Fat, dumb and happy

September 1, 1993

It usually starts on a long cross country in benign weather. It is the malaise that sometimes affects pilots when the work to be done isn't immediately apparent. The in-flight tasks have dropped below the level needed to maintain an active interest in the process.

Somewhere on about the third cross country, all the little gremlins that haunt student pilots get put back in their bottles temporarily. The heading is bracketed and finally established. The course deviation indicator is centered, and the highway that was supposed to be on the left is actually there. The next checkpoint isn't due to loom into view for about 10 minutes.

My instructor noticed my more relaxed demeanor and began plotting. It wasn't too long before the throttle was reduced to 1,400 rpm, and he announced, almost cheerfully, a partial engine failure — simulated, of course. Life was suddenly complicated again with the business of survival, and there was the usual admonishment that if you have nothing to do, something is about to go wrong.

In real life, that really isn't true. Many pilots, after acquiring rudimentary cross-country skills, will "veg out" for considerable periods on long trips, and on 999 out of 1,000 trips, absolutely nothing terrifying will happen. But "the edge" is lost. Pilots who fly this way are not as sharp (pun intended) as the ones who actively participate and anticipate.

There is a balance between being comfortably alert and fully aware of the circumstances and the hyperactive type who fidgets constantly. I'm not suggesting perpetual motion but rather an active interest in the proceedings.

Pilots don't usually document the attention lapses, but when they do, it's not the kind of story you would recount on yourself. The ultimate attention lapse is sleep. Air traffic controllers have some amusing anecdotes, like the eastbound IFR flight that overflew the destination coastal city despite numerous calls from the controller. When the pilot finally woke up, his adrenalin surge was considerable from looking at nothing but big water. Fortunately, there was enough fuel to take back the miles and resolve not to do *that* again.

The difference between the pro and the amateur has everything to do with attitude and little to do with the source of the paycheck. In reading the history of some of the pioneering long-distance flights that opened up the airline and military routes across the Pacific, I was struck by the attention to detail and the constant checking. In some cases, the time aloft would be as long as 30 hours. Even the great navigation equipment of today — VOR, loran, GPS — can't overcome the need for a heads-up attitude. Navigational errors occur, as is suspected in the Korean Airlines flight shot down in Soviet airspace. The crew may only have needed a bit more curiosity about the flight environment to catch the error.

Enforced curiosity can be mandated by the operation specifications of an airline, a corporate flight department, or, in our case, by the pilot in command. One large and well-respected flight department requires their crews to know the heading and distance to the nearest suitable airport within 20 minutes' flying time, where possible, in the event of an emergency. Pilots of multiengine jet aircraft with multiple backup systems have far less need, on a purely statistical basis, to know the nearest landing site than those of us flying less capable aircraft, but they do it for two reasons. It reduces their risk and keeps the crews actively involved.

There has been a lot of debate in aircraft-design human-factors groups as to just how much work a pilot should have. Make it too hard and there is fatigue, with not much margin for routine flight management and abnormal situations. Make it too easy and there is fatigue from boredom, where the pilot becomes a passenger who may not intervene appropriately when needed. The controversy continues as designers work to build new airliners and business jets. For most of us flying light airplanes, the philosophical argument is moot. Our aircraft belong to a less automated generation but are still quite capable of lulling us into lethargy.

Autopilots contribute to the ease of long-distance flying and free up the single pilot for some of the more interesting activities other than maintaining heading and altitude. Having thus been at least partially relieved of basic tasks, there is plenty of time to explore our environment.

VFR operations, even when we are tracking on loran, GPS, or VOR, require constant attention to the airspace ahead. B, C, and D airspace (formerly TCAs, ARSAs, and airport traffic areas/control zones) all command a clearance or dialogue prior to penetration, as do restricted areas. In populated areas of the country, there is enough of this congested airspace around to warrant your active involvement. Don't forget military operations areas and military training routes. A quick check with flight service or a controller will tell you if they're hot, which may suggest a deviation, altitude change, or, at the very least, a very active scan. Does it add to the work load? Absolutely, and it's the price of keeping VFR general aviation aircraft from tangling with IFR aircraft and military training missions.

In instrument meteorological conditions, the weather is of primary interest, with a constant head game of "what if?" Listening to ATIS, ASOS, AWOS, Hiwas, and Flight Watch along the way keeps one current and can usually be done without signing off the frequency. Most of us pay attention when thunder or ice may be a factor, but when it's just good ol' stratus, perhaps the guard comes down a bit. What if the alternator drops out, leaving us 20 minutes of electricity? Suppose an exhaust valve takes a powder or, worst case, dissolves into the innards of the engine, leaving the aircraft powerless. The possibilities are endless as any enterprising instructor will tell you.

It's fun to identify all the airports along the way, impresses the passengers and, once or twice in your flying career, may make the difference between a great hangar story and an accident. To paraphrase the popular bumper sticker, "Stuff Happens," and as pilots, we need to be ready when it does.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.