Holiday Weekend Round-up

Today was President’s Day in the USA, when we all celebrate everything all of our Presidents have done for us by….well, anyway, lots of people get the day off of work so everybody decides to go skiing and the ski resorts are extremely overcrowded. That’s what happens on this day.

The holiday weekend here in the Northeast USA was another cold, snowy one, just after another major snowstorm that came through late last week. The mountains of snow piled up will take at least until June to fully melt, they are that high.

But it has been a bad weekend for aviation. First, in domestic general aviation, after January 2014 was among the safest months in general aviation, this weekend alone saw four fatal accidents which resulted in 7 deaths in the United States.

Cessna 210L (above, similar to the accident airplane) near Birmingham, AL

On Friday night, after 10pm EST, contact was lost with a Cessna 210 (registration N732EJ) flying near Birmingham, Alabama. The plane was found the next day in a very rural area, and the two occupants had not survived the crash. Only very sparse information is available, including that the plane was flying under IFR conditions. A front was moving through Birmingham at about the same time the aircraft was in the area. KBHM released a series of SPECI METAR updates, including one at 10:36pm EST calling winds 310 degrees at 7 knots, 5 mile visibility, broken cloud layers at 600 and 1400 feet, and overcast at 2300 feet. Rain had just ended at the airport. Some reports mention the possibility that the high winds may have been a factor in the crash. While the surface winds weren’t yet that high, I suppose it is possible that the winds were higher at around 3000 feet, and that wind shear or strong turbulence could have led to an upset and loss of control of the aircraft in the night IMC.

Beechcraft 35-33 Debonair near Telluride, CO

The Sunday crash of a Beech Debonair, similar to the one shown above, is very perplexing. It crashed just after takeoff, about a mile west of the airport, and killed the three occupants. The plane departed with three pilots on board, two commercial and one military, on a short IFR flight to Cortez, Colorado. The weather at the time was reported as winds 080 degrees at 5 knots, 2 miles visibility in light snow, and clouds overcast at 1200 feet. These conditions were improving, and the next METAR (1.5 hr later) listed ceilings at 7000-8000 feet and no snow. This airport is at a very high elevation (9,070 feet MSL), so the first speculative thought is to consider the performance capabilities of the airplane, likely close to max gross weight with three adults on board. The airport is in a narrow valley between peaks rising 5,000 feet on either side. Often, airplane crashes are not the result of any one thing, but a sequence of events. Steep terrain, low visibility in snow, and decreased performance due to high altitude has been shown countless times before to be a dangerous recipe.

Rans S-10 Sakota northeast of Houston, TX

A small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, apparently suffered an in-flight breakup that killed its pilot. There is virtually no information available, except that witnesses heard a “loud bang” and that the airplane appeared to tumble out of the sky. The aircraft is one intended to perform aerobatics, so it’s possible that during a maneuver the load limits of the plane were exceeded, causing a structural failure.

Sonex aircraft in Wellington, FL

Another crash of a small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, happened on Monday afternoon in south Florida. The airplane came to rest just off the end of the runway in a small lake, and the pilot did not survive the crash. Reports indicate the pilot may have been an extremely experienced American Airlines pilot, usually flying the 777. A witness thought the plane was experiencing engine trouble, as he heard several louds pops, like fireworks, before the plane went down. Another witness claimed the pilot was performing a “loop,” which was followed by the engine trouble and crash. In any case, it is disheartening to read of the loss of such an experienced pilot.

Elsewhere in the world

These crashes caused the untimely deaths of 7 people this weekend, and I send my deepest condolences to their friends and families. The above descriptions are in no way meant to place blame or judge the actions of the pilots, only to assemble any facts I can gather and to begin to try to make sense out of the accidents to better equip myself and pilots everywhere.

Elsewhere in the world, this weekend also saw the peaceful hijacking of a 767 on its way from Ethiopia to Rome. The co-pilot locked the captain out of the flight deck and flew the plane to Geneva, Switzerland to seek political asylum. More on this story later.

