Safety Publications/Articles

Visualize Success

What You See Is What You'll Get

An 18,000-hour commercial pilot and flight instructor took off in a Cessna 182 from an airport in New Jersey for an IFR night flight to Gaithersburg, Maryland. On board were pilot Craig Kerr, his wife, and two friends. The weather over the route varied from mar-ginal VFR to solid instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The flight was uneventful until about 40 nautical miles northeast of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Near Rising Sun, Maryland, the engine suddenly seized. Cruising at 4,000 feet, Kerr felt severe vibration, observed sparks from the cowling, and then heard silence. Kerr recalls feeling heat on his legs, indicating a probable fire in the engine compartment. He contacted air traffic control, declared an emergency, and asked for vectors to the nearest airport. The ceiling was estimated at 400 feet with four miles' visibility in mist. ATC vectored him toward a small grass strip, but he never saw it. After the aircraft was trimmed for best glide, Kerr advised his passengers to tighten their seat belts and secure any loose objects. He saw nothing outside as he watched his altimeter approach zero.

The 182 clipped some trees, slid down a 45-degree embankment, and crash-landed inverted, partially in the water on the remote shoreline of the Susquehanna River. The two back-seat passengers were not injured, and the front-seat passenger suffered a broken nose and a deep gash to her leg. Kerr was the most seriously injured with compound fractures of both legs. It took more than three hours for the wreckage to be located. The occupants, who had remained in the aircraft, were rescued by local fire department paramedics in a boat after they spotted a flashlight that one of the passengers used to gain attention.

The engine teardown revealed that an oil seal and bearing had failed, resulting in an almost immediate loss of engine oil and subsequent destruction of the engine. The engine had 1,200 hours since a factory overhaul. Time between overhauls (TBO) for that engine, a Continental 0-470, is normally 1,800 hours.

According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's 1999 Nall Report, accidents in IMC at night were nearly three times more likely to be fatal than those in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) at night. The mixture of IMC and night proved to be the most lethal combination, more than tripling the overall fatal accident percentage rate.

Every pilot must determine his or her comfort level with flying IMC at night. Perhaps your personal risk management should include raising the IMC minimums in which you will fly for night trips, giving you more opportunity to select a suitable landing site in case of a problem.

But raising your minimums may not be enough if you find yourself in a nearly impossible situation. This raises the question of how we train pilots to handle such crises.

After a catastrophic mechanical failure, Capt. Al Haynes survived the crash landing of his United DC-10 at Sioux City, Iowa, along with 184 of his passengers and crew. The number-two engine exploded, severing hydraulic lines and denying the crew the use of any control surfaces. The airplane's flight manual did not cover the loss of all hydraulic systems because the premise was that it could never happen. And if it did, there was no chance of recovery.

Haynes' skill and experience were important factors in his relative success. His excellent use of cockpit resource management (CRM) ensured that the crew worked together as a team to cope with the emergency. But the fact that Haynes stayed focused and never gave up trying to save his life and the lives of his passengers was also crucial to the outcome. General aviation pilots can learn from his experience.

The 182 pilot was also skilled and experienced, and he too stayed focused and never gave up. He expertly flew the airplane to the ground, under control and at minimum airspeed, maintaining air under the wings as long as possible. After impact, he directed his passengers to search for the emergency locator transmitter and ensure that it had activated. He found the flashlight and instructed a passenger how best to use it to attract attention. He and his passengers lived to fly another day.

Giving up in the face of what are thought to be impossible odds is what psychologists call resignation. The mindset of "what's the use" is a major detriment to successfully coping with an emergency. How do we teach pilots not to submit to resignation when the going gets tough? In an interview, the 182 pilot was asked what went through his mind as he was handling this emergency. First he said there was denial - this can't be happening! He quickly got past that stage and began concentrating on saving himself and his friends. He said he visualized a successful outcome and did not let any other thoughts enter his mind. He flew as if he was flying an approach to minimums, concentrating on airspeed, altimeter, vertical speed, and maintaining a wings-level attitude - all the time visualizing and focusing on a successful outcome. Thoughts of hitting a building, tower, or smoke-stack never entered his mind until the flight was over.

Visualization is a valuable training technique that is not widely used by flight instructors. While flying, have students develop the habit of playing a "what if" game. What if the engine failed now? What would the student do first, do next, and so on, until a successful off-airport landing is achieved? Back on the ground, encourage students to visualize an emergency and the steps that they would take to achieve a successful outcome.

Visualization is also valuable for instrument training. Have students practice instrument approaches by mentally flying them while sitting in an easy chair at home. Have them ask themselves, for example, what they would do if they lost the electrical system just before the outer marker on the approach they are mentally flying. It's much easier to deal with those emergencies from the safety of a favorite chair than it is if you think about it for the first time when it happens aloft.

Visualization is a time-honored mental conditioning technique for athletes and seems to give them an edge once they've achieved the maximum level of physical conditioning. Pilots, too, can visualize success, giving them an edge whether on a checkride or coping with a true emergency. Instructors should make this technique part of their training curriculum.

Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation

By Richard Hiner

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