In past columns, we have talked about the statistic of typical aviation accidents being the result of a chain of eight to eleven (depending on which study you read) separate and identifiable errors and circumstances. A common reaction to that statistic is “How could the pilot not see that happening?” We could discuss that at length, however, what is more important is to realize that each and every one of is susceptible to falling into a similar situation. Is it incompetence or stupid decisions? It might be easy to point a finger after the fact and call it that but it is more likely making decisions based in incomplete information such as insufficient attention to weather and/or under the influence of subconscious priorities like getting a rental airplane back in time. Okay, you’re thinking, here comes the inevitable sermon about continued VFR into IMC. That certainly is a big part of far too many accidents but is not the only possible concern you might have. If we follow the premise that flying is not dangerous, bad decisions are dangerous, then we need to start at the very first decisions. No, not whether to go or not, before that: what information must I have to make a reasonable go/no go decision? How will that inform my plan, including everything from fuel to routing?
Let’s go back to the chain of events and fabricate an example. A couple of wonderful “old” friends are in town and are booked to return to Toronto later tomorrow. The trees are starting to turn and a sightseeing flight in the morning seems like a grand idea. Tonight, is food and conversation. You dutifully avoid alcohol to be safe for tomorrow, but the conversation is engaging and before you know it it’s almost 4:00 a.m. You have the airplane booked for 8:00 and you need to be back by noon to get them to their flight home. (If you’re counting, we are up to 2 decisions/circumstances). You get everyone to the airport early and get a weather briefing from Flight Services and do a careful fuel calculation to be able to carry all the people and have a 30 minute reserve (just). But, it’s already 8:30 so let’s get cracking. The airplane is in good condition and well maintained so a cursory walk around will do for now (number 3). Get everyone settled and since we’ve flown together before we can skip the passenger brief (number 4). A quick run-up… hmmm, mag drop of 200 rpm, probably a little fowling on the plugs. Let her run at high rpm for a bit and recheck. Hmmm… 150 difference. Yep, must be some deposits on the plugs, should work better after flying a bit (number 5). After an uneventful takeoff (phew!), we fly smoothly to an area north of Slave Lake which has breathtaking fall colours and other great scenery. What a beautiful day to fly. Time to head home but those crazy fall winds have shifted around from the east which is a surprise. Oil temp is climbing but still in the green (numbers 6 and 7). Pull it back 100 rpm and check groundspeed. Fuel is tight but should be ok (number 8). Leaving Slave Lake area and flying shortest route home but fuel gauges suggest a higher consumption than normal. Well the gauges were never all that accurate anyway. Oh! Oil temp edging well past the green so we richen the mixture to help cooling (number 9). Closest airport now is probably home. There are a couple of good looking fields here, but the possibility of damaging the airplane and making my friends miss their flight home makes that a difficult option to choose (number 10). Ten minutes later, as the engine is starving for fuel and noticeably overheating, it suddenly seizes and you are staring at a very quiet, stationary propellor. Below us is mostly trees and water, but there is one clearing in gliding distance. Fortunately, the mantra of AVIATE, NAVIGATE, COMMUNICATE flys through your brain. You set up glide and direction for the field and manage an abbreviated Mayday. A reasonable touchdown, but no way to stop before the trees. AVIATE, NAVIGATE. Get it turned to go between two large trees and stand on the brakes. A rapid stop and violent tumble as the wings hit the trees but everyone is mostly ok. It a brief moment you ask yourself: If I wasn’t so tired, would this have happened? If I had asked my friends to make sure alternate travel plans were available would I have made different decisions? If I had done a thorough inspection might I have caught an issue like low oil that may have put us here? Why didn’t I abort when there was obviously a problem with the mags that I didn’t fully resolve? Why didn’t I stop in Slave Lake for fuel and to check into the oil issue? Why didn’t I believe the gauges were telling me that action was needed sooner? And, If only I had done a precautionary landing when it was available!
Wild fiction? Sort of. But, all based on events that have actually happened – more than once.
My take on this type of scenario is that the most important skill that any pilot must have is the ability to be honest with yourself and the ability to ask yourself the hard questions. That is the biggest part of making good decisions! Good decisions make flying safe.
Be good and be safe – there is no high like it!