Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 1, 2004

The 10 Dumbest Things Pilots Do

Although pilots continue to try to find new ways to screw up, there’s an amazing similarity to accident scenarios from today and from 75 years ago. Here’s a list of the most common stupid pilot tricks.

The 10 Dumbest Things Pilots DoAsk any pilot about the danger zones of pilot experience and most will give you a blank stare. Ask Bruce Landsburg of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation or veteran instructor/aviation journalist Rod Machado and you’ll receive intelligent, informed answers." />

5 Landing Incidents
Accidents are fairly common in this phase because control and power response is diminishing rather than increasing. Modern airplanes fly best when they’re in their mid-speed range. They become progressively less responsive and controllable as they fly slower. Other factors that contribute to landing accidents are high-density altitude, short runways, too-fast approaches and just plain poor depth perception. The only good news is that the lower speeds generate lower impact loads and fewer fatalities than some other accident modes.

Landing accidents often devolve to poor low-speed control, ineffective crosswind technique, misjudging the flare height, landing long on a short runway or overcompensating by landing short. Even when an airplane is firmly on the ground, control of a tricycle or taildragger at 60 knots can be dicey.

6 Running Out Of Gas
Those of us who haven’t done it may find it inconceivable that anyone could possibly run an airplane out of fuel, but it still happens with alarming regularity. Landsburg says, “Pilots develop the equivalent of civilian target fixation and will overfly a dozen or more possible airports and keep stretching their range, only to land 200 yards short of the runway with nothing but high-octane air in the tanks.”

Airplanes can contribute to what’s called design-induced pilot error. We’re all taught to check the fuel tanks visually before climbing aboard, but that may not tell us much on some airplanes. Airplanes with high dihedral and the filler caps mounted far out on the wings won’t show any level at all when there’s still half-tanks aboard. Fuel gauges aren’t much better, especially on older airplanes, frequently indicating more fuel than there is.

The “get-there-itis” mentality that encourages overlooking a low-fuel situation is as pervasive as it is illogical. It frequently ignores the fact that an early fuel stop may have no effect on total trip time.

7 Preflight-related Mechanical Problems
Too many accidents occur because the pilot fails to perform an adequate preflight. This can be a special problem on rental airplanes, where the condition of vital components can change dramatically from one flight to the next. Owner-flown airplanes tend to be more meticulously maintained.

Then there are those things that pilots simply forget, problems that shouldn’t generate an accident, but pilots allow themselves to be psyched into overreacting. One of the most common of these is having an improperly latched door pop open on takeoff. The usual consequence is little worse than a loud noise and embarrassment, but some pilots hit the panic button and wind up crashing because of the distraction. Leaving a baggage door or oil door unlatched is similarly unthreatening, but pilots occasionally mishandle both situations. Failing to remove an external control lock can be more serious, although one pilot of a Cessna 340 overcame that by flying the pitch axis totally with electric trim.

8 Getting Lost
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could become lost these days with the proliferation of amazingly talented and economical portable GPS units, some as cheap as $400. Okay, it’s true they can’t be used for IFR, but they offer a level of accuracy and navigation talent equal to the best panel-mounted, TSO’d systems. Even without GPS or any VHF nav assist, navigation is among the easiest tasks in aviation. Back in 1927, Lindbergh proved that a combination of dead reckoning and pilotage can work well, even over a 3,610-mile, 33 1⁄2-hour flight. Yet pilots somehow manage to lose their bearings time and again on 100-mile trips.

Weather sometimes plays a role in what pilots refer to euphemistically as “temporary disorientation.” It’s easier to lose orientation in haze when you can’t spot the shopping center, freeway or railroad tracks.

9 Pilot-Induced Emergency Landings
Another category of stupid pilot tricks is related to pilot-induced engine failures. Aircraft owners and pilots who rent airplanes “dry” may try to duplicate book power settings and fuel flows and wind up running engines too lean, sometimes to the point of failure. Others misread or fail to check the oil level and run the engine out of lubricant, with the same result.

Some engines use an electric fuel pump for takeoff and landing; others will flood if the pump is left on. There are a myriad of mistakes possible, and if it’s possible, someone will do it.

Miscellaneous Dumb Stuff
This covers a multitude of sins, most of them non-life-threatening, but all too common: forgetting the keys, leaving the master on, failing to untie or unchock the airplane, etc. Many of these problems don’t generate accidents, but they harken back to poor planning.

For the vast majority of us who haven’t burnt out on flying or had one too many emergencies, flying is much fun, but it’s also serious business. Treated with respect, aviation is more than worth the minimal risks.


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