A few minutes ago, I stumbled across a YouTube video of a Cirrus accident caused by attempting to do a roll at 200 feet. The ensuing thread of reader comments brushed right past the aerobatics and centered immediately on the accident rate of the Cirrus and how dangerous they claim it to be (the airplane isn't dangerous, but some of its pilots are). Well, I have a news flash for anyone seeing that video: An aileron roll at 200 feet in any airplane, be it a Pitts Special, Extra or Cirrus, is damned dangerous. In fact, it's crazy dangerous. Obviously, the really dangerous component in this accident, wasn't the airplane, but the pilot's total lack of judgment. And you can't teach, engineer or legislate judgment. Stupid is as stupid does.
I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating: To a certain extent, my friends and I bear at least some of the responsibility for that Cirrus accident. And for dozens of other incidents like it where people have attempted maneuvers for which the airplane wasn't designed and for which the pilot wasn't specifically trained or experienced. Then to make things a whole lot worse, they attempt to do the maneuver on the deck where there's absolutely zero margin for error. None whatsoever.
We share in the responsibility because aerobatics is part of our lives, and we talk about it as if it's no big deal and as if everyone can do it (which, given the training, they can). In so doing, we inadvertently trivialize something that's anything but trivial. Air shows and casual conversation between aerobatic pilots can, if overheard by other non-akro pilots, lead them to believe that there's no danger in trying this kind of stuff themselves in whatever they're flying. And that's just not the case.
Almost all of my aviation friends and I live in a truly three-dimensional world and have for most of our lives. The concept of upside down is identical to the concept of right side up, and we're totally comfortable transitioning from one to the other. In fact, it's instinctual. However, within my circle of friends, which includes some serious air show types, I don't think I know of a single one that would do a roll in a non-aerobatic airplane at 200 feet, even though I'm confident most of us could do it. The reason we wouldn't even think about it is, first, it's totally unnecessary (not to mention illegal): It would expose us to a risk that's not only unnecessary, but has nothing but negatives attached to it. There are no pluses, and the lack of altitude ratchets the possibility of negative outcomes right out of sight. The risk/benefit ratio is totally wrong and, if there's one thing that every one of us does, it's to carefully manage and measure the level of risk involved in everything we do. That's only good common sense.
When a pilot pushes the envelope and has a bad outcome, there were generally two very obvious factors that weren't included in his thought processes. The first is not analyzing and clearly understanding what will happen if things don't work as planned. If, for instance, we're not sure we have enough fuel to reach our destination, we shouldn't be trundling along with an, "I'm fairly certain we can make it," thought pattern. Instead, we should think about what happens if we run out of fuel, even 100 feet short of our destination. Not good! That alone should force us to seek an alternate airport. If we're at 200 feet, which is too damn low to be doing anything but landing, we shouldn't be saying, "I think I can roll it okay." We should visualize the results of it not working out. In fact—and I use this image a lot—before doing something for which there's anything less than 100% probability of a favorable outcome, picture your spouse answering the phone in the kitchen and getting the news. Is doing something stupid like a roll at 200 feet really worth that?
I said that one of the obvious thought processes that's missing in accidents like that of the Cirrus is not visualizing the results of something not working out. Another has to do with not building margins into our flying. This means plenty of gas, so if winds or weather try to screw us, we're still in good shape. This means that we always assume that the weather is going to get worse, so we're mentally prepared to deal with it. It means that we think the engine is going to quit from the moment the throttle goes in on takeoff until we feel the main gear touch the runway on landing. It means that if we're going to do aerobatics, it will be in an aerobatic aircraft with the strength and maneuverability margins designed into it that it can protect us. In addition, we'll be well-trained and we'll be high enough that, if we blow a maneuver, we have a lot of room to recover. Margins are lifesavers. However, avoiding those maneuvers that have less than 100% probability of success saves even more lives.
People get tired of me saying it, but the risks we take in life, and especially in airplanes, aren't solely our own risks. Besides risking our own necks, we're risking the happiness of our loved ones and our friends. When we do something stupid and pay the ultimate price, it's generally over for us in a few seconds. But those who know and love us continue paying an emotional price for the rest of their lives. They never truly get over what to us was just an instant of stupidity that pushed us to do something that didn't need to be done. One of the cruelest things we can do in life is damage the lives of those around us because of a "watch this" attitude.
John Wayne is often credited with saying, "Life is hard. It's even harder if you're stupid." In other words, aviation is risky enough without adding stupid to the mix. And, while there are a lot of things that we can't possibly control, the stupid-factor isn't one of them. That one we definitely have a handle on.