|There’s a common misconception that critical pilot errors occur only during flight. A surprising number of accidents result from inadequate preflight, like using checklists and forgetting to fasten the cockpit door (above). They’re small mistakes that could escalate into a series of big ones.
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.
1 Weather. The more a pilot knows about it, the better. While thunderstorms, icing and winds claim their share of airplanes, the real weather gadfly are those serene, innocent-looking clouds and their cousin, fog. Clouds and fog aren’t inherently dangerous; it’s just that when pilots fly into them, they don’t know how to fly on instruments. They fly into a cloud, lose control and crash. Accident gurus call this flying “VFR into IFR.” Well over 80% of such accidents are fatal.
Even though these accidents are referred to as “inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC),” only 24% of them are inadvertent. The remaining cases show pilots who continue into poor weather. Why is this? Overconfidence is one. Some believe that they don’t need to stay current or that their hour under the hood is good enough. Social pressure also plays a role. Passengers want to get there and pressure the pilot to continue. Last, there’s “get-there-itis.” Pilots are mission-oriented, sometimes too much so.
2 CFIT. Another common pilot error that often involves weather is controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). A simplified definition of CFIT is “flying a perfectly good airplane into the ground.” If a pilot is in a cloud or in fog, he or she can’t see the ground. If the pilot isn’t doing a good job of keeping up with the terrain, an unpleasant meeting with the ground is more likely. Another time when CFIT can be a factor independent of weather is at night. Pilots seem to have a knack of flying into trees and hills after the sun goes down. Again, if pilots allow themselves to be lulled into neglecting to constantly compare their present altitude to that of surrounding terrain, the outcome is likely to be nasty. If you can’t see the terrain, you must be able to point to your position on a sectional, en route chart, approach plate, etc., or you shouldn’t be flying.
3 Poor Communication. Another boo-boo pilots seem to have an affinity for involves deficient communication. This difficulty of communicating comes in several forms. When dealing with air traffic control (ATC), pilots tend to hear what they want to hear. Good pilots anticipate what is coming next, including ATC instructions; however, this profound skill can trick the mind into “hearing” what is expected regardless of what actually filters into one’s headset. Also, misunderstandings between ATC and pilots happen all the time. This plays into the most knotty communication quandary of all: the lack of communication. It’s silly that a pilot would rather keep quiet than ask for help or clarification. If there is any question on what was said, ask for elucidation. It’s amazing how shy pilots can be when it comes to this simple task. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s better to find out you’ve misheard something immediately rather than finding out your license is going to be suspended later.
4 Low-Level Maneuvering. If you ever hear the words “watch this” from a pilot, look out! Pilots are notorious show-offs. How many times have you heard about the pilot who performs an impromptu air show for friends and significant others? A few low-level maneuvers later, and the plane is falling out of the sky. Some air show. The problem isn’t just that pilots are flying low to the ground; it’s this combination of flying too slow and in too tight of a turn that causes crashes. Of course, adherence to the minimum safe altitudes laid out in the FARs is a much smarter practice. If you do actually find a legitimate reason to fly close to the ground, fly the plane like you do when you’re close to the ground at other times, like during landing. Monitor your speed and your bank angle. You certainly wouldn’t try a 60-degree bank turn with no flaps at a very slow speed when turning base to final, so why do it over your parents’ or friend’s house?
5 Inadequate Preflight Inspections. It’s amazing how many pilots mess up preflight inspections. A cursory walk around simply to “kick the tires” so you can hurry up and “light the fires” is beckoning for trouble. Take your time during your preflight. If you find yourself inspecting in haste, slow down. Take a comprehensive look at everything, with checklist in hand, to make sure you don’t miss anything. When you finish, scrutinize the details. Take one last waltz around the airplane, looking for anything that jumps out as being amiss. Perhaps a door isn’t flush with the fuselage or there is still a red, waving flag-looking apparatus on the pitot tube. It might sound funny, but there was actually an occasion when a pilot neglected to unhook a tail tiedown, which was connected to a concrete block. The pilot wondered why the plane required so much power to taxi and why it had an inexplicably aft center of gravity in flight. Luckily for this pilot, he was able to live to tell his story.
6 Inadequate Preflight Planning. Renowned classical novelist Miguel de Cervantes wisely said “forewarned forearmed.” Those who are prepared are equipped to deal with the tasks at hand. Typically, the level of preflight preparation is proportional to how smoothly the flight goes. Think about a time when you rushed your flight planning and how it came back to haunt you later. Often, pilots take off with no planning whatsoever. That’s when they have a tendency to get tangled in temporary flight restrictions or nasty weather. Countless pilots neglect to check density altitude, even though they’re planning a departure from a short strip with a field elevation of 6,000 feet on a 100-degree F day. Weight and balance also is something that often is dismissed. But how can you know for sure you’re in limits if you don’t even bother to check?
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.
9 Running Out of Fuel. It truly is unbelievable how many pilots run out of fuel every year. It’s interesting to note that most of these incidents occur not because, say, the fueler didn’t put enough gas on board. Instead, pilots try to push it just a little bit too far, running out of gas just short of their destination. That darned “get-there-itis” bug tends to afflict pilots all too often when it comes to fuel. Who wants to make an extra stop, anyway? But that 30-minute fuel stop is better than the one you’ll have to make when your tanks go dry.
The problem with fuel management is pilot mentality. Pilots think of fuel in terms of distance, particularly if, during their planning, they determined the flight could be made with the amount of fuel on board. Instead, fuel should be thought of in terms of time. The best way to implement this philosophy is to determine how much fuel will be available once you’re airborne, in hours and minutes. Of course, an allotment of fuel should be set aside for time to divert, then a little more for reserve. Upon departure, a countdown timer should be started. When the clock expires, you land. No ifs, ands or buts about it. This alleviates the problem of changed groundspeed due to wind and helps give pilots a mental excuse to land short of the destination.
10 Mismanagement of Technology. Scientist and novelist C.P. Snow once said that “technology is a peculiar thing. It brings you great gifts in one hand and stabs you in the back with the other.” The mismanagement of technology is a pilot error that has come under particular scrutiny lately, as glass instrumentation has quickly been invading the cockpits of general aviation aircraft. There is much debate concerning whether modern cockpits augment or diminish safety. But the fancy equipment is not to blame; it’s the pilots who don’t manage their resources properly that cause exigency. What often happens is that pilots don’t take the time to learn the equipment thoroughly. When the glass does something a pilot hasn’t seen before or something needs to be changed quickly, too much concentration is focused on the avionics. What suffers is situational awareness and, more alarmingly, aircraft control.
The accident data says it all. According to the statistics, pilots have the cards stacked against them. But they don’t have to sit idle. Alternatively, pilots can be proactive to reduce risks. They can immunize themselves against common mistakes. Keeping a careful watch, pilots can intercept error chains before they go too far. As President George Washington wisely said, “timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursement to repel it.” With each bit of extra effort, pilots will, no doubt, increase the safety of flight.