Thoughts on Distracted Driving

I really dislike driving cars. I know this is usually a blog about flying, but being a pilot has focused my dislike of driving to levels I didn’t know existed. Over on his blog, the NTSB Chairman posted about the problem of “Distracted Driving” and an interesting observation about so-called “hands-free devices.” According to several scientific studies, hands-free devices increase our ability to keep our hands on the wheel but do nothing about the equally (if not more) dangerous aspect of cognitive distraction (“not paying attention”).

For example, a few years ago we investigated an accident where the top of a bus carrying high school students was sheared off because the driver drove under a bridge with inadequate clearance. The driver was involved in a heated conversation with his sister using a hands-free phone. Investigators asked if he noticed the signs before the bridge that indicated that the bridge was too low for his vehicle. He not only missed seeing the signs, but he did not even notice the bridge until after he sheared off the top of the bus, injuring several students!

Driving a vehicle is usually a fairly easy task, except in the worst weather conditions, and we do it so much that it becomes routine, repetitive, almost mindless. I’m sure many of you couldn’t name many specific details about your drive home from work today. But despite this routine, driving a car is a very complex task. It’s never actually that repetitive or routine. Maybe the roads we take are the same, or the time of day you’re driving on them, but you’re probably not sharing those roads with the exact same group of drivers at any one time. The speeding, slowing, honking, doddling, belching mass of humanity on our roads is a variable that requires every bit of our attention to keep our own cars from hitting any of theirs.

What scares me is the number of drivers I see that are blatantly on their phones. I don’t even mean hands-free devices–they’re just driving the car with one hand and holding the phone to their face with the other. This means that the “human variable” of driving is much more dangerous–mindless zombies that aren’t capable of paying attention–and I treat them that way, often giving a nearby car a wide berth if I know the driver is on the phone. In New Jersey, as in many places, it is illegal to operate a handheld phone while driving, so there are other issues to consider, such as increased enforcement. But even without enforcement, we all have to understand that, handheld or hands-free, talking on the phone and driving a car are incompatible activities. It’s like driving in dense fog: your reactions will be delayed and even physical senses like peripheral vision will be impaired because your immediate attention is busy trying to understand and respond to the conversation.

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever scared of flying, and I usually respond that no I am not scared of flying, but I am scared of driving. At least in an airplane the problems are usually my own–both to cause and to deal with–and I can train and study to make better decisions and to fly better in an emergency. But in a car, with all the millions of human variables out there, who knows when one of them will not be paying attention at the wrong time. There’s nothing I can do about that but redouble my own attentiveness and to implore you all to consider setting a personal rule to not talk on the phone while driving.

Airplane Crash: Turbo Commander 690C near Nashville, Tennessee

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I’ve always had a fondness for the big twin Commanders, so to see this post from the NTSB on my Twitter feed yesterday was rather saddening, especially just a few months after the tragic crash of another Turbo Commander. Like that previous crash, this one was unfortunately newsworthy, and even more unfortunately, fatal.

Aero Commander 680, similar to the accident airplane

Aero Commander 680, similar to the accident airplane

The airplane, a Gulfstream Aero Commander 690C , left Great Bend, Kansas at 2045Z (3:45pm EST) and flew east for 1.5hrs at 23,000 feet. This was followed by a normal descent over the next 20 minutes to 3000 feet just west of Nashville, TN. The track log shows the plane intercept the approach course via a procedure turn on the RNAV Runway 02 approach into John C. Tune Municipal Airport, KJWN. The plane descends and slows as if on a normal approach to 700 feet (this is what is reported on Flightaware.com so it may be inaccurate). A missed approach is apparently initiated, and the airplane climbs back to 3000 feet, maneuvering to the west and then to the south, setting up for another approach. As the plane makes the turn to intercept the approach course again, it starts to descend, gradually, intercepting the glideslope to the runway. All of these things are normal, the flight is going as planned. But within a few minutes, the airplane crashes into a narrow strip of land next to a YMCA complex, with a debris field of some 150 yards. It was about 10 miles south of the airport.

