?It?s Always Been That Way?

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Recently I attended a talk given by Daryl Bussert titled "Lessons from the Commander." Daryl is the safety officer for JAARS, Inc. (originally Jungle Aviation and Radio Service), which is the technical support organization that serves Wycliff Bible Translators. I thought that the "commander" in his title might refer to someone in authority, but it turns out he was talking about the Aero Commander.

I have only had an opportunity to fly in an Aero Commander once many years ago, but I later earned my type rating in the Westwind jet and served as a Westwind simulator instructor for SimuFlite. I have always admired the way the Aero Commander looks and the way it is built like a tank. Daryl pointed out in his talk that it does have a few idiosyncrasies. For example, there is no connection between the rudder pedals and the nosewheel. Instead there is a valve on each brake pedal that directs boosted hydraulic pressure to the corresponding brake and nosewheel steering. When there is more brake pressure on one side than on the other side, the nosewheel also turns in that direction. If equal pressure is applied to both brake pedals, the nosewheel stays centered.

While the system works, it is highly unusual and takes some getting used to, as a pilot who was getting checked out in an Aero Commander 500 discovered. As he added power for his first takeoff, the nosewheel was not centered, so the plane veered to the left and he was unable to correct it. He brought the airplane to a stop and asked the instructor, "Did you do that?" The instructor replied that there is no steering to the right with the right rudder pedal pushed all the way forward because it hits the bulkhead, making it impossible to push the brake pedal forward. He also commented that "it has always been that way."

With that in mind the pilot proceeded with the takeoff. On a subsequent landing the airplane started to drift to the left. As the pilot tried to steer the airplane back to the center of the runway, it suddenly veered off the left side of the runway and was destroyed, although the pilots were not injured. As the safety officer, Daryl had to try to discover what had caused the accident. As he got into the intricacies of the brakes and steering, it became evident that if the airplane was drifting left and the pilot pushed hard on the brake pedals, with extra force on the right side to correct to the right, the top of the right pedal would hit the bulkhead, causing a loss of right steering and brakes. Full left steering and brakes would be applied instead, which was what caused the airplane to veer off the runway.

Now Daryl was curious about why the right rudder pedal would hit the bulkhead. He discovered that many years earlier an annunciator panel had been installed. As part of the installation, a hydraulic line and fitting was installed in front of the right rudder pedal. The space behind the pedal was already tight, and it now became even tighter. Either at that point or after a subsequent adjustment to the rigging of the rudder, the space was reduced to the point that the top of the pedal would actually hit the fitting, causing a loss of steering and brakes to the right when the bottom of the pedal was pushed forward.

What is amazing is that pilots would accept this situation, saying to themselves and each other that "it's always been that way." As long as everyone was aware of the situation and was careful not to push the right pedal all the way forward everything was fine. However, a new pilot would not have this technique ingrained in their consciousness. Even worse, the airplane that the pilot being trained was used to flying required the rudder pedal to be pushed all the way forward before getting any brake pressure. In the stress of the situation he used the technique he had been using for years, with predictable results.

When I heard this story, I immediately thought about all the times I had heard or said, "It's always been that way." I realized that as pilots we use this phrase to avoid the hassles involved in trying to discover why something isn't exactly right. Then I thought about all the other phrases we use that also get us into trouble: "I think we … have enough fuel; can make it through that hole; can get off this runway." "That must be … the fix; the runway; a landmark we are looking for."

"I'm sure … the engine will smooth out once we take off; the weather will get better a few miles ahead; the headwinds will diminish soon."

"Don't worry … I know what I'm doing; I've been here before; I didn't have any problem last time; George made it out of here with no problem."

"We can always … turn around (or land) if it gets any worse; stop for fuel if the headwinds get any stronger." "It seems to … be running smoother now; be enough fuel to get there; be letting up a little."

"If we don't leave now … we will never make it home on time; the weather will get even worse."

The human ability to rationalize and engage in wishful thinking seems to be almost unlimited. Our brains can conjure up a reason we should take off or continue the flight for almost any circumstance. At the same time, obvious risk factors are ignored or discarded without careful consideration of the possible outcomes.

This type of thinking is hard to combat, but there are a few factors in our favor. Usually as we begin rationalizing, our "safety angel" will start whispering in our ear, giving us that uncomfortable feeling I call a pinch that we really shouldn't be thinking that way. At that point it is critical to identify that feeling, focus on it and say out loud (even if you are alone) that you are not comfortable with the situation. Try saying the opposite of your wishful thinking statement:

"It's always been that way, but it isn't supposed to be."

"I think we have enough fuel, but what if we don't?"

"That must be the fix, but what if it isn't?"

"I'm sure the engine will smooth out once we take off, but what if it doesn't?"

"Don't worry, I didn't have any problem last time. But what if the conditions are different this time?"

"We can always stop for fuel if the headwinds get any stronger, but why not stop now?"

"It seems to be enough fuel to get there, but what if it isn't?"

"If we don't leave now, we will never make it home on time, but if we do, we may not make it home at all." Once you have correctly labeled your rationalization, you can then use the Conservative Response Rule to carefully assess the risks involved and determine the best course of action. Life is risky, and flying is more risky than many other things we do, but it is a shame to take unnecessary risks that carry with them a high probability of failure coupled with severe consequences.