September 1, 2013
By Bruce Landsberg
Yogi Berra, star baseball player and manager for the hated (or beloved) New York Yankees, always had a way with words. Here are some quotes of Berra in the context of general aviation safety.
“You can observe a lot just by watching.” A profound thought—one really can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes, yet accident pilots consistently follow the same path. The knowledge of what it takes to fly safely is not new and the risks are well known. We run out of gas, lose control in turns, attempt VFR when it’s IMC, fly into thunderstorms, and try to do things with the aircraft that the designers never intended.
“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” Too many of our departed friends compared themselves to Sean Tucker, Bob Hoover, or merely a competent IFR pilot—when they weren’t especially good at aerobatics or instrument flight. Maneuvering flight continues to be a leading killer, as is weather. Some pilots equate themselves to those who have attained much greater skill.
“If she can do it, why can’t I?” In performance activities, merely saying that one is capable doesn’t make it so. Lots of practice, knowledge, and a little innate talent are needed. Woody Allen, another famous philosopher, noted, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” In aviation, not only is showing up essential but one also has to play reasonably well.
“Baseball is 90 percent mental—the other half is physical.” So what about flying? My estimation is that it’s about 80 percent mental, 30 percent physical, and 75 percent judgment. The math still doesn’t quite add up, but the idea is simple. You can overcome any skill level with enough bad judgment. Every year a number of accidents will cause some head shaking as we try to understand what the pilot was thinking.
There will be others where someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Midair collisions are rare, but high-density traffic areas demand solid procedures to avoid a meeting of the metal. The limits of the human eye are well known but with a sterile cockpit, onboard equipment, ATC advisories, appropriate radio use, and a paranoid scan, the odds improve. Avoiding ultra-nasty weather including thunderstorms, ice, and low clouds is 155 percent headwork. It usually involves little skill to avoid and most of the time there is at least some evidence that it’s lurking. So, don’t go there!
Occasionally there will be a catastrophic mechanical failure that really isn’t the pilot’s doing. The best one can do is to fly well-maintained aircraft and accept the inconvenience when something shows up on pre-flight or runup that will delay or cancel the flight. It also means practicing for the unthinkable so if there’s any chance for a good outcome, we’re ready to perform.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Decision-making is an area where GA could spend some additional time, both in training and in what the airlines call IOE or initial operating experience. This means that when pilots earn a certificate or rating that confers new capability, it’s time to listen and learn even though the test was just passed. You’re still the same, skill and knowledge-wise, as you were a few hours earlier. Understanding things in an academic sense is not the same as knowing them experientially. That takes time and exposure.
Ditto for checking out in a new model of aircraft. Transition training is important and although aircraft have similarities, the devil truly can be in the details of fuel systems, handling characteristics, or something else. A logbook endorsement sometimes just means the paperwork or insurance requirement is satisfied. There is still real learning ahead as we make peace with the hardware—the first 100 hours in type is a good benchmark. It’s best not to carry passengers for at least the first 10 hours.
“It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” A few pilots—perhaps you’ve come across them—could stand a bit more humility. Sometimes accidents occur to really experienced folk who got complacent or to lesser-experienced ones who were merely conceited. I’ve had the privilege to be around some of the best in the business. The better they are, typically, the less swagger. They’ve seen a lot but concede they ain’t seen it all—and the most critical flight is the next one.
There are many more Yogisms, but perhaps his most famous is, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Too many times after an accident, for pilots and their passengers—it’s over. The safety mindset needs to happen on every flight, so we have to out-think and outfly Murphy (Murphy’s law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) every time. Murphy only needs to win once. But there are millions of flights flown annually by hundreds of thousands of pilots who take on the Murph and beat him every time. You can be one of them!
Bruce landsberg will present a seminar on “Real-World IFR” at the 2013 AOPA Aviation Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, October 10 through 12.
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