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Unaccountable lapses, part oneUnaccountable lapses one

It’s a pilot’s obligation to follow procedures designed to prevent or mitigate in-flight mistakes and to stay out of the cockpit entirely on the worst days. And it’s a flight instructor’s responsibility to make sure those off days don’t compromise his or her students’ chances to learn, much less their physical safety.

By and large, they do so with admirable consistency. This is one reason flight training has a fatal-accident rate of less than half that of non-instructional flights. Of course, as with any profession, flight instruction suffers from a tiny percentage of individuals who view their credentials as license to make mischief. We’ve already written at length about the Texas instructor who couldn’t resist doing aerobatics in non-aerobatic school airplanes. We’ve also made passing mention of the two CFIs who broke up a Piper Lance on what was supposed to have been a new-hire standardization flight as well, as the instructor who crashed a Remos while making steep turns at low altitude on an introductory flight for a 16-year-old prospect. About all anyone can do is keep an eye open for this kind of behavior and show the perpetrators the door before they hurt anyone. Fortunately, it’s rare.

Only slightly less rare are apparently inexplicable lapses in judgement by otherwise conscientious CFIs. Flight training includes any number of experiences that at least initially don’t feel right—remember that first stall demonstration?—so students learn to rely on their instructors’ apparent comfort level as an index of risk. Primary students in particular are left in an impossibly vulnerable situation when that trust proves to have been misplaced.

In 2014, a 51-year-old Maryland student completed detailed flight planning for a dual night cross-country to an airport 92 nautical miles away, with a stop for pattern work at a third airport along the way. All three fields are at elevations below 750 feet msl, though the most direct route crosses a ridgeline rising from nearly 3,500 feet in the immediate vicinity to more than 4,000 feet a few miles farther south. The airplane initially chosen for the flight was a 2005 Cessna 172S equipped with the Garmin G1000, but it turned out to be unavailable, and a 2003 172S with analog instruments and an IFR-certified GPS was reserved instead. The student emailed his plans to his 49-year-old CFI, who approved them in a return email the following morning. The student later recalled that he didn’t sleep well that night.

When they met at 4 o’clock the following afternoon, the instructor told his student that he’d changed their destination to another airport 66 miles further west. The CFI—described by colleagues as exceptionally conscientious and thorough—did not have the student update or revise any of the flight planning he’d completed the night before. They took off at sunset, practiced a bit of pilotage and some VOR tracking, and made two or three stop-and-go landings at the airport en route. By the time they left it was completely dark, the moon still below the horizon.

In the July 27, 2016, edition of Flight School Business, we’ll discuss the outcome of this night flight, and talk about ways to guard against a single point of failure.

David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute
ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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