Pilot Error and Mitigation
Have you ever made a mistake while flying? Forgot something? Missed a radio call? Dropped a checklist item from memory? Botched a landing? No? Well, then hello Mr Superman! For the rest of us mortals, it probably happens with disturbing frequency. Add the distractions from bad weather, noisy passengers, and some aircraft issues and you have a situation we all have been through, been there, and done that. Sometimes we met the challenge, and sometimes we just survived. Why does it happen?
Volumes have been written on this issue: why do good pilots make mistakes? (Hell, why does anyone make mistakes?). Probably because we are human, and no matter how well educated, trained, proficient, and regularly tested, we all reach our limits someday, sometime, and somewhere. Each of us only has so much capacity to endure challenge and demonstrate our superior skill and judgement. For one, we get saturated. Two, we get tired. Three, we get distracted. Four, we are emotional. It is hard to isolate ourselves from our complex worlds even when we just want to go flying. The world and our problems intrude, and percolate in the back of our minds. Passengers intrude in the front of our minds, and ears, and eyes. We have many balls to juggle while flying, and sometimes we drop one.
What exactly is the nature of a distraction? What exactly happens when we get overloaded, saturated, and overwhelmed? A distraction is when something unexpected draws our attention away from what we were doing. We had a plan, we were flying along doing just fine, and then something intruded. It broke up our concentration; it may be a noise, or a radio call; could be a warning light, or a vibration, or a meter/gauge reading, or a course/altitude deviation. So the original task gets put on hold (pushed to the background) while we assess this new development. How bad is it? What is it? What is causing it? If you get a few of these in rapid succession, you ARE going to get busy.
So now our flight is interrupted and disturbed, and we need to modify our plan. What should we do? What can we do? What are our choices and options? What are our priorities? This is where we can easily get overwhelmed; there may be many choices and decisions to make, some that must be made immediately (engine fire), and some that can wait a minute. Discipline and knowledge are important here to distinguish the priorities and impact of our decisions. Many pilots have stated they got tunnel vision when confronted with saturation. In my business, we try to provide decision aids to assist the decisionmaker (the pilot) in sorting thru the available choices in priority order.
One of these aids that anyone of us can construct is to think through all the possible problems we could experience, and identify possible remedial actions to address each one. This is, of course, best done on the ground ahead of time. One by one, a failure or deviation of each aircraft system and box or component is examined, its possible causes identified, and possible corrective actions highlighted. The same process applies to procedural failures and forgotten checklist items. Bottom line: if I can make a mistake, or if something can fail, what should I do to correct its effect (or not do as the case may be). Try to distinguish between what will kill you vice what will only be inconvenient or just embarrassing.
If you do this exercise for your aircraft, you will feel a lot better about knowing what your choices are ahead of time, and what mitigating actions are available to you. Then, when and if it happens, you will not be distracted, or overwhelmed by surprise. You will already know what to do, and maybe even know the probably cause. Many pilot training classes counsel their students to think first, and take a moment to assess their situation before taking drastic corrective action. What a concept. No need to up the challenge just at this moment.
Common Cause – We will all make mistakes; it’s a given. But you can take proactive measures ahead of time to account for and to mitigate our inherent weaknesses. Modify your checklist with additional reminders to check gear down, or to EXPECT an engine failure on takeoff. Be prepared for the worst. Think through all the possibilities ahead of time and decide AHEAD OF TIME what you will do if it happens. Be happy and thankful when you have a delightful flight, where everything goes just right: a good day in General Aviation. For us. For everyone. Got a better idea? Let’s hear it!
By Mike Sullivan CSMEL, CFI, MEI