Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

From The Editor: Cars & Planes

Safety skills transcend both

About a year ago, I was driving north on the 405, a freeway in Los Angeles that’s usually a huge, 10-lane parking lot unless it’s during the wee hours or a weekend. It was nighttime and I was probably scooting along at about 80 when I saw a flash of lights in my rearview mirror. My heart skipped a beat, though traffic often moves that fast on the freeway. I reflexively let up on the gas and looked back again. This time, there wasn’t just one police car, but many, in pursuit of a single vehicle, not a police car, closing on me fast. I darted rather urgently to the innermost lane as a white Honda or Toyota, followed by about seven police cars, passed me like I was standing still—and I was only down to about 70. I thought, “Welcome to Los Angeles, land of the car chase.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about driving in L.A., it’s that it pays to drive defensively, with maybe a touch of New York taxi. Of course, as a pilot, flying defensively is also a good habit to get into, so I do everything I can to remain vigilant, keep my skills sharp and acknowledge my limitations.

In this issue, on page 36, as part of our article comparing airplane and auto engines, I relate to you my experience at the BMW M School, a high-performance driving course that, while imparting specialized techniques for getting around a road race track as quickly and safely as possible, simultaneously teaches valuable skills and fosters good habits that translate especially well to driving around town and on the highway. So while it’s not every day that we’re pedal-to-the-metal and pushing 130 on a short straightaway, looking ahead for the apex of the next turn, the habit I learned of looking far down the track paid off just a few nights ago on the 405 on a recent dark and stormy night (sorry, couldn’t help it). Heading south this time, toward Sunset Blvd., on my way back from Pasadena at 4 a.m., it was pouring heavily. There was a lot of standing water on the freeway, and though traffic was light, it was still a bit stressful since some people that night were driving in the rain as they do when it’s dry.

Every so often when I’m flying, I might have a fleeting “That doesn’t look right” impulse flash through my mind. The last time was when I was flying back to L.A. from Arizona, via Vegas, with my friend Liz Brooks. While listening to XM Satellite Radio in a Turbo Cirrus at 12,500 feet cruising happily on autopilot, I looked ahead and saw a sliver of something at our altitude not so far ahead. Long story short, I clicked off the autopilot and banked somewhat urgently to the right and away from a glider orbiting at our altitude in the middle of an airway. Though I was on the horn with ATC, and the plane behind me appreciated my heads up about the glider, it was a good lesson in keeping one’s eyes peeled and not relying on TCAS or other traffic information systems or ATC traffic advisories or flight following.

I was reminded of this the other night on the freeway as I was trying to peer as far as possible though the rain and down the road. And wouldn’t you know it, I got a fleeting “Hey, that doesn’t look right” sense that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. A Cadillac had gone and crashed into the center divider all by its lonesome and was now straddling the two inner lanes on a dark, wet and fast-moving freeway. I’ve already learned that in flying, never, ever disregard your little inner voice. Now, I do the same when I’m driving. And every time I fly, I now apply the lessons learned during my two-day initiation into the world of high-performance driving. Tell me what driving has taught you about flying at


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