Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Character Of Risk

No adventure is completely risk free

BLUE SKIES, VICKI CRUSE. Since 2005, Cruse had been president of the International Aerobatic Club; she became U.S. National Unlimited Aerobatic Champion in 2007. Sadly, Cruse died following a plane crash at an air show in England in late August.
It’s no news to most pilots that we recently lost Vicki Cruse, president of the International Aerobatic Club. What was almost certainly a control failure caught her in the worst possible position, and I can’t get her out of my mind. There but for fortune go most of us, aerobatic pilots or otherwise. The risk factor in aviation is never absent; the consequences seldom small.

Pilots love to talk about the beauty of flight and the freedom that can be found in few other places. We indulge in endless conversations about this piece of hardware or that. But even though we all have had safety procedures drilled into our heads, we still have a fantastic ability to turn a blind eye to risk. The “it can’t happen to me” syndrome runs deep in such high-risk ventures as aviation.

Okay, so it’s not that high risk. But just as the sea is an unforgiving mistress, so is the sky. It sings the same kind of siren song, tempting us to trade the relative safety of the ground for the opportunity to see and be something special. And so we all judge the risk worth it. It’s not as if Vicky didn’t know the risk. It’s not as if we don’t know that every single time we leave the ground, our return stands a chance, however small, of being somewhat less than orderly. But it’s there, and we accept it.

Actually, do we accept it? Or do we ignore it? Like many Southern Californians, for instance, who must live with the risk of a runaway San Andreas Fault incident, do pilots develop a mental armor without which they couldn’t continue? The answer is yes and no, depending on the individual.

There’s a big difference between living with the possibility of an engine quitting and worrying about “the big one.” You can give some thought to what you’re going to do if an earthquake decides to shake your world, but there are so many imponderables involved, you can’t really train for it. Prepare for it? Yes (by stocking up on food, water, emergency supplies, etc.). But train for it? No.

In aviation, you can train for the risks because, for the most part, you know exactly what they are. And we pilots do train our little butts off. But after all that emergency training, do we practice it? Do we prepare for potential risks? Are the possibilities of something going wrong at the forefront of our thought processes? Or are we hiding behind the calculated probabilities and saying, “It’s not likely to happen to me, right here, right now, so I’m not going to worry about it.”


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