Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Character Of Risk

No adventure is completely risk free

Your odds of getting hit by lightning are much better than your odds of winning the lottery. Still, no matter how long the odds, almost every week, someone does win. So, yes, the possibility of something going wrong in the air is miniscule, but bad things do happen. If you aren’t willing to accept risk and do your best to gird yourself against that risk, then you have no business being in the air. That’s why pilots need to do everything humanly possible to first minimize the risks, and second, train for dealing with those risks.

You can minimize risks through a couple of very straightforward techniques. Number one, don’t do something that you know is stupid. No buzzing, scud running, etc. “Watch this!” is a phrase that should never be heard or uttered in the cockpit. Ditto for “I think I can make it through.”

Another risk-minimization technique is to get as good as you can possibly get at the art of aviating. This doesn’t mean just getting the airplane up and getting it down. It means immersing yourself in the skill, and treating that skill as a living, breathing entity that you have to continually feed and nurture for it to thrive and grow. “Good enough” is another phrase that should neither be heard in the cockpit nor cross a pilot’s mind. When it comes to your skill as an aviator, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” That kind of thought pattern increases the risk factor.

And then there’s training for the risk. Have you located places on the ground where you can put the airplane down in case the engine quits? Have you practiced emergency procedures for every possible kind of emergency in every regime of flight? Have you done something as basic as driving down the roads around the airport to see which ones have wires crossing them, or other obstacles that would snare you if you tried to land on those streets or fields in an emergency?

And then there are the risk factors for which there’s no prevention and no training. Assuming there’s a definitive answer about the cause of Vicki’s accident, it’ll undoubtedly be that a rare mechanical glitch caught her at exactly the wrong time and place, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do about it. So, yes, there are some elements of risk that are totally unavoidable. You just have to turn a blind eye to those because the only way to avoid them is to avoid the environment that generates the risk and not fly at all. To most pilots, however, that’s unacceptable. Without the managed risk that’s at the core of adventure, life would lose its color, taste and texture. Subtle adventure is the salt and pepper that flavors what could otherwise be a bland life.

So, Vicki, you were always one of my favorites; I admired your energy, commitment and your steel backbone. You can rest easy knowing you made a difference in a lot of lives—and you’ll certainly not be forgotten.

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at


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