Friday, October 11, 2013

There But for the Grace of God...

Recently, one of our club planes was involved in an incident/accident.  This occurred at night, and I learned about it from a Chicago-area aviators Facebook page the next day.  My exclamation of "oh my Lord!" got my wife's attention, and that was less than ideal given that I would like her to fly with me once in awhile.  But honestly I could not contain my concern for the pilot. 

Throughout the morning after the incident, I was able to gather the most important information - that the pilot was unhurt except for his pride, and I have a reasonable picture of the basic facts.  It would be imprudent to share them at this time, but suffice it to say that it has led me to think about how we as pilots deal with incidents and accidents.

In the last 12 months, we have seen a few major accidents from major carriers that have garnered national news and what seems like too many GA accidents in my area.  We've had a surgeon and his wife killed in a Cirrus near Clow (1C5), a fuel-exhaustion accident on approach to Chicago Executive (KPWK), and an emergency landing of an experimental aircraft on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago.  In the last two, no one was seriously injured. 

In each of these incidents, I sought as much information as I could about what occurred so that I could learn from these incidents.  I confess that I sometimes have to fight back some judgment and righteous indignation about what happens.  If the comments of some pilots on discussion boards and Facebook groups are any indication, not only am I not alone but some of us are completely unconcerned about it.  I pray I never lose sight of pride going before the fall.   

But I really have a hard time understanding how one can run out of fuel... until I put myself in the situation of having plenty of fuel for my trip but due to storms making such broad deviations that all my reserves are burned up.  I can relate to this.

And I can't understand how a father with two of his three kids and the friend of one of them on board can continue flying in IMC despite not being instrument rated and ATC trying to help him land.  The Air Safety Institute put a program together from this fatal accident, and it was hard not to well up as I listened to the pilot's communications with ATC.  Honestly, I can hear the fear in his voice.  Yet, his decision making was very poor as his not wanting to be weathered in overrode getting him and his passengers on the group.  But suppose you really have to be somewhere and you are already in the air.  I can relate to this optimism that things will just work out ok.  

And I can't really understand how one can let one's airspeed decay to such a level that there is a stall/spin accident.  That is, I can't until I put myself there with my kids yelling despite the fact that I've explained to them the need for a sterile cockpit 100 times.  Or I remember that time I went around from a botched landing, and while watching other traffic in the pattern my own airspeed dropped below the green arc.  This is one reason I am frequently cross-checking my airspeed since I do not trust my butt to tell me I'm in trouble. 

Not so clever now, are you?

This incident the other night was different.  No, I do not feel judgment about what happened.  I can place myself in that cockpit; in that aircraft and approaching that very same runway.  I've probably done just that within the last 90 days.  I know this pilot.  Not well, but he has been a member of the club for a long time and I do not know a single person who would have said that they would not fly with him.  I would have flown with him that night had that worked out. [And let me be clear - I am not in this forum attempting to say that this was pilot error or any other cause at this point in time]. 

We can all make mistakes.

I HAVE made mistakes, and even caused some minor damage to an airplane (this does not need rehashed here... but it is the original reason for the "CURSES" tag).   

And I have made mistakes that did not result in an incident.  During the flight I wrote about last week, I did not run the pre-landing checklist.  Yes, I did a "GUMPS" check as I crossed the final approach fix (even with a fixed gear since I now fly a retractable).  But I never turned on the taxi and landing lights.  Minor... and I was distracted by flying the approach.  I have forgotten to put the mixture full rich before takeoff TWICE... once with my kids in the plane.  It was this moment that I decided that I was not too good for checklists, and disabused myself of the false belief that I was smart enough to remember everything I needed to do in each phase of flight.      

I think that we as pilots can look at incidents and accidents with a bit of smugness thinking that we would never do the things that lead to them.  But this is a mistake.   It is in this reflection that the true meaning of "it can happen to me" in the face of invincibility comes to life.

1 comment:

  1. This is well put. I think we all wrestle with the same contradiction: the desire to learn from the mistakes of others countered by an inclination toward a smug "what was he/she thinking?". If smugness dominates, no lesson will be learned.

    I've been flying for 12 years and have made my fair share of mistakes (none of which led to any accidents or bent metal, fortunately). My penitence goes right on the blog out of hope that anyone reading will note the lesson and the thought process leading up to it. Maybe, with the thought process expressed, anyone reading will be less likely to write the episode off as errant stupidity and perhaps learn something about the little traps that can catch us.

    I hope your fellow club member is OK.