Every year, pilots allow inconsequential anomalies to become dangerous distractions. Some of them never recover.
As we enter a new year, it’s a little disheartening to realize that the same mistakes we saw made in 2015—and 2014, and 2013, and as far back as anyone can remember—are going to be made again. Student pilots will bang into runways or run off them, sometimes both at once. A few dozen chuckleheads will try to slide between descending ceilings and rising terrain, or tell themselves that their three hours of hood time will enable them to keep their wings level while climbing through that 400-foot overcast into the sunshine that’s surely just a few thousand feet above. Others will stall out of low-altitude, high-speed buzzing attempts, or skid after overshooting final rather than banking harder or going around.
The large-scale stability of the accident record provides the kind of job security that those of us in the safety education business (not to mention accident investigators and insurance adjusters) don’t really want. Especially distressing are those cases in which a usually capable pilot loses control of a perfectly airworthy craft because something far less important turns his or her attention away from the task of flying the machine. Some distractions are biological—a passenger feels sick, or two rescue dogs start fighting—but too often the cause is some noncritical problem with the aircraft.
Gear-up landings in retractables are almost never life-threatening emergencies—unless the pilot decides to attempt extraordinary measures after the standard back-up procedures fail. Successful improvisation is rarer than low-altitude upsets or collisions with obstacles, but a few of those airmen do get lucky. A Texas pilot and his passenger walked away after he allowed his Cessna 210 to fly wings-level into the ground while trying to refill a low hydraulic reservoir with bottled water. With commendable honesty, he acknowledged that “the accident could have been prevented if he had remembered to keep flying the airplane.”
Other noncritical problems that have led to losses of control include electrical failures in visual meteorological conditions, unexpected autopilot disconnects, and blocked pitot tubes. Perhaps the most common, however, isn’t a malfunction at all, merely a simple unlatched door. Given that just about every light aircraft will fly perfectly well with a door open (or even off), and this fact should be routinely demonstrated during check-out training, it’s hard to think of anything that’s less of an emergency. Yet year after year, airplanes crash because their pilots mistake an open door for an urgent reason to get back on the ground now rather than just coming around to make a normal landing.
On December 11, 2015, witnesses in Pennsylvania saw a Beech A36 Bonanza take off from the 4,000-foot runway of a private resort and raise its landing gear. The airplane then made “a sudden turn like it was trying to turn around” and extend the gear again. It was last seen on a low, tight base leg before disappearing behind a building and crashing into the trees. The 3,000-hour pilot and both passengers were killed. Initial examination of the wreckage suggested that the engine was producing normal power—but the upper latch of the front cabin door was not engaged.
Coping with distractions is a special emphasis area on every checkride, so it’s worth introducing it into the curriculum as soon as students begin to master the basics of aircraft control, and then testing it frequently. Besides opening doors, there are any number of things crafty flight instructors can do to reinforce the principle of “first things first.” Circuit breakers for everything from gear pumps to attitude indicators may be surreptitiously pulled, or the gear indicators dimmed to invisibility by turning on the panel lights. They can drop things and ask for help retrieving them, ask the student to look for unexpected things on the sectional, get obsessed with spotting traffic, or ask detailed questions about something on the ground. By the time a student reaches the checkride, only a flight that goes exactly as expected should come as a real surprise. And pilots taking flight reviews should be considered fair game for anything and everything—always bearing in mind the need to prevent simulations from becoming true emergencies.
Potential distractions are unavoidable, but actually being distracted by them is not. This is one of those areas in which many of us could be doing a better job.
David Jack Kenny is aviation safety manager for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.