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.

 

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Heavy Iron

Vapor Maker by Angelo Bufalino (TheProparazzi)) on 500px.com
Vapor Maker by Angelo Bufalino

I wonder how many people on that airplane take flying for granted. How many people are sitting there right at that moment worrying about the stresses at work or at home, or absent-mindedly reading the junky, germy magazines and catalogs in the seat pocket in front of them. Maybe they are being absent-minded on purpose, because flying scares them a little bit, deep down.

I think with everything else going on in our lives we can easily take flying for granted. “Going to the airport” anymore is fraught with struggles. Sometimes we might struggle to get out the door with the family-in-tow, or struggle to get through traffic, and parked, and to the correct terminal, and through the check-in line. And then comes security–another post all in itself. They tell us to get to the airport at least 2 hours early, but every time I do, I end up waiting in an uncomfortable airport chair for 90+ minutes before boarding the airplane. The furniture is bad, the people are everywhere, the snacks are expensive, and the entertainment is slim. “I just want to be there already,” we think.

Finally when we’re allowed on the airplane we have to stand there while people take their sweet time trying to jam a too-large carry-on in the overhead compartment, then take off their coat–while still in the aisle–before taking their seat. Only to find that the person waiting right behind them actually has the window seat in that row. And when you finally find your seat there is a 2 year-old sitting behind you. And he’s whiny. And on and on and on.

Remember the first sentence of this post? I guess it’s no wonder so many people probably take flying for granted. The whole process can be one of the most stressful, aggravating experiences in daily life. But let’s not forget just how miraculous it is to be flying. Just how far we’ve come in a little over 100 years. Look at that picture above. Those are two of the most powerful engines ever created, each generating near 100,000 pounds of thrust. Look at the wings, with the vapor clouds–tell-tale signs of lift–being generated as the airfoil creates a large enough area of low pressure on top of the wing to pull the half-million pound weight of the airplane into the sky. In the fuselage there are a few hundred people who, in about 9 hours’ time will step off the airplane on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

These machines are amazing technological achievements. Let’s try not to let all the rest of the things we encounter while “going to the airport” get in the way.