In 1997, a popular book came out called The Gift of Fear. Written by Gavin de Becker, a specialist in security issues, the book talks about the "gift" of intuition we're given and how we should trust our inner voice when dealing with potentially dangerous or predatory situations, as in, "I knew something didn't feel right," and "If only I had listened to my inner voice, I could have avoided that situation." The "gift of fear," or intuition, is something we all have to some degree. The difference between those who are more intuitive than others is perhaps the degree to which they become attuned and listen to their inner voice. And, even when we "have a feeling" that something isn't right, we tend to discount it and tell ourselves we're being silly or paranoid because we don't want to be hesitant or uncertain about going forward. But, the gift of intuition is very important and something that, if we let it, can guide us well in life and particularly so in aviation.
Aviation might be where we feel most alive. Maybe that's why intuition plays such a key part in it. They say our senses become sharper when we get out of our comfort zone and put ourselves in new, even extreme, situations. When survival becomes paramount, we become more aware. In my 30-plus years of flying, I've found that listening to my intuition has helped keep me out of trouble.
Every day, we're given hundreds of little cues and signals that help us perceive the subtle. We experience life not only with our five senses—sound, sight, touch, smell and taste—but also with our sixth sense: perception, intuition, vibration. Our sixth sense gives us hints such as, "That car is going to cross the intersection against the light," "That stranger is walking a little too closely to me," and, "This airplane just doesn't feel right today."
As a kid, I listened to my dad and his friends talk about flying. They spoke with respect about pilots who were so attuned to their airplanes that they "heard" their engine speaking to them. If the engine were speaking, then they were listening, even if it was only an arcane language that very few understood. So, when I learned to fly, I knew it wasn't strange or weird to listen to the subtle cues that an airplane had to offer. I never went blindly into the blue sky. I figured I was putting myself out there, and I needed to learn to listen to everything—my instructors, my airplane and my inner voice.
I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to fly a lot of different airplanes, but I don't fly every airplane I'm offered. In fact, it has been other people's airplanes that I've had my strongest feelings about; it's my survival instinct. When I was offered a small race airplane to fly, I was excited about the opportunity, but then started to have a funny feeling about it, which might have just been common sense—it was a new airplane that I didn't know much about, a homebuilt, and I'd be flying it in a new environment, racing, which I knew nothing about. Of course, I was going to have a complete checkout and learn the race rules, but when I was delayed by weather getting to the event, I was relieved. A short time later, I heard the airplane broke up due to structural failure and crashed at a race.
I can think of at least three airplanes I've been offered to fly by insistent owners, but found ways to turn them down because my inner voice was strongly telling me, maybe yelling at me, not to fly them. In the first case, my friend who had built his aerobatic monoplane was determined that I fly his airplane. I was moving from a four-cylinder to a six-cylinder aerobatic airplane, and he wanted me to have some experience with the bigger engine in that type of airplane. But, when he arrived at our training site, I had a bad feeling about it, and told him I wanted him to fly his airplane before I did. He had just landed after a long cross-country, and it seemed wise to make sure the airplane was ready for aerobatics. After he took off, he realized he had a problem when he lost elevator authority when a torque tube broke, resulting in a serious situation. The pilot made several passes over the runway while we called the fire trucks. When he realized he wasn't going to be able to control the airplane, he climbed to 4,000 feet AGL and bailed out of it. One of the first things he said after we picked him up was, "I'm so glad you weren't in the airplane when that happened." Amen to that! In the other two cases, one was just turning down a ride with the pilot, and the other was more difficult, as I was sure I hurt my friend's feelings by not taking him up on his offer to fly his airplane. He had flown mine, after all. All three airplanes ended up crashing due to structural problems, and my sixth sense protected me from flying them in each case.
The next time I had a strong intuition about an airplane was with a Russian surplus military jet that the owner had offered to let me check out in. I walked up one day as it was sitting in a hangar, put my hand on it and said to its pilot standing there, "I have a bad feeling about this airplane. Be careful." I don't know why I felt so strongly about it, but it did crash about a year later.
I don't think I'm any more psychic than anyone else, and I'm not ready to hang out my "mind reader" shingle yet, but I figure since we listen to everything else in aviation—good advice, instructors, checklists, etc., why not listen to our intuition as well?
When I was based in Tucson, I'll never forget coming home one Sunday evening from an air show in my Pitts S-1T. As I lined up runway 30, I noticed a Cherokee holding short on the taxiway. I had made several radio calls letting traffic know I was coming in and heard nothing in return. For some reason, after touchdown, on roll-out, the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I had a feeling that all wasn't right. Instead of making a left turn to the taxiway, I rolled over to the right side of the runway and turned my head to look back. The Cherokee rolled by me on the centerline, missing me by a few feet, and I'll never forget the huge eyes of the passenger in the backseat looking at me. The airplane kept going into the desert brush until it stopped. I sat and watched to make sure everyone was okay and then taxied to my hangar. I jumped out and waited for the Cherokee to taxi to the ramp and inspect for damage, as I was anxious to talk to them. Dumbfounded, I watched it taxi in but keep going to the runway and take off. They never stopped. I was so astonished that I didn't even get the N-number.
How did I know to look over my shoulder that day? My friend Debbie Gary was once taxiing out in her freshly annualed CAP 232, a French aerobatic airplane, and said she had a feeling something wasn't right. The brakes seemed to be dragging, but that's not unusual for these little taildraggers. Instead of getting out in the 90-degree heat, she convinced herself it was nothing and kept taxiing. When her right brake finally failed, she shut down and smoke started pouring over her right wing. Her brake was on fire, and to make matters worse, the fuel vent line was dripping fuel on it. Brake fires are hard to put out, and when the fire department finally did, the airplane was destroyed. Debbie was left standing there with her thoughts. Why did she keep going when she knew something wasn't right? This is something we've all done.
How many times have you had a feeling something wasn't right? Intuition isn't something we can manufacture, but we have to be willing to accept it and listen to it. How do we become attuned to listening? As we become more experienced in aviation, we become more attuned to the subtle, like the engine talking to us. Maybe this is why the more experienced aviator is the more conservative one. We can cultivate our intuition by paying attention to it. I don't look for "signs" or any other juju, but I want to be able to hear it when it calls my name.
We can talk ourselves out of anything due to fear or resistance (e.g., you know you're not prepared but go anyway, etc.); we can rationalize bad behavior (e.g., flying into worsening weather in higher terrain). We look for signs, but our inner voice only speaks to us from a place of calm and reason.
The sixth sense is, after all, just being able to listen to the subtle cues we're given. In aviation, intuition might be one of the most valuable tools in your toolbox.