Just when you feel like you are hanging on by your fingernails, and are counting the minutes until you are safely on the ground, the attitude indicator gradually tilts over to one side. You desperately try to remember the partial panel flying you did during your instrument training, but it is all too much to handle, and soon you find yourself desperately hauling back on the control wheel as the airspeed indicator winds up and the altimeter winds down. It is all over in a matter of seconds.
This same scenario has been replayed thousands of times with different sets of details. Typical risk factors include:
• Lack of overall experience.
• Lack of recent experience.
• Little or no time in type.
• Known mechanical issues or failures.
• Loading the airplane over maximum gross weight.
• Loading the airplane out of the CG envelope.
• Departing without enough fuel.
• Headwinds that increase the amount of fuel needed.
• Failure to check the weather.
• Weather worse than forecast.
• Failure to assess runway requirements.
In each case, one risk after another is either ignored or accepted over the course of a flight. Each individual decision may seem fairly reasonable at the time, but taken in the context of the previously accepted risks, the pilot is accumulating an unacceptable level of total risk. All it takes is one unanticipated event for the entire house of cards to come tumbling down.
The best way to avoid this scenario is to carefully keep track of each decision you make and maintain an accurate tabulation of all risk factors previously accepted, with a rough idea of the total risk at that point. If you make a decision based on certain parameters, also set a “no go” or “turnaround” value for that parameter. In the hypothetical example above, the pilot could have decided that, due to his lack of total, instrument, mountain or recent experience and the sluggish attitude indicator, he would not depart or would turn around if it looked like he would have to fly in instrument conditions.
When reading accident reports, it is often heart wrenching to watch the steady accumulation of risk until it reaches the point where an accident is inevitable. The challenge is to have “hindsight in foresight” and be aware of the growing chain of risk as it is happening. With each new decision you face, go over your mental or written list of risk factors, not only assessing the total accumulated level of risk, but also considering how various risk factors might interact to quickly make the situation much worse. To fight the common tendency to do some “wishful thinking,” maintain an attitude of aggressive skepticism, always considering the potential consequences if the weather is worse than forecast or an intermittent problem finally becomes a permanent failure.
Often there are alternative solutions available that allow the trip to be completed safely. For example, there might be an airport at a lower elevation outside the mountainous terrain where the weather would remain VFR throughout the weekend. The pilot and his friend could land there and rent a car for the remainder of the trip into the mountains, thus allowing them to still enjoy the weekend fishing trip while holding to the pilot’s commitment not to fly in instrument conditions. Even if that is not possible, keep a rational perspective on risk versus benefit. Remember that the fish will still be there next week, and that whatever is driving your relentless pursuit of making it to the destination is probably not worth dying for.