Proficient Pilot: Schiff's Mailbag

December 1, 2008

Barry Schiff has been writing for AOPA Pilot since June 1963.

Tom Travis is a retired airline captain and was the fleet manager of the Boeing 747 and Douglas DC-10 for American Airlines. He recently sent an e-mail in response to my November column, “ Proficient Pilot: Attitudes to Live By,” which dealt with pilot attitudes that could be helpful in preventing accidents. One of Travis’ responsibilities was to review accident and incident reports. Almost invariably, he says, the reports began with a phrase such as, “We were in a hurry” or “We were late.”

That is an astute and fascinating observation that highlights what undoubtedly is a contributing factor in many accidents.

One well-known tragedy, for example, occurred on April 3, 1996, when a U.S. Air Force CT43A (military version of the Boeing 737-200) crashed into a hill during an instrument (NDB) approach to Runway 12 at Dubrovnik, Croatia. Although a primary cause of the accident was pilot error, a study of the events leading up to the accident reveals that the flight was running late and that errors made by the crew most likely were the result of being in a hurry. (The passengers consisted of an official U.S. government delegation that included Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown; they were being met at the airport by an official Croatian delegation.)

It is difficult if not impossible to determine all of the instances in which haste has contributed to an accident. Haste and its kissing cousin, impatience, are factors that we know intuitively can lead to error. All we need to do is think of how often being in a hurry has led to error, incident, or accident during our normal ground-bound lives.

Numerous accidents, for example, occur annually as the result of fuel exhaustion. The explanation for these accidents is typically obvious: The pilot exercised poor judgment by failing to land safely before consuming available fuel. But we need to go one step further and ask: What led to the pilot running out of fuel? How many such accidents are caused by pilots being in a hurry and not taking the time to top the tanks before departure or to make an en-route fuel stop?

How many other accidents are caused by preflight inspections made in haste or planning functions given short shrift because pilots are in a hurry?

The good news about this precursor to so many accidents is that there is a simple and effective antidote. Because it is so easy to recognize when we are operating hurriedly, all we have to do is say to ourselves, Hey. Wait a minute. There’s no reason to rush like this. Being a few minutes late is of little or no consequence. After all, I’d rather arrive a little late than not get there at all. It is a simple matter of recognizing when you are acting hastily and applying the mental brakes needed to slow down.

Operating in a relaxed manner and taking one’s time to accomplish critical tasks makes for much safer operations.

During a discussion about time in my October column, “ Proficient Pilot: It’s About Time,” I mentioned that every day has a 48-hour life span, that 48 hours pass from the time a given day first appears on Earth until that day finally disappears forever.

I did not expect the deluge of e-mail that arrived to challenge this statement. Although I recognize that the “48-hour day” is not easy to wrap one’s head around, it is equally difficult to explain.

Assume that it is December 31 throughout the entire world. New Year’s Day, January 1, will first appear in the time zone immediately west of the International Date Line. This new day takes 24 hours to work its way westbound until it is New Year’s Day throughout the entire world.

Now for the difficult part.

The next day, January 2, first occurs in the first time zone west of the International Date Line, just as January 1 first occurred there 24 hours earlier.

It takes 24 hours for this new date, January 2, to work its way around the world and displace January 1 from all of the time zones. In other words, it takes 24 hours from the time a day is born for it to “wrap” itself around the entire world and another 24 hours for it to “unwrap” itself from around the world and disappear.

Here’s another way to look at it. When January 1, 2009, first appears in the first time zone immediately west of the International Date Line, it will be 12 hours earlier in Greenwich, England; it will be 1200 UTC on December 31, 2008.

Twenty-four hours later, it will become January 1, 2008, in the first time zone immediately east of the Date Line, and the time and date in Greenwich will be 1200 UTC on January 1, 2009. Now, that date, January 1, 2009, will last in the first time zone east of the Date Line for 24 hours, or until 1200 GMT on January 2, 2008.

Therefore, January 1 first appears in the world at 1200 GMT on December 31 and lasts until 1200 GMT on January 2, which is clearly (or perhaps not so clearly) a 48-hour period.

On a lighter note, I mentioned that although I obviously can tell what time it is, I do not know what time is. One of my readers, however, provided the answer. He said in an e-mail that, “time is what we use to ensure that everything doesn’t happen all at once.”