Plane & Pilot
Monday, August 1, 2005

Top 10 Pilot Errors

Here’s a smart way to look before you leap onto the next flight

One of the most disturbing statistics about general-aviation accidents is that more than 75% of them are made because of pilot error. Considering that it’s unlikely that pilots are going away anytime soon, the solution comes in the form of prevention. Saying this is easy, but actually making progress toward this goal is rather problematic. The first step toward eliminating pilot error is to examine the enemy. Just what types of errors are pilots committing and why? Then, armed with this information, pilots can make a concerted effort to avoid such mistakes through a fusion of training, planning and keen attention." />

7 Failure to Use a Checklist. Lots of pilots get into the mindset that flying is like riding a bike—something you can do easily out of memory. While it’s true that 99% of the time, you’ll remember to do everything required of the checklist, it’s that remaining 1% of the time when you forget to do something that will bite. You can make sure you complete everything you need to all the time if you consistently use a checklist. Sure, you can do cockpit flows or whatever other technique you like, but back up your actions with a checklist. And don’t just blindly read it. As you go through each item, verify that the handle is in the right position or something has actually been accomplished. Just think of the number of gear-up accidents that could have been avoided if the pilots actually ran the before-landing checklist (hint: all of them!).

8 Failure to Perform the “I’M SAFE” Checklist. Another common error of pilots is forgetting to use the “I’M SAFE” checklist. For those who have forgotten what the letters stand for, here’s a reminder: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Emotion (some say E is for Eating). Sick pilots have no place in a cockpit. Can you fly with a cold? Maybe, but you’re more susceptible to spatial disorientation, you could have a painful run-in with a blocked eustachian tube or just feel so blah you make stupid mistakes. And don’t be tempted to hide your illness with medication and then go flying. There are lots of over-the-counter medications that can make you a zombie. Of course, illegal medications shouldn’t be in anyone’s blood, let alone a pilot’s. You’ve got to make a choice—fly or take drugs—you can’t do both.

Stress is commonplace in our fast-paced world, but there is a point at which it becomes so intense that it’s a distraction. If you’ve got to go to divorce or bankruptcy court in the morning, it’s probably a good idea to reschedule today’s flight. When your mind is outside the cockpit, you’re bound to make mistakes. And there certainly is no time that your mind is farther outside the cockpit than if you’ve been drinking. The effects of alcohol obviously are detrimental to good cockpit decision making, and alcohol can affect your flying ability, even though you don’t have any booze left in your blood. Hangovers are essentially just like any other illness; if you have one, don’t fly.

Fatigue is a somewhat underrated no-go item. Many of us have flown when we’re not at our peak performance level. Alas, fatigue goes hand in hand with red eyes and transoceanic flights. But there are things that pilots can do to mitigate fatigue. Being well rested by planning ahead makes a big difference. If you know you’ve got a 5 a.m. flight, you need to go to bed early. It’s a no-brainer, but pilots weaken their minds through a lack of sleep all the time. Emotion, just like stress, is something that everyone has to deal with, but there are times when this, too, is at a level that is intolerable in a cockpit. If a loved one just died, cancel your flight. Your mind won’t be in the cockpit, so keep the rest of your body out of it, too. Finally, make sure you’ve eaten something and stay well hydrated. A physiologically sound pilot makes better decisions than a hungry, thirsty one.


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