N840V-flight-path

N840V flight track map

What happened in those few minutes and what could have been done to prevent it? This sounds like a loss-of-control while in the clouds, considering the short debris field and at least one eyewitness account:

We were at Kroger, so we didn’t actually physically see it hit the ground, but we did see it come out of the clouds and spiral.

I generally don’t trust non-pilot accounts of the way airplanes fly or sound, but using the word “spiral” is probably not just a generalization on the witness’ part.

The weather at the time, and for much of the day, wasn’t great:
N840V-weather

Notice that all day Nashville International Airport (KBNA, 10 miles east of KJWN), was reporting rather light NNE winds at 5-10 kts, but the visibility was in the marginal range (3-5 miles) and the ceiling was just 900 feet with mist (fog) due to a narrow temperature/dew point spread. But there isn’t mention of precipitation, and assuming the big Turbo Commander was well equipped, the weather conditions were low but weren’t quite “minimums” at the time.

KJWN-RNAV-02

At this point the rest can only be speculation. What caused the airplane to “spiral” out of the cloudy evening sky? Was there an engine failure? It’s possible, but with a turboprop I consider it unlikely. Although no precipitation was falling on the ground, were there icing conditions in the clouds? Perhaps. Did the pilot have too many things to juggle, single-pilot IFR in the waning hour of daylight, a 2-hour flight and one missed approach behind him, a big fast complicated but capable aircraft in front of him? Perhaps. Maybe it was a combination of those two things. Maybe it was none of these things. In time I trust the NTSB will make some sense out of this tragic accident; I can only hope it brings some further understanding about the art of flying to us pilots, as well as some measure of comfort and closure for the families of the victims. To them, I express my deepest condolences.

A Trip to the South (and getting stuck for a night)

The alarm went off at 5am…on a Sunday morning. My warm bed and my sleeping girlfriend were almost too much to resist dragging myself from under the covers into an adventure that would see me fly about 1,000 nautical miles with a forced overnight stop in Raleigh, North Carolina and a landing back in New Jersey that I won’t soon forget.

I was bringing an airplane I’m considering buying, a Mooney with a mid-time engine and a fantastic instrument panel, down to South Carolina for my Dad to complete a pre-buy inspection. Dad is a world class aircraft mechanic, and his opinion is invaluable to me. The owner was fine with me taking the airplane that far, so long as I brought my instructor along.

I forced myself out of bed, and groaned slightly when I heard the sound of a strong wind gust buffet the bedroom window. maybe I should just get back in bed, I thought. I went through my usual routine and rushed out the door, forgetting the coffee I had made. At least there wasn’t any traffic that early in the morning.

The airport was dark and cold–the latest blast of arctic air was moving in, causing the temperatures to drop and the winds to gust. I walked out to the completely empty ramp, then further all the way out to the runway, to check the surface condition. It wasn’t good, still covered with snow and ice from the recent storm that came through. As the sun started to rise I brushed the layer of fresh snow that had fallen overnight off the airplane. I kept having to take a break and sit in my car to get out of the wind.

Finally my instructor arrived and we finished the final preparations–removing the last ice that had built up, and fueling the airplane for the flight South. My instructor decided to file IFR, completing the process on his iPad with the Foreflight app. He frowned when he realized we’d have a 25 knot headwind and nearly 4 hr enroute time. Then he asked if I was making the “go” decision.

It’s never an easy decision, and especially so when you’re putting so much distance between yourself and home base. To be honest, I don’t know exactly how to make the decision, I just try and make sure that, as a previous instructor said, every decision I make is to try to become the oldest living pilot. With a slightly sinking feeling, I made a “go” decision. Without hesitation he said “alright let’s go.” We climbed in the airplane and the engine fired right up, thanks mainly to the engine heater protecting it from the brutal cold.

As the engine idled and I completed my after engine start and taxi checklists, my instructor called McGuire Departure control and received our IFR clearance with a release time in just 10 minutes. Everything moved fast from then, taxi across the icy ramp and down to the departure end of the runway, a quick run-up, final check, and we were accelerating down the runway and lifting off into the frigid sky.

