Going Direct: Why Runaway Planes Happen

So far as I can figure, I’ve done about half dozen things in my life that I should not have survived, and, no, even though I have done both a few times, running marathons or climbing thousand-foot-tall granite walls are not on the list. The things I did and survived weren’t the ones where I trained for months or years and undertook only with a clear plan of action. The close calls were dumbass ideas I thought about for a few seconds and did anyway, despite the thousand things that could have gone wrong. Well, in truth, only one or two things could have gone wrong, but, one, the chances of those couple of things happening were, in hindsight, pretty high, and, two, the consequences of them happening were terrible, potentially fatal, such as the time I decided it might be a good idea to use a plastic bag to slide down an icy, snow-covered, steep, heavily treed slope in the Sierra Nevada. The snow was really sticky and I didn’t get far, thank goodness.

But what does this have to do with hand propping Cirrus SR22s? Everything. And not only that but so many other things we do while we’re flying.

Here’s the mindset behind such asinine antics. (And I only say this as someone who’s done a few of them, a couple in airplanes shortly after I started flying, many moons ago.) Before you do something like this you need to want something, a thrill, getting out of a jam, finding out some delicious tidbit of info, and that desire drives the entire decision-making process. There is, as clinical psychologists would say, a failure of the inhibition loop, that your smarter, more cautious side never weighs in on the issue because you’ve already decided what you want and reasonable side can’t help in that quest but only derail it. So why ask the wet blanket side of your brain. It’s never any fun.

That kind of thinking, which is closely associated with the defense mechanism known as invulnerability, or in other words, the “nothing bad could happen to me” mindset. First, wrong. It could. Second, did I mention how wrong it was and how those bad things could!

In the case of the hand propped Cirrus, I do not know the details and in a way don’t want to know them. I feel bad for the person, which I’m certain is prompting many of you to whip out your nasty note keyboard telling me why no one should feel bad for this guy. I get it, but I still do. Not only did he wreck a perfectly good airplane and who knows how much damage the runaway Cirrus did to those defenseless hangars, but he could have killed somebody. It was incredibly irresponsible. And unlike in some accidents, I have failed to come up with mitigating factors here. There was no good reason to do this. Call somebody to bring out the starter cart. Call the mechanic. Do something other than this.

But with any hand-propping of an airplane in which it feels like a really bad idea to hand prop it to begin with, one can safely assume the reason for the manual action was that the starter was kaput. Which is a bad feeling to have. After all, airplanes are for flying. One with an engine that won’t start isn’t really an airplane at all. Would I have hand started this airplane? No way! High-performance planes with high-compression engines are difficult to hand prop—so I was surprised to see the engine catch and delighted that the guy wasn’t ground up into mincemeat. Nobody deserves that fate.

So these impulsivity created accidents start with that desire to do that thing you really want to do. Get home. Not fly a missed approach. Get that engine started. Pack in those last couple hundred pounds of cargo.

The key with all of these is this. Stop. Think about what bad thing/things could happen? How likely is it that? Just how bad is that bad thing? And only after you’ve examined the risk, ask, how much do I need to do what I want to do, you know, the thing that’s inviting risk into the house. In short, is what you want right now worth taking the risk that you just calculated?

Just getting to the point where you need to ask yourself these kinds of questions implies that the answer is, don’t do it. Find an alternative. Yes, changing plans could be inconvenient. Ask the guy who got tossed from the Cirrus that wrecked into those hangars making him an instant internet star, just how bad a fate inconvenience is compared to that.

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