Proficient Pilot

Aggressive safety

November 1, 2000

Not long ago I read a study dealing with CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents. One item stood out: "The vast majority of CFIT accidents involving flight into mountainous terrain occur surprisingly close to the apex of a mountain or slightly below a ridge line." In other words, if the majority of aircraft involved in CFIT accidents had been only slightly higher, these accidents would not have occurred.

This made me wonder how often instrument pilots flying in IFR conditions (or VFR pilots flying at night) barely miss disaster when too low because they are not quite low enough to impact terrain. Logic insists that this happens much more frequently than CFIT accidents themselves.

This made me wonder how close I might have come to being a CFIT statistic without ever being aware of it.

Continuing with this reasoning, I wondered how often I might have come close to other types of accidents without ever realizing it. How often have I had a near-midair collision but never knew it because I never saw the threatening traffic? How many times have I been sloppy during an instrument approach and not been aware of how dangerously near I came to an obstacle?

The same logic dictates that we also have come close to disaster without ever knowing it while driving an automobile.

This forces us to concede that fate or luck plays a role in survival. Our goal as pilots, therefore, must be to eliminate luck or fate from the safety equation to the maximum extent possible. This requires that we be confident in the safe outcome of operational decisions.

In the case of CFIT accidents, for example, we must not be satisfied thinking that we know the minimum safe altitude for every phase of flight. We must know that we know. With respect to avoiding midair collisions, we must scan the skies with increased vigilance.

An old instrument instructor used to say that if I weren't doing something at all times to increase situational awareness that I was doing it wrong. To some extent, the same applies to VFR operations.

TWA, the airline from which I retired, developed a program for its pilots called Aggressive Safety. It reminds us that accidents usually are not the result of one incident but instead are caused by a chain of events, the first of which often seems inconsequential. The first link allows a chain of events to develop, a chain from which recovery might not be possible.

Being aggressively safe means that pilots should regard every out-of-the-ordinary or unexpected event, however innocuous it might appear, as the possible first link in a chain that leads to an increasing degradation of safety. The idea is to do whatever is necessary and practical to break that link as soon as possible.

A night takeoff without a flashlight, for example, can be the first link in a safety chain. The next might be an ammeter indicating a potential problem, and the third might be total electrical failure. Fate works like that.

Preventing that first link with an unwillingness to fly at night without a flashlight and spare batteries minimizes the effect of what might come next and can have a profound effect on the outcome of a given flight. (Those who believe in karma might claim that the availability of a flashlight prevents electrical failure.)

Safety is an attitude, an unwillingness to sacrifice prudent operating practices for purposes of expediency or convenience.

I have taught two ways that can ensure a safe mindset during every flight.

The first is to pretend that every flight is being conducted with an FAA inspector or your instructor in the right seat. If you wouldn't do something with him or her monitoring your every move, then you probably should not do it when alone.

The second is to assume that you will be called upon to explain your actions to members of the NTSB convened in your honor. If you are about to make an operational decision that could not be satisfactorily defended to this august panel, then it most likely reflects poor judgment.

Then there is The Tribunal, a panel of members of the Mystical and Ancient Order of Airmen Gone West. The Tribunal passes final judgment on the conduct of all pilots. There was the case of one pilot, for example, who had had difficulty taxiing because of a gear-up landing. He meekly attempted to rationalize his carelessness by quoting that ridiculous bromide about there being two kinds of pilots who fly retractable-gear aircraft, "those who have made gear-up landings and those who will."

The Tribunal had heard that excuse many times. "Nonsense," proclaimed one of the elders. "That is said only to pacify an embarrassed pilot who allowed himself to become distracted. There is no excuse for a gear-up landing unless necessitated by an emergency or mechanical failure."

Another pilot tried to excuse himself from having bought the farm by proclaiming that he had flown west while doing what he enjoyed. The elders declared that the best way for any pilot to journey west was while sleeping comfortably in his own bed.

Admission to the Ancient Order is denied any pilot unable to outfly the setting sun because of his own neglect, especially when others are forced to share his fate. Such pilots are consigned elsewhere.

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