Plane & Pilot
Thursday, December 1, 2005

World's Stupidest Pilot Errors

So many mistakes are just asking to be corrected

World's Stupidest Pilot ErrorsIf you’ve ever been to a farm, you know that when one cow makes up his mind to blaze a trail to the feed trough, the other cows always follow. It doesn’t matter if there are obstacles along the route or the farmer hasn’t put corn into the hopper—cows blindly follow. They don’t use judgment, ask questions or learn from their mistakes. I call this the Moo syndrome. Pilots may be eons apart on the Darwinian scale, from cows, but they, too, follow each other, disregarding the mistakes made by their predecessors. The outcome could very well be disastrous, but they still blindly follow." />

The most recent top-gun accident happened as 11 marines, packed into an Army Black Hawk helicopter in eastern Afghanistan, asked for an exciting flight on an otherwise dull mission by demonstrating for visiting dignitaries how troops are sped into battle. “Fly hard,” requested the marines. Climbing and swooping, the Black Hawk pilot crested a 400-foot hill, then deliberately nosed into a dive so steep and abrupt that everyone inside felt weightless. A wheel chock rose off the floor like a magician’s prop and flew forward into the cockpit, jamming the controls. In the horrific, tumbling crash that followed, a crew chief in the doorway died. Everyone else was injured. The $6 million helicopter was destroyed. Have we seen this scenario before...treetop maneuvers over a friend’s backyard cookout ending in a crash or buzzing the beach with the resultant airplane buried in the sand? Most people on the ground don’t even know who you are—or don’t care—so why give them an air show that could end up as a crash story?

One of the most devastating accidents occurred in 1959 when a Bonanza crashed and killed Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper near Mason City, Iowa. The accident was caused by icing and the the pilot decision to fly into deteriorating weather when he wasn’t instrument-rated. Three idols in the early days of rock-and-roll died because of get-home-itis, the “complete the mission” syndrome or plain stupidity. Since that date, more pilots have died exhibiting this type of Moo syndrome than those who have had engine failures. How come we pilots don’t learn from these highly publicized aviation mistakes?

No matter how much training we endure or how many flight hours we log, something affects our thinking process that puts the possibility of crashing an airplane into the other guy’s barnyard out of our mind. It can’t happen to us, we say. Oh, but it can. As mentioned in the video Human Factors and Pilot Error, fatigue is a big contributor to dulling our awareness toward danger. Being tired isn’t just a function of lack of sleep, but it also may be exacerbated by low blood sugar because of hunger or a poor diet. Candy bars can be an immediate fix for a few minutes, but this glycemic high is short-lived, and the resulting downswing could leave your brain vulnerable to poor decisions and inattention—not a good thing when the weather is down and dirty. Dehydration also can affect the brain’s performance, so it’s imperative that you drink not only lots of water, but also liquids with added electrolytes to keep those brain cells firing and active. Chemical fumes that abound at airports affect our thinking power. Carbon monoxide is well-known as a lethal unseen hazard. Not so lethal are the residual effects from fuel vapors, cleaning products and even the jacket you picked up from the dry cleaners (formaldehyde-based solvents used in the process affect your brain). Although these types of hazards may not directly kill you, they can affect your thought processes, which can lead to an accident.

Stress, anxiety or passenger pressure also can influence our ability to make correct decisions. In the cases of the fogged windshield and the pilot who tried a takeoff into adverse weather mentioned earlier, it may have been that someone in the airplane was pushing them to go. Can we say no? Absolutely! The bravest pilot is one who is able to voice his or her fears and reservations about a flight and stand behind the probability of aborting the ride if necessary. This type of wise pilot doesn’t have to follow the other “cows” to the accident barn.


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