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Training Tip: Risk and acceptanceTraining Tip: Risk and acceptance

Inbound to a coastal airport to refuel during a wildlife-surveying flight in my favorite old taildragger, I hugged the coastline and kept watch for conflicting outbound traffic. The other pilot aboard remarked that it would save time if we headed across the bay instead of tracing the jagged shoreline.

Photo by Christopher Rose.

I made a textbook reply about not wanting to get beyond gliding distance from shore. The comment was met with a groan.

“I fly this airplane hundreds of hours a year, and the engine isn’t going to quit in the next five minutes,” he said.

Well, it was his airplane, and he was a mechanic, so I nosed the airplane out until there was blue above us and blue-green below us. And what do you know—we survived our few minutes above a deep (and very cold) inlet of the north Atlantic Ocean.

Was it gratuitous flirtation with risk?

Not if you fill in the blanks. Losing the engine directly above the rocky coastline would have ensured no safe conclusion, with nothing but dense woods and narrow, power line-bounded roads for landing, aside from the boulder-piled shoreline itself.

You could also make the argument—as he had—that the overwater vector shaved minutes off the flight, reducing the time of exposure to an off-airport landing.

The issue to weigh wasn’t the elimination of risk—we could only have done that by staying on the ground—but rather being thoughtfully cognizant of risk (defined as “the degree of uncertainty”) and taking a reasonable approach to measuring and managing the uncertainty.

All this came back into focus recently. A reader opined that a low-altitude flight between two airports 10 miles apart would have more prudently been flown at a higher altitude. Okay, but practically speaking, how do you get to a theoretically high-enough altitude in a low-powered single on such a brief flight? Spiraling up to altitude in the airport environment was suggested—but what if there are other aircraft coming and going? Do they want someone performing ascending rectangles in the airspace as they descend on arrival, or climb away on departure? Those risks aside, spiraling up to a “safe” altitude could take longer than the flight itself—does that add up to hypercaution compounded by inefficiency?

These are important questions to debate; no doubt your flying has already raised these issues and others like them.

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Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Aeronautical Decision Making, Emergency
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