The Flight down South

TO BE CONTINUED…

How to stay calm during turbulence

Let’s say you’re in seat 26C, an aisle seat, on some airliner halfway between Denver and Atlanta late-ish one winter night. You’ve been comfortably cruising for about an hour, the flight attendants are almost done with their in-flight service, you’re starting to doze off. Happily strapped into a big, new, modern metal machine, you’ve gotten over that initial pang of nervousness as the airplane took off and climbed up to 37,000 feet. You wouldn’t admit you were nervous; besides, everybody gets nervous during takeoff, right? Except that guy across the aisle from you. I don’t know how people can sleep through takeoff, you think. But now everything’s fine, in a few hours you’ll be at your sister and brother-in-law’s house in Raleigh-Durham after making a connection in Atlanta.

“Ladies and gentleman this is the captain speaking,” the PA suddenly squawks, “uhhh, looks like there’s some weather up ahead over Nashville and there may be a few bumps so, uhhh, we’re going to turn on the fasten-seatbelt sign. If you wouldn’t mind please, uhhh, return to your seats and fasten your seat belts, thanks.”

You take a sip from the cup of water sitting precariously on the tray table in front of you. Then you down the rest of the cup in one gulp. Okay, that didn’t sound too bad, just a couple of bumps, you think to yourself, reaching down and tightening your seatbelt without even thinking about it. A flight attendant comes by and you hand her your empty cup and latch the tray table into the seat back, glad to be free of any extra junk. You glance up the aisle, wishing with envy to be one of the people that already fell asleep. You look across the aisle, noticing the guy sitting there, now awake, open a book and start reading. Seems like he couldn’t be bothered. You feel the plane gently jolt and jostle with a few bumps in the air. You unconsciously grip your armrest and the muscles in your neck and jaw clench. That’s not so bad, you silently hope, maybe that’s what he meant. You take a breath and sit back, closing your eyes, trying to find that calmness that was so rudely snatched from you a few moments ago.

The PA barks to life once more. Maybe we’re through it, you think, already feeling better. This time the voice that comes through the speaker is not the captain. It’s the co-pilot. His announcement is more terse than the previous one; indeed, it’s not even meant for the passengers.

“Flight attendants please discontinue service and take your seats.”

That’s it? you think, incredulous, suddenly realizing with a sickening feeling in your stomach that the previous announcement concerning “a few bumps” was a little rose-colored. You lean over, looking up the aisle and back, pleading with your eyes for signs from the flight attendants that everything is fine, that this is totally normal. With a sinking feeling you see them hurrying to their seats and buckling in, carefully fastening their lap belts as well as, could those be, shoulder harnesses?

Why don’t we have shoulder harnesses?, you wonder as the jolts and jostles become more frequent.
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Now you’re more than a little nervous, bordering on frightened. Along with the muscle tension in your jaw and neck, the muscles in your legs and abdomen contract, restricting your breathing. Your neighbor, an older man with thin glasses and slight features sitting in the middle seat, turns to you and says something, smiling and tightening his seatbelt. You couldn’t hear what he said so you just mock smile and nod and retreat back to your own thoughts. You don’t even realize it, but a very primal force has complete control over your mind and body. In a cruel example of irony, your “fight-or-flight” response has been triggered, sending a cascade of hormones and nerve signals throughout your body, priming it for immediate action if necessary. It’s thought that we evolved this response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, to better protect our relatively fragile bodies from dangerous animals and other life-threatening situations. Right now you could jump higher or run faster than you probably could at any other time. But the cruelest irony is that you’ve got nowhere to go. You’re strapped to a big, cold, unfeeling machine.

The airplane jostles a few times in a row, you look outside into the black night, all you see is the red glow at the end of the wing, bouncing up and down in concert with the light turbulence. Suddenly the entire window–all of the windows you can see–flash brilliant white zap zap, then blackness. You realize it was lightning.

