Learning from ourselves

February 1, 2000

Learning from your own mistakes is a great opportunity. Generally, it's not expensive and is far less embarrassing than damaging an aircraft or yourself. It is one of the reasons why the real pros are relatively humble about their skills. They have humiliated themselves enough in the past to realize that there is always something more to learn. When you think you've mastered it all, invariably there is a big surprise coming.

Studying accident reports is one sobering way in which to learn about mistakes that don't have happy endings. Another way is to get a firsthand report from someone who learned something without having to suffer an accident. The "Never Again" column in AOPA Pilot is one source. Another is NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, or ASRS. I have the honor of working on the agency's industry advisory committee and believe that NASA does an excellent job for a relatively small investment from the FAA. It allows us a look into problem areas, before an accident occurs, to correct things either systemically or individually. Let's look at what some pilots learned.

A student pilot was preparing for his checkride by practicing stalls, figure eights, and S-turns. He then turned his attention to emergency landings. After several simulations toward open fields, the student recalled that the examiner preferred that pilots simulate the emergency landing on roads or highways. We could have some discussion on whether a highway is a good place to land. In lesser-traveled parts of the country, there would be a chance to pull off a forced landing with no damage to the aircraft and maybe get your picture next to the undamaged airplane in the local newspaper. In other more densely populated areas, 18-wheelers and soccer moms in SUVs that outweigh the aircraft make wheat fields sound like a great alternative.

One of the great things about ASRS reports is that the pilot frequently tells us what he was thinking at the time. Here are the student's observations, with some minor editing: "My intention was to see how a plane could land on a road if there was no traffic. I selected the side of the highway with no utility lines and flew parallel to the road, matching traffic speed against the optimum glide speed of the aircraft. When [I was] sure I could land safely, a car pulled into the traffic lane where my simulated touchdown was planned. I had started to climb but then hesitated to contemplate this change of events. As I pulled the nose up to climb away, I saw a flash out of my left eye and felt the plane shudder momentarily and then continue.

"The light utility line I connected with ran across the road and attached to a post on a high bank to the right about 500 feet agl. I was not aware of this because I was concentrating on the car. I returned to the airport, landed safely, and inspected the aircraft. There seemed to be no damage. My instructor immediately debriefed me on the dangers of low flight. I am very aware of the potential for disaster in this incident [and] will now simulate my emergencies at a safe altitude. I am also more aware of obstructions now."

The student's curiosity about landing between vehicles seems reasonable. This should be discussed as a theoretical problem while weighing the real risks of hitting obstacles in a practice scenario. Power lines are very difficult to see, and contact with them is ugly. This deliberation should take place before solo practice. Set a minimum solo altitude that allows for less-than-perfect technique. The student also learned about target fixation. The military spends a lot of time training this out of its pilots. When one becomes engrossed with the target to the exclusion of altitude, accidents happen.

A CFI and instrument student were on an IFR training flight in the clouds when they encountered light icing about 20 miles from a nearby VOR. According to the instructor (again, with minor editing), "The wings looked just slightly frosty, so we decided to divert to the nearest airport for an approach. However, descending from the minimum en route altitude [MEA] for the approach, moderate mixed icing was encountered. The temperature at the MEA (5,000 feet) was 30 degrees Fahrenheit. I assumed that a descent of 3,000 feet for the approach would prevent additional ice from forming. There was an unpleasant surprise! We quickly picked up between one-half and three-quarters of an inch on the entire airplane, while the temperature gauge never moved from 30 degrees F during the entire approach.

"I was wrong to think we could fly through an area forecast to have light to moderate rime icing in the clouds. I assumed that because layers were reported, that an altitude could be easily found that would keep us out of the clouds. The airplane went from feeling like a Cessna 172 to feeling like a heavy Boeing 747. The Cessna was at max gross weight, including three passengers and full fuel in extended range tanks.

"The GPS on board showed the effect of the ice...as the groundspeed continued to decrease. I will never fly in known or forecast icing conditions again."

A few useful tips on weather emerge here. Icing forecasts are broad and cover a wide area. Temperature usually increases in descent, but not always. Betting that you can find an ice-free layer in the clouds is a high-risk option, and there are few alternatives. The CFI was unnerved by the decrease in groundspeed, but airspeed gives a better picture. It is the best measure of how much drag is accumulating. Losing five knots in a slow aircraft is a warning. When 10 kt are gone, it's time for an immediate diversion, since another 10 kt will likely be lost during the escape — unless you are close to the tops or bases of the clouds.

In this last scenario, a pilot was receiving a checkout in a tailwheel airplane. The CFI stated that he was familiar with the nontowered airport, having been there recently. He wasn't quite as knowledgeable as he thought. Instead of using the published Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) on 123.0 MHz, the flight used Multicom on 122.9. This frequency is used to self-announce position only when an airport does not have a unicom.

The CFI then instructed the pilot to fly standard left traffic patterns, but the runway in use had a right traffic pattern. There was another ill-informed pilot operating at the airport who also was using the incorrect left pattern. The airport manager did track down the CFI and "educated" him about the proper procedure. Fortune smiles on us frequently and no collision hazard existed this time, but luck has a way of changing quickly. Obviously, using a current sectional chart, which identifies the CTAF and traffic pattern direction (a recent change), would have solved this problem. Becoming complacent is one of the greatest risks that befall experienced pilots.

Some obvious and some subtle mistakes were made in these scenarios. It's a shame when serious or fatal accidents result from the hard lessons that others learned. We should all pay attention.


Links to information on NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System may be found on AOPA Online. See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.