Case study method

March 1, 1997

Writer James Baldwin once said that becoming intimately knowledgeable about anything involves a requirement to know its seamy side. I believe this to be true about the fascinating world of aviation. If you don't learn from the mistakes of others, you may find yourself repeating them. The wear and tear of that approach is not to be underestimated.

I received a call a few months back from a member, "Mr. West," who lives in a sparsely populated mountainous area and flies a high-performance single-engine aircraft. He very politely took exception to a column that I wrote discussing the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's new seminar, The Most Dangerous Game (" Safety Pilot," November 1996 Pilot). The topic was maneuvering flight, high angle-of-attack stall/spin, and mishaps involving takeoffs and landings.

The conversation was memorable because he was an absolute gentleman about voicing his concerns, which is something of a rarity these days, and because it opened up an area that we seldom discuss. That is, how much ink or how many electrons should be devoted to discussing accidents and potential accident scenarios. He felt that there was a significant downside that would dissuade new pilots.

To provide some background without breaching his identity, Mr. West is a former military fighter pilot who was once shot down in Vietnam and who brought his aircraft back with battle damage many other times. His training and experiences place him in the top one percent of general aviation pilots. He admitted to having both confidence and some luck — a necessary prerequisite to fly fighters in combat.

The precipitating event for the phone call was a young family member who had just received her private pilot certificate and who had read my column. She decided that flying was too dangerous for her and was going to give it up. This distressed both of us, and we discussed it at length. Confidence in flying ability must be present in just exactly the right quantity. Too much and there is the possibility of someone's making headlines; too little and the pilot looks for excuses not to fly and eventually will give it up.

Having instructed and observed both types, I believe that it falls to the rest of the community to provide what guidance we can. Flight instructors are important because we want to send our graduates on their way with just the right confidence mix. Pilots with a good imagination can visualize both sides of a course of action and usually make the right decision if they are not ignorant of the potential outcomes. The ignorance factor is critical because not knowing, in certain facets of flying, is the cause of many accidents.

Lack of confidence, in my opinion, does not come from reading case studies about accident scenarios. It arises from a more deep-seated fear that stems from inadequate instruction, inadequate practice, and possibly some individual psychological traits. There are some people who decide to learn to fly and tough it out, either to prove to themselves or to someone else that they can do it. The joy of flight isn't there, self-doubt is rampant, and danger is perceived to be everywhere.

The cure is additional instruction from a crackerjack professional who can show the pilot how to explore the far corners of the performance envelope and demonstrate that one can indeed fly safely. This may well be a different CFI from the one who brought the pilot through primary training. An alternate look and new explanations can sometimes make a significant difference. This isn't to say that the first instructor was bad, but the chemistry may have been lacking.

Practice is essential, particularly for new pilots whose skills are still being developed. They may have passed that wonderfully artificial transformation from student to certificated pilot, known as the checkride, but they are far from mature and must be nurtured carefully. This is where learning from the mistakes of others becomes critical. The message is simply to avoid those situations that are beyond knowledge, skill, or common sense. Learn to operate the aircraft the way it was designed, and the odds shift so overwhelmingly in your favor that you will enjoy all the pleasures of flight. This is the time to ask lots of questions — not to make assumptions.

The psychology of men and women and the interaction between them is well above my pay grade and beyond my area of expertise. There are some people who are not able to overcome psychological or emotional baggage and probably will not be very successful as pilots. Identifying these individuals is sometimes difficult, and we recommend good instruction, close supervision, and prolific practice before deciding that someone might be happier with a boat.

Going back to the concept of case studies and safety seminars that recreate problem areas, look at some other professions. Where would the National Football League be without game films? Monday mornings spent analyzing the mishaps on Sunday may be some of the most productive time spent during the team's training week. In medicine there is the autopsy, which is a great source of knowledge. Medical schools use cadavers extensively to teach anatomy and pathology and to help new doctors to develop their surgical skills. Harvard Business School developed the case study method of looking at actual business successes and failures.

Every airline, the military, and most corporate flight departments use accident information to inform and teach their flight crews. Entire publications are devoted to minutely examining every mishap, major or minor, to glean whatever information there is. In this column and in some ASF programs, we focus — by design — on what went wrong. But keeping it in perspective is important. There are relatively few general aviation accidents, but with widespread media coverage, they appear to be rampant.

Some years ago the buzzword in real estate was to use OPM — other people's money — to leverage your own meager resources to make a bigger profit. Benefiting from OPE — other people's experiences — is some of the best knowledge leverage we can get. The only good that can possibly come out of an accident is the understanding that can prevent it from recurring.

Mr. West admitted that he got great enjoyment from low-level maneuvering and had done it for years in sparsely populated areas. Yet the Air Safety Foundation recommends 1,500 feet agl as the lowest en route altitude. Since we see all the accident reports and many of the bad ones involve a disproportionate amount of low-level maneuvering, we're going to stick with that recommendation.

However, under the proper circumstances, low-level flight can be performed safely. Here's how. As the salesman said in The Music Man, "Ya gotta know the territory." This means knowing where the wires and towers are and intimately understanding the wind currents, the terrain, and the performance of your aircraft. Stay well away from people and structures. Finally, a liberal dose of common sense is needed. Some pilots will learn and others will not. The process of natural selection works in aviation just as in other walks of life.

My hat is off to Mr. West for raising a question where we may have to disagree on certain aspects, and for letting me know his thoughts. Communication is important. And as for the new private pilot, I hope that she will get the instruction and encouragement she needs to increase her confidence. Learning from history is far better than repeating it; a phenomenal world of flight awaits those who learn.


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