Just at that moment, you hear the steady whine of the jet engines spool down inexplicably. And even though you have no reference to which way is up, down, left, or right, your inner ear senses that the plane is turning, sharply, to the right. A second later the airplanes enters clouds, you can tell by the glow of the red light on the wingtip and the flash of the strobe light. Suddenly the plane is gripped by three successively stronger jolts, pushing you down into your seat then lifting you back up slightly then shoving you to the left. Are we still turning? you wonder. I think we’re still going right, you think, or is it left? The tubular structures in your inner ear are extremely sensitive, but with no visual reference they can wreak havoc with your spatial orientation, sending signals to your brain that seem to conflict with your visual cues, especially when you’re inside a moving airplane and can’t see the horizon due to clouds or nighttime. Another bolt of lightning outside makes the windows flash brilliant white.

The turbulence is getting worse, each jolt is more intense, as if a giant hand has reached down and is tossing the airplane around for fun. Suddenly you feel the plane lurch upwards and you’re pushed down hard in your seat. The plane seems to tremble for a moment before the bottom drops out and the plane falls sharply, a few people yelp, and you feel weightless for a second before the plane seems to catch the air again. Maybe you yelped too, you can’t remember. You glance across the aisle, the guy is still reading, you think, now more annoyed than envious. The plane is rocked by a gust that lifts it to the left (or is it right?), then another, stronger one, the strongest yet, that seems to make the plane lift up and fall down at the same time. More people yelp. Somebody whisper-shouts “Dear Jesus!” You swear that last one felt like we were out of control for a second. You feel as though your heart will beat right out of your chest as you sense the airplane is turning again, but now you’re sure you don’t know whether it’s left or right.

You try to think of something, anything, that will get your mind off of the terrifying, helpless situation you find yourself in, but it’s no use. In this condition you’re primed to react to every bump, jolt, drop, shove, turn, every sight sound and feeling that comes your way. Your mind is racing along with your heartbeat. It’s agonizing. You start making deals with yourself, or maybe with God, no longer thinking about your sister in Raleigh, now saying you’ll be happy just getting to Atlanta. You start thinking about how you should drive more.

The bumps get less intense, then, gradually, less frequent. You start to sense that the airplane is no longer making any turns, and your inner ear seems to agree, so you start feeling more at ease. A few minutes go by, and finally your heartbeat slows to normal, and your grip on the armrest loosens.

“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to apologize for the tosses and turns we had there for a few minutes,” the captain says over the PA, as if he owed anybody an apology. “I know a few of those bumps may have felt a bit, uhhh, severe, but, I assure you we had everything under control up here in the flight deck.” I’m pretty sure no one feels assured, you think. “The weather is behind us now and we should have smooth air for the rest of the flight,” he says, “We’ll have you on the ground in Atlanta in about, uhhh, 30 minutes. Again, sorry for the delay and the turbulence.”

Listen, the moral of this story is not to make light of the fact that people react in different ways to different situations. Some people are nervous or frightened. Some might pray to a higher power. Some are just going to remain calm, from experience or simply from nerves of steel. The moral of this story is that it’s perfectly normal to get stressed out while strapped inside a machine going 500 mph through the top of a thunderstorm 5 miles above the ground. Or when making a difficult approach to land with low visibility and gusty winds and rain or snow. Or any number of other situations at which you should marvel at the miracle it is to be flying.

What you can do to stay calm through it all is to trust that, indeed, everything is under control up front in the flight deck. Too often the general public marginalizes the role of pilots (you could argue, based on salaries, that airline management is guilty of doing the same). This attitude is probably caused by the perception that the airplanes do most of the flying, and that the pilots are little more than babysitters. While modern airliners are marvels of technology and safety, all of that technology is there to serve the pilots’ decision making and situational awareness, so they can make the decision on precisely which path to fly through that storm up ahead to avoid the dangerous, convective parts of the clouds. Or to have the information necessary to bring an airplane carrying 120 people, flying at 160 knots, to a safe landing at a busy airport that’s shrouded in fog or rain or any number of things the atmosphere can throw at it.

