Magic Safety Mirror
If you’re honest about aviation safety you’ve got to constantly ask yourself what you can do to cut down on the risks inherent in flying. Admittedly, taking a hard look in the magic mirror of safety and reflecting honestly upon what you see is not an easy thing to do. It might be one that pilots as a group are inherently bad at. After all, we tend to be confident self-starters who have gotten where we are not so much by questioning what we were doing but by forging ahead despite our doubts, reflecting more on the possible rewards than the risks inherent in what we do.
One of the most important tips I’ve ever gotten came from my former colleague Richard Collins, who graded his every flight. I used to think that the goal of such a practice was perfection. By looking at your flying you’d get to the point that you corrected all of your errors and would fly the perfect flight—something I’m still waiting on 15 years after starting the grading game.
I’ve had some good flights, A- efforts, but nothing that comes close to perfection. Moreover, I doubt I’ll ever get there.
The ingenious secret to Richard’s little game was that the goal isn’t achieving perfection at all or even, directly, improving one’s performance. Instead, grading oneself is a way of constantly upgrading your expectations. It’s taken me 15 years to figure this out, too, but it’s happened to me, without my even having tried. The proof is in my evaluations. An A- flight from a dozen years ago would likely get a C+ in today’s self-assessment gradebook. I’ve simply gotten tougher on myself, not because I’ve become meaner or tougher, but because I see the activity in a more nuanced way.
By many measures, I’m a pretty conservative pilot. I fly the straight and level life, filing IFR as a matter of habit on nearly all of my flights. I take training seriously, I always brief before a flight, I do a thorough preflight before first flight of the day and I sump my fuel religiously. I try to take other factors into account too. I know I’m a busy guy, too busy sometimes, so I schedule flights when there’s a hint of a lull in the schedule. I think about human factors.
Still, I admit that I have numerous areas where I could improve my game. Take just one. I sometimes fly when I’m tired—happily, the flying quickly energizes me in a very satisfying way. That said, for that first takeoff of the day I’m seldom operating at 100 percent. That’s true for my last landing of the day, as well, when it’s been a long one and I’m getting back way after dark. Then again, what pilot can claim any different? Which shouldn't stop me from trying to cut down the risk here, and I have been. I try to go to bed earlier when I'm flying early the next day. I also try to wake up earlier, to give myself a little more time to wake up. This is just one aspect of my flying and these remedies are little things, but a small improvement in safety is nonetheless a real improvement.
I could go on and on with my weaknesses, but the important thing, I hope, is that my being aware of them and constantly working to improve them will make me a better, safer pilot in the long run.
My weaknesses are well within the bell curve, it seems to me. That’s not true for all pilots. If you live with big risk factors, like buzzing friends’ houses, scud running, flying over maximum weight heading out in a poorly maintained airplane, you need to take a long hard look in the mirror, or better yet, just skip that step altogether and just stop those behaviors. Flying as though nothing bad could happen is a losing game.
Then again, if you’re one of those pilots who takes big risks, you might just be used to the risk by now; it’s likely you haven’t even read this far.
If these words amount to preaching to the choir (the choir being composed of pilots who take safety seriously), I guess that’s okay. After all, even those of us in the choir, that is, those of us who are committed to being better pilots, can always improve. Even that's not an easy thing. That improvement and the reward that accompanies it, lower risk for you and your passengers, come only with self-reflection. That takes a commitment to taking a good hard look in that mirror every time you fly.
We welcome your comments on flyingmag.com. In order to maintain a respectful environment, we ask that all comments be on-topic, respectful and spam-free. All comments that do not comply with these guidelines will be removed.