The title of Ernest K. Gann’s memoir—”Fate Is the Hunter”—about his aviation career in the first half of the 20th century grabbed hold of me the first time I read the words. It’s an evocative phrase with many exertions, but they all point to the same conclusion: If you do something dangerous and you do it repeatedly, you’d better be very good at it.
Or, in the words of World Boxing Council world-champion heavyweight boxer Deontay Wilder: “My opponent has to be perfect for 12 rounds. I only have to be perfect for one second.” His knockout-to-win percentage stands at 98 percent. He sits and waits as his opponent tries to make a dent. He bides his time. When shown just the briefest moment of miscalculation, Wilder levels his opponent with a right hand that hits so hard, one punch is enough for a K.O.
Flying an airplane isn’t that different from getting in the ring with Wilder. While you might be able to get away with a bit more and enjoy some extra wiggle room, the day you finally get caught out, fate will bear down on your aircraft like a hard right from Wilder. And it will happen just as quickly. Ask me how I know.
I began writing this column after exactly this type of incident. That’s the FAA’s word, not mine. I just call it the worst day of my life. In June 2018, I let my vigilance lapse, and it cost me an airplane. It could have easily cost me a lot more. Departing Telluride, Colorado, I encountered wind shear that first stalled my wing, then after I regained control, placed me firmly back on the ground—with the wheels up. The airplane slid along the runway at well over 100 mph as I fumbled for the fuel-shut-off switch, the smell of burning aluminum coming though the vents. I stood on the brakes to no effect; they were attached to wheels tucked neatly into the belly of the airplane.
Over the past two years since the wreck, I’ve come to learn that vigilance is everything (if you read my October column, you know this isn’t to be confused with the idea that I always practice it). You can be perfect 99.9 percent of the time. Fate doesn’t care. There is no credit extended for a nearly perfect record. All that matters is the few seconds when your attention wanders. That’s the moment fate waits for, and unlike Wilder, fate never sleeps.
This past summer, a good friend of mine almost crashed his twin Cessna because of a mistake resetting his fuel totalizer. The airplane sputtered on short final. He barely avoided an engine shutdown and an off-field landing. The approach was over water. It is not likely he would have survived.
Returning home from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in June, I flew an instrument approach in IMC. I pushed every button George (the Garmin GFC 500 autopilot) needed me to—except one. I didn’t change from HDG mode to APR mode. The airplane flew straight across the final approach course. When my hand flew to hit the APR button, the turn that resulted was not an attempt to engage the now-unmakeable RNAV but an unexpected course reversal. That feeling is one of the worst in aviation—being in the clouds with the autopilot sending you off in the “wrong” direction. I felt totally disoriented. Instantly, my hands got clammy and my vision narrowed. My senses were screaming that we were in an unusual attitude. But we weren’t. I took a beat and gathered myself up. I turned off the autopilot, told ATC what happened, and flew the instruments until my heartbeat slowed. I tried again, successfully this time. One. Button.
Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge
I can give you countless examples, but I don’t need to. If you fly an airplane, you know what that sucker punch feels like. The trim you left in a nose-up attitude from the prior landing and then forgot to check during your next preflight. The mixture leaned out for ground ops that never got enriched for takeoff but also wasn’t leaned enough to kill the engine when full power was applied. Remember your cylinder-head temps on that climb out? You’re lucky if that was the only issue.
For me, the fallacy with vigilance in the cockpit is that it feels like it has a compounding quality—like bank interest. I need to remember that vigilance resets every time I open the hangar door. Any other mindset leads to complacency, which leads to a mistake, which leads to Wilder.
I feel bad for my dog, Seven. Since the crash in Telluride, she is terrified of flying. She has not become complacent over time. She has stored the experience in her brain as deeply as one of Pavlov’s dogs, and every time I punch in the gate code at my airport, she shakes and trembles. It gets worse when the airplane is pulled out of the hangar. When I start the engine, she looks as if she’d like her last rites administered. Setting aside the extreme discomfort of seeing this animal I love under duress, her lasting trauma is a helpful reminder to me of what lifelong vigilance looks like.
When Luis Ortiz faced off against Wilder in their second fight, Ortiz had the confidence of a man who had gone 10 rounds with the champ in their first bout. Ortiz showed some real promise in the early rounds, even hurting Wilder at times. But in the seventh round, Ortiz let down his guard for just a moment. Wilder dropped him like a bag of cement.
This need for constant vigilance is the same for the 10,000-hour ATP or the 62-hour student. Yes, you’re more likely to remember to do things after years of repetition, but you’re also more likely to let down your guard after decades of nothing going terribly wrong. It’s the freshly minted private pilot who shows us the exemplary habits of a vigilant aviator. I was that guy. The day I stopped, I put an airplane into the ground.
Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist, and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Follow Ben Younger on Instagram: @thisisbenyounger.
This story appeared in the November 2020, Buyers Guide issue of Flying Magazine