A flight instructor and a high-time pilot undergoing a flight review are taxiing from the ramp to the runway in a Cessna 172. Noticing that the fuel gauges indicate about half a full fuel load, the CFI points to them and says, “I thought you said we had full fuel.”
The pilot is puzzled by the indications, and protests that he has a standing order with the line crew to top off the tanks after every flight. Evidently the request was overlooked after the aircraft’s most recent flying, he says apologetically.
"No," the pilot responds. He had assumed they were full, as they usually are.
Earlier in the day, a recently soloed student pilot had told the CFI an unnerving story of returning to the airport after a solo session in the practice area. Traffic was light, and the student pilot had received landing clearance earlier than usual in the arrival sequence.
There was one unusual wrinkle in the clearance: Instructions included entering a right downwind, not the usual left downwind for the single runway. Arriving from the practice area, that would require flying beyond the airport and turning downwind on the other side.
As the student pilot got closer, the tower abruptly canceled the landing clearance. “You were instructed to enter right downwind for Runway 14,” the controller said
Runway 32 is almost always active here; the student pilot couldn’t recall the last time he used Runway 14. Torn between wanting to comply and wanting to apologize, he momentarily froze, but regained composure and complied with new landing instructions without further complications.
Both of these pilots’ operational errors resulted from complacency, a state of mind described in the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook as “an insidious and hard-to-identify attitude.”
The high-timer assumed that his standing top-it-off request would always be followed. Then he allowed himself the lazy luxury of not checking the fuel quantity.
A newly soloed student pilot might seem an unlikely candidate for a complacency error. But already, an impression that “we always use Runway 32” caused him to miss the runway assignment in the landing clearance—instructions that made perfect sense based on the aircraft’s relative position at the time they were issued.
Complacency starts with small lapses, encourages shortcutting, and breeds bad habits of all sorts.
Has complacency crept into the way you think about flying?