The public perception of pilots is also tarnished by unfortunate accidents. There is no good way to change this fact. Things can go wrong, we can’t predict and train for every situation, and even if we could we would still not be able to completely prevent human error. Just remember that commercial airlines continue to become safer and safer, all while making more and more flights. Remember that the traveling public expects to leave and arrive on time, no matter what. In service of that very high expectation, pilots can and do fly through weather that would make a small-airplane pilot like me cower in fear. They can do it because they fly amazing machines and undergo intense training and frequent recurrent training, and have a depth of experience that gives them the confidence to know they can do it and do it safely. So next time you take a flight and it lands safely, when you’re shuffling off the airplane, looks in the pilots’ eyes, say “thank you,” and mean it.

I sat there in my aisle seat one night, trying to read a book through what I knew to be just moderate turbulence. I knew to expect it when the first officer told the flight attendants to take their seats, and I braced for some good bumps after I saw the lightning outside. I even found myself a little nervous, likely since small-aircraft pilots like me are trained to give thunderstorms a very wide berth. I kept having to re-read the same sentence in my book. I was thinking about the pilots, how this was probably the best part of the day, getting to turn off the autopilot and hand fly through the radar echos. They’re probably having fun up there, I thought, as about 100 people back here are freaking out. Especially the poor guy sitting across the aisle from me.

Sequest-ow-er

Today the FAA issued a press release detailing at least one of their responses to the recent “sequester” of across-the-board spending cuts dimwittedly implemented by Congress.

Trenton, NJ - Mercer County Airport (KTTN)

In a not-so-surprising move, they decided to close 149 traffic control towers across 38 states, representing about a third of the nation’s 500+ control towers. You can see the full list here. The closures will begin April 7th and will fulfill at least part of the $637 million in cuts required by the sequester.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Indeed, it is estimated that about 2,500 jobs will be lost, and could affect the $200 million in business revenue these airports generate collectively. But that’s actually the less important issue, in my opinion a distant second, to the issue of safety.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

It is true that there is plenty of flying done every day at non-towered airports around the country. We as pilots are trained to monitor and self-announce our positions and intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF. That system works, but as Richard Collins explains in his very interesting book The Next Hour, “there is no regulation about using this, only a recommendation.” He goes on to cite that “the NTSB has found that midair collisions most often involve recreational flights…flying at or near uncontrolled airports below 1,000 feet above the ground.”

Just last week I encountered a situation at my local uncontrolled airport that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was out flying in the pattern with other students and instructors, practicing short- and soft-field landings and takeoffs, when an airplane decided to join the pattern in an unconventional manner (taking a shortcut). That wasn’t the only problem–although he was active in stating his intentions to join the pattern for the active runway, 10, he was in fact flying to join the pattern for the opposite runway, 28. It wasn’t until he crossed directly through the downwind leg of the busy traffic pattern, narrowly missing another aircraft, that he realized his mistake.

Sure, many of the airports whose towers will be closed might seem “sleepy” on most days. But having extra eyes on the sky is never a bad thing. They can help in emergencies, or when the weather gets bad, or when the traffic becomes congested. Let’s take for example the lone tower scheduled to be closed in New Jersey, at Trenton-Mercer Regional (KTTN, the airport shown in the photos in this post). It’s actually the first towered airport I flew to, and they were the first controllers I talked to, nervous as I was. It is not what I would consider a “sleepy” airport. According to the entry on AirNav, KTTN saw more than 200 operations per day in 2010, before Frontier Airlines added scheduled service to several destinations in the Southern US. I cannot imagine how this airport will operate without a control tower: large and small aircraft, intersecting runways, military operations, complex ramp space.

IMG_4146

Apparently there is the possibility of a last-minute amendment proposed in Congress to provide more funding for control towers. This seems unlikely to me, and since it has only been pegged at $50 million, may be insufficient anyway. The FAA mentioned that the towns themselves, such as Trenton, could take on the cost of operating the control tower.

Some communities will elect to participate in FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport

This may also be somewhat difficult. I’m not sure there are many cities and towns that have room under their financial belts, let alone the aviation saavy, to take on this responsibility.

