Over the course of the 18 years that I have been writing for Flying, I have received a couple of indignant letters from pilots who for some reason thought an article I had written was directed at them personally. They firmly stated that they would never make the kind of mistake I had written about. To me this is one of the most dangerous attitudes in flying. We are all human. We are all subject to pressures, temptations and distractions, and we all make mistakes. As I am reading an accident report, most of the time I am thinking, "There, but by the grace of God, go I!" If I had been in that same situation, under the same pressures, I very well could have fallen into the same traps. In some cases I can think back to a specific flight when I actually did start down that same path, but from some combination of good fortune and skill, I managed to live to fly another day.
Flying safely from our first introductory flight to our last minute in the cockpit is a matter of making thousands of difficult decisions, sometimes in a very short amount of time with no prior warning and based on limited or even inaccurate information, often while we are tired and feeling pressure to get to the destination. It takes a pilot who is current, competent and fully focused on the flight to accomplish this task, and for this reason fatigue and stress are often involved when an otherwise safe and competent pilot makes a mistake that leads to an accident. While it can be hard to decide to turn around or to proceed to your alternate due to weather, perhaps the most difficult decision of all is to decide not to fly because of stress, fatigue or other personal factors.
I have recently written about several accidents in which it was evident that fatigue and/or stress played a significant role. For example, John F. Kennedy Jr. was under a significant amount of personal and business stress when he took off late in the evening to fly to Martha's Vineyard. If he had done that flight first thing in the morning after a good night's sleep and a good breakfast, he likely would have arrived safely, but at the end of a long and stressful day, he was definitely pushing the edge of his personal performance envelope to take off on his second flight at night as PIC in a complex airplane for an overwater flight through congested airspace.
Several pilots have told me about situations in which they made the difficult decision to take themselves off flight status until a particular distraction was over. One was an Army Cobra pilot who was involved in an extended disagreement with his copilot/gunner to the point that they were no longer talking to each other. It is easy to imagine the danger of flying nap-of-the-earth combat or training missions in a Cobra helicopter in that situation. To his credit, this individual went to his commanding officer, explained the situation and requested help in defusing the tension before they flew together again.
Another pilot was going through a very messy divorce. He had managed to keep up with his flying duties through many months of dealing with lawyers and court appearances. As he entered the last two weeks before the final judgment, he realized the pressure and distractions were too much for him to safely function in a cockpit, so he took himself off flight duty for those two weeks. He still reported to work and made himself useful by taking care of some of the jobs that nobody else wanted to do, but he realized that he would not be safe in the cockpit during those last stressful two weeks.
My own difficult decision came two years ago. Most of my flying in the last few years had been as an instructor and check pilot for the Civil Air Patrol squadron in my hometown of Payson, Arizona. I was also the safety officer for the squadron. The flying varied from check rides to search-and-rescue exercises to actual missions that sometimes entailed many hours of flying at low altitude in mountainous terrain. While I enjoyed flying with the CAP and felt I was an asset to the squadron, the amount of time I spent on trips as an error prevention consultant was limiting the time I could dedicate to CAP activities and flying, and I felt I was barely maintaining my own personal competence level.
Then my wife was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent emergency surgery. After recovering from the surgery, she had to move to an apartment in Phoenix so she would be near the facility where she would be receiving chemotherapy treatments for close to a year. That put me under additional strain because my mother lived with us and I had to arrange for someone to care for her whenever I was out of town. By the end of that year, it became obvious my mother needed to move into an assisted living facility. The best one we could find was in Tucson, which meant I now had to move my mother to the assisted living facility and then move to Tucson myself, where I could monitor her care, while still running my business, writing my articles for Flying and trying to support my wife as she endured the chemotherapy treatments in Phoenix.
At that point, I realized that, with all the pressures from my business and my personal life, I just was not safe in an airplane because I would not be able to dedicate the amount of time necessary to prepare for flights and to stay current, competent and focused, especially while flying the G1000-equipped Cessna 182 on challenging missions. The only safe thing to do was to take myself off flying duty. It was a difficult decision, but it was far better than being involved in an accident because I was tired or distracted or hadn't flown much recently. During the past year my wife has successfully completed her chemotherapy, my mother has been enjoying her assisted living facility and we have been settling into our new home in Tucson, so I am hoping that soon I will feel comfortable taking to the skies again.
No one can operate at 100 percent all the time, but flying an airplane, particularly at night or in challenging conditions, is too demanding to attempt while you are tired, stressed and/or distracted. Fortunately there are often options available short of not flying at all. Kennedy could have accepted an offer from his instructor to accompany him on the flight to Martha's Vineyard. Sometimes just taking a break before a flight to have a snack or a meal and get a little rest may be enough. Just as you preflight your airplane, it is critical that you preflight yourself and determine if you have what it takes to safely complete that flight even if things don't go as planned, and then make the appropriate decision, even if it is a difficult one.
Anyone who doubts he/she could succumb to pitfalls need only consider these recent accidents, some of which I've previously written about:
• One of the most experienced mountain fliers in the world, the instructor other pilots went to so they could learn how to fly in the mountains, crashed in the mountains at the exact location where he had experienced a nonfatal crash years before.
• Two of the most experienced pilots in the Civil Air Patrol, with a combined total flight experience of more than 53,000 hours and almost every certificate and rating in the book, flew into a mountain on a clear night in an advanced technology airplane with terrain mapping available.
• A highly experienced professional aerobatic pilot crashed out of a spin.
• An airline pilot with years of safe, professional flying crashed while scud-running in a small airplane he had just purchased.
• A highly respected instructor, who helped newly graduated missionary pilots polish their high-elevation, short-strip and other missionary flying skills, crashed with a student on a simple cross-country flight.