discrimination” is the act of discriminating (well, duh!) or differentiating.  So, going even farther back to “discriminate”, the definition is “to make or constitute a distinction in or between, differentiate”.  Somehow this doesn’t seem as bad as politicians make discrimination sound.  And after all, aren’t differences how we get through the day?  If we didn’t discriminate between red and green lights (and take different actions based on those distinctions), for example, traffic would be even worse than it usually is.  And only a fool or a politician (but I repeat myself) would pretend there isn’t a difference between male and female.  Viva la difference!  Which, pretty much exhausts my knowledge of French, though it captures one of its most insightful thoughts.

So, what does all this have to do with aviation and aviation safety?  Two things come immediately to mind: discrimination helps the pilot determine the differences between the current situation and the one the pilot wants, and discrimination allows the pilot to diagnose problems when they occur, and the longer you fly, the more likely it is that the spaghetti will have hit the fan.  The differences between what you have and what you want is a topic for another newsletter, but this time I’d like to look at problems that occur, and how we deal with them.  And that’s done with discrimination.

With discrimination, you can differentiate between the myriad of parameters monitored and presented continually in the cockpit, and find the single indicator or the series of indications that will allow diagnosis of the real problem. 

Its prejudice that causes us problems, and it comes in a variety of forms.  We hear, of course of things like racial (and a variety of other) prejudice in political or social settings.  But I’d like to talk about a more subtle type that pervades the flying community, and to do that, I’m going to start with cars.

I can’t think of the number of times I’ve gone to the car fix-it store with a problem, which I describe accurately and in detail.  Whereupon the mechanic says something like, “You need a new (and he names a part). “  Coincidentally, it usually is the most expensive part in that system of the car.  At this point, things start getting loud as I insist that he find the problem before he starts buying expensive parts with my money, to say nothing of charging labor costs to my account before determining the real problem.  The mechanic, of course, insists that he’s right and it would be a waste of time doing additional diagnostics since its obvious what the problem is.  No surprise, the mechanic is just as certain on the next thing he names when the first one doesn’t actually solve the problem.  Nor does he offer a refund for his prejudice.

In the world of flying, this form of prejudice is the one that results in pilots landing at the wrong airport because they decided that it was the right one, and despite an abundance of information (distance and direction from the city, runway size, taxiway configuration, and so on) to the contrary, continued to approach and land at the wrong one.  On the positive side, it’s usually a very nice landing.  But doing the wrong thing really well isn’t nearly as good as doing the right thing even if it isn’t done nearly as well.

It also results in pilots solving the wrong problem when abnormal situations arise.  Either the pilot reacts automatically because of training, or makes a choice based on less than complete analysis (just like the mechanic wants to on my car).

So what’s wrong with reacting automatically?  Nothing, sometimes.  When the stall buffet begins, shoving the nose down isn’t a bad idea most of the time.  At two feet during a landing, maybe it’s not the best idea.  When you’re inverted doing acro, the results are interesting.

The cure for prejudice is education.  And in the case of most piloting situations, it’s analysis backed by education.  If you’ve examined the symptoms, analyzed them, and considered alternatives, it’s hard to make a decision or take an action based on a personal bias.

Education, analysis and planning will keep us out of trouble.  If you’ve thought about a situation, it’s more likely that you will react correctly.