So it seems as though we as pilots will just have to make due, and after my experience last week, I can’t help but worry more about safety. In a final note about traffic and midair collisions, Richard Collins had this to say after he installed a traffic alert system in his small single-engine airplane (incidentally, based out of KTTN for many years).

The main thing that I learned was that when near an airport, there’s a lot more traffic than I ever saw…

That sure is a scary thought, and with the loss of these control towers, we have many fewer eyes (or radar dishes) that we can count on to help keep enough space between our airplanes.

Mistakes

With just a few more flight hours left before I can take my checkride, I can’t stop thinking about my future life as a pilot. I daydream about where I will go and what I will see. And I think about my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, friends. I can’t wait to see their faces as the tires lift off the ground and we fly over their house or along the Hudson River Corridor next to Manhattan or on a trip down to Cape May or to see more distant relatives down the East coast. I can’t wait to be set loose as a pilot.

But at the same time, I’ll be set loose.  There is no doubt that I will have completed all of the requirements set forth by the FAA, and generally breezed through training, and I will be legally capable of flying a single-engine land-based aircraft almost anywhere my heart desires, almost anytime, with passengers. I think back to my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, and friends sitting next to me or right behind me in a 172. And the sheer joy I can imagine on their faces, and on mine, is tempered a bit by the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the pilot’s shoulders. On my shoulders.

I want to be the best pilot I can be. Of course, this involves more training and a hell of a lot more practice, which I will dive into immediately. But meanwhile, I will be set free to the skies. Although I am glad to be near the end of the FAA-mandated 40 hours of training for the PPL, I don’t think those 40 hours equip me to handle all of the situations I might face. I find myself scouring NTSB reports and evaluating how I would handle the situations in the “Aftermath” and “I Learned about Flying from that” sections of Flying magazine. Richard Collins’ book The Next Hour, which I plan to discuss in a later post, was full of situations for me to imagine myself trying to confront. I often have two immediate reactions: first, that I would never allow myself to get in a similar situation. Second, that the people in the NTSB reports probably thought that they would never allow themselves to get in that situation.

We are humans, and therefore we make mistakes. I make mistakes occasionally in my job as a biologist. Sometimes the workload is large enough and the tasks difficult enough that an error or two will creep in which sabotage a part of or a whole experiment. I’m also a very active concert violinist, and I make mistakes in music too. Sometimes the stress of performing in front of an audience or the extreme precision and technique required for certain passages of music can cause a lapse in concentration, and the error rate will start to increase. In all cases, I hate making mistakes; I am a perfectionist and always very hard on myself when it happens. But the best scientists I know and the best musicians I know make mistakes sometimes. I have to assume that even the best pilots can make mistakes. We are human.

I am forever intrigued by the human brain and how it works. I found the following video very interesting describing how our brain handles information between two “systems”.

Of particular interest to aviation was the fact that we can become “effectively blind” when we fully engage our “System 2” brain. I can imagine so many possible times during flight that we might unknowingly become focused on one problem/task/goal that we suffer from this type of effective blindness. I remember early on in flight training I often felt that I was “behind” the airplane during simulated emergencies. Once during a simulated engine out my CFI changed the Comm 1 frequency to the wrong CTAF. I was amazed when after the few seconds it took me to change it back to make the position calls, I found I had lost situational awareness for long enough to fail to turn the base leg at the proper moment, and undershot the emergency approach.

It was a mistake, if it had been a real emergency I would have been in trouble. It was a difficult lesson. But thinking about it, a lot of the NTSB accident reports are probably the result of some seemingly innocuous decision or lapse in concentration or slight fixation on a problem. It happened to me on a clear (though hazy) day with no wind. Add in clouds and darkness and I can imagine the number of mistakes can start to increase rapidly if you’re not prepared to handle the situation. Although it is a scary thought, I think for me it is also the challenge of it all that drives me to be the best pilot I can be. To train and practice and study and plan (and follow checklists) to mitigate the risks of making the right mistakes at the wrong time.