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Feature Article II

Driving the airplane to and from the runway is a piece of cake, right? Think again.

It was a beautiful day, light winds and clear skies as I departed KSQL in Skyhawk 31CN. I flew to KHAF for a gentle landing with pacific views, honed in on the Woodside VOR, then over to KPAO for pattern work and back to KSQL.  Ten landings, nose up and on the center line. GUMP in the pattern, checklists for short and soft field landings, and my comms work was spot on. Solid practice for a budding private pilot with 120 hours.

That’s what I was thinking as I taxied back via Juliet. As I turned right down Juliet parking I was on the centerline and had my eyes on the empty slot that 31CN calls home. Keeping my eyes to the left, I was measuring the moment I would be abeam the plane in the neighboring stall and pull to a stop to commence shutdown procedures. That’s when I felt it, a light jolt on the right side of the plane just as I stopped. I looked to my right and saw the fuel truck parked at the side of the hangar. Where did that come from?

Fortunately for me, the right wingtip hit the protruding passenger side view mirror. The mirror collapsed backwards and no damage was caused to the fuel truck. Damage was also light on 31CN, in the hundreds of dollars. However, 31CN was out of commission for more than a week as the new fairing was in transit. Owners lost out on rental dollars and pilots had one less plane to fly. I know how frustrating it can be to want to fly, but not have a plane available. I break out in a sweat of embarrassment every time I think of it. Knowing that my complacency was the cause. 

Complacency and automacity are two terms that define the taxiing pilot’s worst enemy. Complacency: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; Automacity: the act of processing without awareness, the performance of a task without attention to the details.

Many pilots appear to have the attitude that a flight begins with takeoff and ends when the airplane lands and departs the runway. However, as in my case, ground operations certainly cause their share of grief. There are three primary factors that encourage the mental and physical side of complacency, they are: 

1.     Fatigue

2.     Too many things happening simultaneously

3.     Too few things happening

Mental workload limits impact one’s ability to pay attention. First, workload resources may be pushed beyond their reasonable limit. If too many things are happening at the same time, that person has to divert his or her attention from one task to another. He or she can be “spread thin.” This situation leads to reduced attention and/or selective focus. We have a tendency to complete pre-take-off checks, set up our GPS, review a map or departure procedures, enter squawk codes, and talk to passengers while taxiing. If the other tasks we are doing are taking up all of our attention, we should not be doing them. 

At the same time, a person may have too little to do. A situation may seem boring, with little activity occurring. Or a task may seem routine, having been done by a person a hundred times before. However, you should remember, there is always a danger waiting around the next turn.

I recently read an article that described a zone that we should live, work, and play in. An in-between state the author calls ‘creative tension’. The analogy he gave likened shooting a rubber band at a target to our live, work, and play lives. Pull the band back to lightly and it flops to the ground (complacency), pull back to tightly and it snaps (fatigue), pull back just right and you hit the target. The in-between is creative tension and that is where we perform at our best. 

Battle complacency and automacity by existing in creative tension (at least while operating an airplane), and avoid lessons learned the hard way. To conclude this short, personal lesson I would like to offer a few taxiing tips and provide a link to the USDOT Advisory Circular on FARS Part 91 and Part 135 - Single Pilot Procedures During Taxi Operations:

Hitting the side view mirror of a fuel truck is no accident, it is pilot error. Don’t be complacent! Operate in the creative tension zone. 

The faster we taxi, the less time we have for making judgments in tight areas, we cannot turn as tight, and stop as quickly.

Ramps and taxiways are often busy places and there are very few rules. We must expect the unexpected.

Always check your brakes at the commencement of the taxi. You rely more on them for taxi than for landing.

Always give yourself adequate room to turn. The wings take a lot of room (also, don’t forget the wings may clear objects, the tail may not).

When approaching a taxiway or ramp, stop all other tasks and look out.

Treat every entrance to a ramp or taxiway, and every intersection of taxiways, as uncontrolled intersections. That is what they are. Look before entering.$FILE/AC91-73A.pdf


Safe Flying.