Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 8, 2012


It's your perception, not always reality, that causes fear

I had climbed to about 4,000 feet AGL over a broken cloud deck. I pulled up for the tailslide, pulled the throttle to idle and waited for it to slide. It slid alright, but I couldn't believe what I saw—the propeller was suddenly stopped in front of me. I don't remember feeling fear, but I was paralyzed into inertia. The instrument panel looked foreign, as though I had never seen it before—a sea of toggle switches. And although I knew very well where the magneto switch was, it took several seconds and a couple of thousand feet for me to actually turn it to on and get the prop turning again.

Before that incident, I thought I knew what my reaction would be. I knew the prop could stop during a tailslide, but hadn't actually sat in the cockpit and practiced my response to it. As the only real thing we have to rely on to maintain a cool head in an emergency or a perceived emergency is training and repetition, if I had practiced my response, I would have instantly hit the magnetos, gotten the prop to turn, the engine to light and would have saved myself 2,000 feet of altitude. Honestly, the incident was no big deal, but I knew that if I had been practicing at a lower altitude, I could have easily ended up with my airplane balled up in a field. I wouldn't have been the first or the last person to do just that.

A few years later, I witnessed a really sad event. A light complex airplane flew into the small uncontrolled airport where I was flying. The pilot called Unicom and announced his intention to land. As he got closer to the airport, he called again and said he had a gear problem. This was going to be exciting! We offered to look at the gear if he made a pass, but he flew over the airport, and we assumed he was dealing with the problem by recycling or cranking the gear down manually. The plane soon flew over the airport and disappeared from view over the trees. We waited and heard nothing, but then saw a plume of black smoke. I can only imagine what happened, but I suspect the pilot reacted like I did when my prop stopped, perhaps paralyzed by fear and indecision, and in his distraction he let the airplane get too slow, stall and spin. The worst that should have happened that day was a gear-up landing on the paved runway, which is almost always bad for the prop, exciting for the spectators, but a non-event for the pilot. The crash, on the other hand, killed him and two of his friends.

We all want to be filled with confidence when we step into a cockpit, so we need to perceive ourselves as confident pilots. When I step into the cockpit, I'm 100% certain of my ability to deal with any situation. I don't believe I'll be guilty of a major pilot error because of my training, and since there's always the possibility of something unexpected happening, I try to always leave myself an "out" and give myself plenty of room for error. Good pilots don't let doubt or fear enter the picture, whether shooting an approach, doing a ribbon cut or cruising along.

How do we do this? If it sounds too easy, it really is. Airlines in the United States have a fantastic safety record not only because of their good equipment, but because of their standardized approach to training and emergency-procedures training. I grew up helping my dad update his Jeppesen charts and quizzing him on his six-month check rides. His airline had an almost perfect safety record.

Reacting to emergencies with confidence and not fear is about our perception of the event. Are we prepared? Have we practiced? Have we memorized the procedures? GA pilots must be as disciplined in their training as the airline pilot. I believe if we stay current and do more than what's required by a BFR, practice emergency procedures, review speeds before takeoff and use checklists, we'll enter the cockpit like the airline pilot does, perceiving ourselves to be confident and skillful pilots. Masters of our universe! Training, thought, preparation and practice take the guesswork out of, "How will I react?" if it happens to you.


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