The Myth of Pushing Limits
Technology as straw man: Here’s the whole story.
By Robert Goyer / Published: May 07, 2013
The following is from the March 2013 print issue.
For as long as airplanes have been around, pilots have held a number of beliefs about them that are out of line with reality, which is an alarming fact given that pilots are the ones responsible for making sure a flight goes well and ends well. If the pilot is laboring under illusions and delusions about airplanes and flying them, that’s a bad thing, right?
One of the most persistent myths in aviation has long been that the most dangerous part of the flight is the drive to the airport. This is certainly true if you’re a 17-year-old boy driving a super-car to the airport to hop on a Southwest flight to Spokane, but statistically speaking, when it comes to grown-ups driving passenger cars to the aerodrome to fly a light airplane, the safest part of the flight is that trip down Airport Boulevard in your Buick.
There are risks, from engine failure to encounters with adverse weather, that seldom result in anything more than a little bent metal when it comes to driving a car but which all too regularly cause tragic outcomes for pilots of small airplanes. Sure, there are many more deaths caused by auto accidents than airplane accidents, but on a per-hour or per-mile basis, the risk is clearly much greater in a light airplane than in a car.
In fact, in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, general aviation suffered a rate of 6.51 fatalities per 100,000 hours of flying. Highway statistics are predicated upon miles driven, so we need to convert. Once the conversions are made, with a few assumptions about average airspeed, we can estimate that the GA fatality rate is about 12 fatalities per 100 million miles. With cars, it’s about 1.1. The airlines are twice as safe as cars or about 25 times safer than light airplanes. It’s not even a close call. Enjoy that drive to the airport (but put your cell phone down, please).
The fact that the drive to the airport is not riskier than the flight that follows is not really news. For decades, knowledgeable pilots have embraced this fact and, instead of throwing up their arms helplessly, sought to identify the risks, address those they can and accept those few risks they don’t have much power over (bird strikes come to mind). I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to fly with a pilot who believed there are no risks involved in flying or who felt as though all risks were equal. In fact, I have flown with such pilots. I am happy to have lived to tell the tale.
Another one of the most popular myths today is that technology causes pilots to do things in their airplanes they otherwise wouldn’t do, often naming Nexrad and Cirrus’ whole airplane recovery parachute as prime examples. The pilots who make this claim, by the way, don’t seem to fully appreciate the benefits of in-cockpit weather, I’m guessing because they don’t fly for transportation on a regular basis.
The claim that new technology emboldens pilots is true. It does — in the same way an ILS receiver in the cockpit emboldens me to land when the weather is below VFR minimums or an extra engine emboldens me to fly long over-water legs. Then again, all of these technologies make what we do safer by adding power, redundancy, fidelity and/or information to the flight.
The end result is decreased risk or increased utility, or both. Nexrad is a perfect example of an imperfect technology that still brings benefits. The shortcoming of Nexrad is simply that there’s a delay, often of unknown duration, in the display of hazardous weather. In real life, what that means is the cells you’re looking at likely have moved a few miles from where they appear on the display. If you’re cutting it close and flying too near to cells to begin with, this is a critical difference. If you’re not pushing the limits, you’ll likely still have good margins. Besides, you can always factor in the expected movement of the cell in determining its likely position. ATC can be a big help here as well. The other possibility is a fast-growing cell that your weather gear, because of the lag, doesn’t have time to display. This, of course, is a risk any time you’re flying in the clouds in active conditions.
I remember a flight I had down to Sun ’n Fun one year back in the 1990s before there was XM or XM WX. I was approaching Savannah, Georgia (KSAV), when I heard on the frequency my colleague, flying mentor and friend, Tom Benenson, talking with approach control from his pretty Cardinal RG. I listened as Tom proceeded to fly the approach, and I heard him call the missed, because of heavy rain, turbulence and lightning in the vicinity. After hearing that, I declined to try it myself, instead opting to continue down to Brunswick, where the weather was better and the fuel was cheaper. Later, we flew separately through Jacksonville Center airspace in Florida for a while, in the soup, getting vectored around the storms by the remarkable JAX controllers while having no earthly idea ourselves where the cells were. Had we lost radio contact, we would have been in a world of hurt. Our radios kept working fine, and we made it through with newly washed airplanes and just a bit of moderate turbulence.
Today, I could fly that same flight and know to close tolerances where the cells are. I would talk with the controllers, listen to where other airplanes were flying and likely make the call for my own deviations based on all of that good information, information that, I stress, when used smartly (as is the case with all information) cuts risk substantially and increases margins. I’ll take that bargain any day.