The Human Factor: No Greater Burden
It is one of the great challenges facing those of us dedicated to reducing the accident rate in aviation: How do we help pilots maintain an awareness of the potential negative consequences of taking chances in aviation? One approach is to publish articles about accidents, exhorting pilots not to make the same mistakes. However, there are so many of these articles in almost every aviation magazine, pilots can get numb to them. The fact that there are about 1,500 aviation accidents in this country each year, approximately four per day, makes it obvious this approach is not as effective as we would like it to be.
Another problem is that many of the accidents fall into a few very familiar categories — continuing into IMC without an instrument rating or a clearance, flying low, running out of gas, trying to take off at a high density altitude with tanks and seats full. Most pilots could probably recite the list in their sleep. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. We open to an accident article, read the title and think, “It’s just another pilot flying too low” or “another pilot continuing on into bad weather.” It doesn’t help that some pilots dismiss articles about accidents, thinking, “I would never do that!”
On the other hand, we don’t want to make people fearful of flying. Most people don’t wake up thinking, “I’m probably going to die today.” This is good, because an overriding fear of death, known as thanatophobia, is often debilitating. It would certainly be very difficult to plan and conduct a flight if you were convinced you were going to die or cause the death of someone else during that flight. So, ultimately, our goal should be to maintain a healthy respect for the risks involved in flying without becoming overly fearful.
Many years ago, I observed a creative approach to making the potential negative consequences of taking unnecessary risks in aviation very real to the pilots involved. I was teaching a two-week Aircrew Coordination Training class to some Navy P-3 Orion instructor pilots. Toward the end of the class, one of the instructors, who was a pilot in the Navy Reserve, told me that in his “day job” he was head of the CRM program at a major airline. He said that since he was going to steal all my good stuff, it was only fair to invite me to attend one of his CRM training sessions to see if there was anything good there that I could use.
When I took him up on his offer, I observed a lot of good CRM training, but the session that had the greatest impact on me was a simple role-playing scenario. Two volunteers were asked to come to the front of the room and sit in chairs facing the class. They represented a pilot and copilot who had been killed in an accident caused by pilot error. They were asked for the names of their spouses and children, and then other pilots played the parts of those family members. The “family members” were given an actual fatal accident scenario. They then asked their father/husband why he made the decisions that led to the accident:
“Dad, we miss you! Why did you continue with the approach even though there was heavy rain and wind shear? Why didn’t you wait for the storm to move on?”
“Honey, it’s so hard to go on without you! Why didn’t you turn around when you saw that squall line up ahead?”
There was hardly a dry eye in the room. In fact, the people representing the family members and the pilots had a hard time completing the exercise. Even today, more than 20 years later, the memory of that exercise still gives me chills.
I took the title for this article from a new Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Air Safety Foundation video that is seeking to have an impact similar to the airline exercise. The pilot involved in a fatal accident, Russ Jeter, personally provided the funding for this 32-minute video. He speaks forthrightly in the video about how shocked he was that, as an airline transport rated pilot with more than 4,000 hours who always uses a checklist and always does a GUMP check (gas/undercarriage/mixture/prop) on final even in fixed-gear airplanes, he could make the basic mistake of landing an amphibious floatplane on a lake with the landing gear extended.