Proficient Pilot

Quick to criticize

April 1, 2007

Californian Barry Schiff is a former TWA captain. He flies out of Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

Several pilot friends and I were having breakfast at the Waypoint Café at Camarillo Airport last month. One of them asked a question that blossomed into a lively discussion.

"Assume," he began, "that you and two friends are preparing to depart Monument Valley Airport, a remote strip near the Arizona-Utah border in the Navajo Tribal Park. It is the day before Christmas, and you are returning home for the holidays.

"You discover during runup that the right magneto is malfunctioning. There is a 250-rpm drop that results in a rough-running engine, and no amount of leaning clears the problem. The engine runs smoothly on the left magneto.

"Compounding the problem is that there are no mechanics in Monument Valley nor is there any willing to fly there to repair the magneto. It is Christmas Eve day and mechanics will not be available for at least two days.

"The nearest airline terminal and rental-car agency are more than 100 nm east in Farmington, New Mexico.

"Legality aside," he asked, "what would you do at such a time?"

The dilemma was crafted so realistically that I suspected our friend had been confronted by these circumstances but preferred not to say so.

Some in our group said that they would have flown to Farmington by following the highway. Two claimed that they would have flown all the way to Los Angeles. (They said that this would have been safer and easier than trying to explain to their wives why they would not be home for Christmas.)

Those who would opt to depart Monument Valley actually argued that an engine has two magnetos for that very reason, to enable flight continuation in case one fails. "Besides," one added, "there are lots of old airplanes and motor gliders equipped with only one magneto, and their pilots are unconcerned about flying that way." (I had to admit that I have flown several aircraft equipped with only one magneto, the most recent being a 1931 Curtiss-Wright Junior.)

I then suggested that we put aside this question for a moment. I asked them instead to imagine that we had just learned from an NTSB investigation that a friend of ours had knowingly taken off with a bad magneto and wound up crash-landing in the desert and killing both himself and his passengers as the result of ignition failure over hostile terrain. I asked them to be honest, to tell me if they would be critical of such a pilot.

They became quietly uncertain, evasive. I believe that they knew but were unwilling to admit that as Monday-morning quarterbacks they probably would have crucified the pilot. Pilots are quick to criticize others for their mistakes but somehow rationalize their own blunders. We observe and condemn the failures of others but are less willing to apply the same standards to ourselves. This might be the result of egoism or simply an erroneous belief that bad stuff only happens to the other guy.

What would I do in the case of the malfunctioning magneto? That's easy. I would learn to say "Merry Christmas" in Navajo and allow myself to have what could be an enjoyable adventure. At worst, I would be miserable for a couple of days, but at least I would be alive to enjoy complaining about it. Half of our group agreed that departing on one magneto should only be done as a matter of life or death. One of my friends said he would try to hire someone to drive him and his passengers to Farmington.

Departing with a bad magneto would cause my stomach to churn. My instincts would signal that I was being stupid and shirking my responsibility as pilot in command.

Speaking of behaving like a captain, do you recall last August when the captain of an American Airlines Boeing 757 declared an emergency and notified air traffic control that he needed to land "right away" because of a fuel problem? The airliner was north of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and the crew requested a straight-in approach and landing on Runway 17C. ATC, however, advised the captain to circle southeast for a landing on Runway 31R.

The controllers in this case have been justifiably chastised for usurping the captain's emergency authority. I am surprised, however, that the captain allowed his command authority to be denigrated. He was concerned about the possibility of fuel exhaustion and needed to land as expeditiously as possible. Why then did he allow the controllers to tell him what to do? He should have advised ATC in no uncertain terms that he was going to land on Runway 17C. Period. The controllers would have been challenged to move conflicting traffic out of the way, but so what? Once a pilot has declared an emergency, the airspace and the airport belong to him to do with as he pleases.

This reflects a growing and bothersome tendency of pilots in command to allow others to usurp their authority at times when they are solely responsible for the safety of their passengers. It is the only way to explain why some captains held their passengers captive aboard jetliners on the tarmac this past winter for up to 11 hours at a time while conditions in the cabin eroded unacceptably. Such lack of professionalism has the four-stripers of yore rolling in their graves.

Visit the author's Web site.