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Proficiency: On the safe side

The cautious mind of a pilot

By Steve Casner

General aviation activity is increasing again and the accident rate continues to decline. That’s right, we’ve got more pilots buzzing around and better safety (see “On the Numbers”). To appreciate how impressive our safety record is, let’s stick our heads out the aircraft window and see how the rest of the world is doing—while they’re driving their cars, crossing the street, or using tools. Car crash fatalities have spiked 15 percent over the past two years. Pedestrian fatalities are up 11 percent. More than 250,000 people visited an emergency room last year following a botched attempt to stand on a stool or a ladder.

Illustration by Sarah Hanson

We’ve put a safety feature and a warning label on every consumer product in sight. How can this be happening? The answer lies in something that every pilot should realize, nurture, grow, and probably teach to others.

In our training, we learn to do more than wiggle sticks, follow needles, and recall our algebra. We also learn quite a bit about how our sometimes fallible minds work and how to keep our occasional slips, lapses, and flubs from getting the best of us.

We quickly learn that when we try to pay attention to more than one thing at a time, we usually end up missing something. That’s why we prioritize our tasks. Like when we leave the navigating and communicating for when we’ve got the aviating under control. But drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists continue to divide their attention between phone and road, confident that they can do it all at once.

Pilots know that to err is human. We know that the difference between a beginner and an expert isn’t the number of errors they make, it’s the kind of errors they make. With the occasional gaffe in mind, we make routine use of error-catching techniques. We also understand that we are each others’ most valuable resources. We check each other’s work in the cockpit and we sit on couches at our flight schools and trade stories from the day’s blooper reel. But people in the street are hesitant to listen to advice or to learn from the experiences of others.

Pilots know that our ability to remember to do things can be intermittent, so we use reminders such as checklists. Meanwhile, studies tell us that patients forget to take their medications 25 percent of the time and 125,000 die each year from medication nonadherence. Even doctors still rely on their memory for complex procedures.

Outside of flying machines, people scurry up ladders and fire up new power tools after doing astonishingly little thinking ahead. Yet the value of thinking a few steps ahead is baked into pilots’ language. We “stay ahead of the airplane” because, if we don’t, we’ll be “clinging to the tail” or “sitting back in row 12.”

Sure, we’re trained safety pros. But does a person in the street really need this pilot-grade level of safety? The statistics tell us they now do. Quotidian life is becoming more complex and loaded with subtle risks. Look at the typical urban intersection. We have fast cars driven by people who are not only distracted but also in more of a hurry. Meanwhile, the surging popularity of cycling and walking are putting more vulnerable targets in front of the cars.

At home, a DIY craze is putting tools back in our hands—just after we eliminated shop class from our school curricula. And remember when we used to go visit the doctor? At a health care facility today we meet a series of strangers who track our history using complex medical information systems. A recent report by a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine names medical error, often the simplest of slips, as the third leading cause of death in the United States.

At play, people are now into mixed martial arts, jumping between rooftops, and, increasingly, out the back of perfectly serviceable airplanes. We just saw a spike in rock climbing injuries—among people aged 0 through 4.

It seems like everyday life has become as demanding as flying a Cessna 152 on a sunny day. The problem is that no one is checked out on it but us.

There are a few takeaways here. One is to understand that our knowledge about our own human strengths and limitations is the greatest safety resource we possess. Nurture and grow this valuable area of your expertise. The human mind remains the most misunderstood piece of equipment on board any aircraft. Learning more about it can be a lot of fun. You already know that we often forget to do things without some sort of reminder. But did you know that the average person can glance at 10,000 photographs and then recall, even days later, which ones they saw, with an accuracy of more than 90 percent? Yes, sometimes our memories are unreliable and sometimes they are like a steel trap.

A recent study found that people estimate the slope of a hill in front of them to be less when they were standing beside a friend. Yes, even the simple things we see “with our own two eyes” are subject to distortion and worth double-checking. Another study found that men rated the risk of a dangerous activity to be lower after having touched an unworn bra. The human mind is not an easy piece of equipment to master.

The second takeaway is to ensure that we are using these professional-grade safety skills outside the aircraft. The next research study I’m dying to do is to look at how well pilots’ safety habits transfer out of the aircraft. How carefully do pilots drive? How safely do we chop vegetables or use ladders?

The third takeaway is the toughest of all. Is there a way to teach the rest of the world what we pilots know? To help save them from themselves as they wander around in an increasingly complex world? One place to start is with our kids. I’ve found that kids love learning about this stuff. There’s nothing like hearing my 7-year-old daughter criticize my driving from the backseat. The funny thing is, when she speaks up, she’s usually right. It’s not lost on me that she’ll end up copying my habits when the time comes for her to drive. Of course, teaching other adults is much harder. I’ve settled on the technique of confidently exercising my pilot-grade safety practices in front of others, sometimes mentioning that this is how we do things in the flying business. Don’t worry about giving off the impression that you know more about this than everybody else, because you do.

As we move into an age of technology that contains even more subtle hazards—augmented reality, flying taxis, nanotechnology—staying safe won’t get any easier. It will require a better understanding of ourselves. Who’s going to press on and find more ways to be safe? And show everybody else how to have some fun and get home in one piece? It might take a pilot.AOPA

Steve Casner is the author of the recent book Careful: A User’s Guide To Our Injury-Prone Minds. He is an ATP and CFII in both airplanes and helicopters.

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