Last night I went to an FAA Safety Team meeting for instructors. At the breaks and after the gathering, like just about any pilot gathering, things turn to Hanger Talk. Hanger Talk is one of the highlights of any aviation event for me. For the non-pilot/airman world, hanger talk is essentially the same as water cooler talk, with pilots it’s a little different though. Pilots talk a lot about accidents and the stupid stuff “other” pilots do and our own harrowing stories of mayhem and adventure.
I spend most of my hanger talk time around career pilots, people who fly for a living or are working at making that the case, most of them are every day commercial pilots, aerial photography, traffic watch, power and water company pilots, some passenger carriers, and flight instructors or CFIs. It’s been my experience that this segment of the pilot community has something in common with early aviators, it’s a pilot culture thing that has many aspects but when you think “barnstormer”, “WWI Ace” or Fighter Pilot” you get close. There is a little of that devil-may-care in every career pilot I have met.
On the surface it seems like a dare-devil attitude, a “kick the tires and light the fires”, “need for speed” kind of air about them, beneath that however, there is a very sober, meticulous even retentive attention to detail it’s this side that keeps career pilots alive.
There is a line in the sky, a line between life and death. It may sound melodramatic but a “blink” in good judgement and you can easily miss or cross that line. The “line” is that attention to detail, the minutia of data, knowing your personal limitations, the limitations of your aircraft, and the environment around you. Early in my flight training an instructor I knew was teaching some students about pilot mortality and the importance of preflight work. He paused a moment, a stoic look on his face, then said “sooner or later, a friend will die flying, and it will have been his own fault.” It took a few minutes for the class to absorb the harsh reality of what he said. I have been flying since 2003, I have been acquainted with three pilots who blinked in their good judgement. All of them CFIs, good people, all of them doing something stupid, for whatever reason, they did not take their responsibilities seriously, at least once, and thats all it took.
This is why pilots talk about accidents, it reminds us that it only takes one mistake or over site to start the “accident chain” rolling. It’s rarely just one thing that brings about an accident. It is inevitably a chain of events, errors and over sites, that bring about bent metal or the demise of an aviator. We talk about those errors and over sites to keep them top-of-mind to remind us so we won’t make the same mistake. Accident chains are usually fairly long, 10 or so links, often several of those links are check-list items. Frequently if the accident pilot had just read through his check-list, instead of skipping it for what ever reason, the chain would have been broken early, maybe before the plane even powered up, then the event wouldn’t have been one at all.
A large portion of general aviation General Aviation accidents in the United States could be avoided if pilots commit to always using check-lists. Vigilance, professionalism, and a meticulous attention to detail are required skills for pilots, using a checklist is such a simple task, and not doing it can be costly.
For those who are now scared to fly, remember this… Pilots on their own time sometimes ease up on their vigilance, they blink, thats when they make the news. Flying is not dangerous, there is however inherent danger in the act of flying. Career pilots and air carriers do everything they can to mitigate the risks involved in flying. Commercial flying is still one of the safest modes of transportation, it just gets more press when things go wrong. Just ask Capt. Sully.