Some mistakes are obvious; baseball legend Roy Halladay operated his aircraft irresponsibly leading up to his fatal crash and was taking medications including morphine, disallowed antidepressants, and amphetamines.
Aberrant beliefs inspire bad behaviors. “This doesn’t apply to me because I’m an experienced pilot” or “who needs sleep?” both are common and sad refrains. Ignorance and hubris, for a pilot, are like a disease; treatment includes large doses of education and humility.
Lloyd Cromwell Griffiths’ father was a Royal Air Force test pilot. After flight training, Griffiths flew bush and crop-spraying missions, then joined British Airways, initially flying Vickers Viscounts in Scotland, home to inclement weather. Eventually BA’s chief pilot, Griffiths started as a first officer flying challenging island routes. Griffiths had years navigating the frozen tundra and, on one flight to Islay, his captain—who was inexperienced with Hebridean island flying—was loathe to make the trip because of snow. Griffiths called Islay Tower to ask if they could make snowballs. If not, the snow must be dry and runway stopping distance would not be an issue. The lesson? Seek advice from any source and incorporate that information into your decision making.
BA arose from merging two airlines with different philosophies. British European Airways introduced monitored approaches making full use of all crewmembers, whereas at the more traditional British Overseas Airways Corp. the captain did everything. The new airline eventually adopted monitored approaches, improving cockpit behaviors. The day before the Lion Air Boeing 737 Max crash, a third pilot was up front when MCAS behavior caused a pitch-down attitude, and he suggested disconnecting the system. “Set ego aside and listen to advice. Of course, questions remain why such guidance was not more widely disseminated,” Griffiths said.
Cockpit self-discipline is critical, from keeping liquids away from electrical panels to restricting loose bodies—a water bottle under rudder pedals can be disastrous. Recall the 1995 incident when a Royal Air Force Airbus A330 en route to Afghanistan plunged thousands of feet when a camera jammed between sidestick and armrest. Consider everything you take on board, what function it serves, and what harm it might cause. But even before flight, avoid distraction when preflighting; silence your phone and politely ask your passengers to give you 10 minutes of peace.
Joe Rajacic—a NASA special projects test pilot, Cessna Citation jockey, and 37-year United Airlines veteran—told me, “flying and driving have similarities. Modern tire blow-outs are rare, but the consequences profound. Don’t just look, take in what you see and react accordingly.” Occasionally have a more experienced pilot or mechanic do the preflight with you. Being the dumbest one in the room is a good thought for business; apply it to flying.
On long cross-country flights, practice emergency situations: What loads would you shed if the alternator quits? Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency—it’s hard to call ATC after the battery dies. Practice on the ground, with eyes closed, challenging yourself to find every control—a smoke-filled cockpit precludes visually locating items. And ensure you know every limit of your airplane, including crosswind limits and stopping distances, wet and dry.
Scott Parazynski, physician, pilot, mountaineer, and veteran NASA astronaut (“Pilots: Scott Parazynski,” April 2020 AOPA Pilot), told me to reflect on training like you fly. “We would brief and then sim for every shuttle mission or T–38 sortie with deliberate intention. Every time you strap in, exercise best CRM and communication practices, just as if it is a shuttle launch. Any flight might end in an emergency; having your mind and cockpit always set up the same way ensures a safe outcome if your flight plan goes sideways.” If these levels of discipline are right for equipment somewhat more reliable than our GA fleet, shouldn’t we aspire to do the same?
Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” Get a clear, precise picture of your mental state while flying and stay well as you fly well.