No Perfect Flights

Is aviation perfection the enemy of good?

pilot taking notes
As pilots, we’re always chasing the elusive perfect flight—but at what cost?istock/Mlenny

It’s been said that there is no such thing as a perfect flight. I know I’ve never come close. On most flights I can admit to some minor imperfection even before engine start. Though I’d like to think that none of these common omissions or out of sequence commissions are dangerous, I can think of some that could have been. Will I ever get the hang of this?

Humble-bragging, you say. All pilots make small mistakes and you (me) are just looking for praise. Fair enough, but I have witnessed some great piloting by some really smooth pilots and I know they are in a different league than I am. I have a 30,000-plus-hour friend who still remarks about the time he left the chocks in after he had loaded us up in his Columbia and started the engine. That was 10 years ago and he mentions it every time we share a cockpit. For all I know, he’s still in counseling over the lapse.

If I even counted the number of times I found myself all belted in and ready to go with the chocks in place, I’d have a full-time therapist. When flying a jet, a line person usually pulls the chocks for you. This can make the jet you fly at work different from the prop you can afford at home and leads to confusion. More than once did I sheepishly shut down our Cheyenne turboprop after I discovered that the chocks were in place. “Oh, I’m just so used to the jet,” I’d say, after the line guys would refuse to go anywhere near those spinning props.

Nobody bought it, I don’t think. There is another option for forgotten chocks, but the one time I saw a pilot try to “jump” a nose-wheel chock in a jet resulted in a canceled flight. Note to self: Check the chocks.

I have made all manner of takeoff goofs. Most notably, while adapting to a new-to-me Citation CJ1, I found during the after-takeoff checks—gear up, flaps up, ignitions off, engine sync on, climb power set and so forth—that I needn’t put the flaps up. I had taken off without them. I need to look up the difference in runway length required for zero-flaps takeoff sometime. There might be a circumstance when one would choose to do that, but this wasn’t one of them.

Then there was the time, when I was new to Part 135 flying, that my check airman and I leveled off and couldn’t understand why the airplane wouldn’t accelerate as usual. Oops, flaps up, please. Did we overspeed the flaps? Don’t know.

Pitot heat has vexed me for decades. Once, in a Cessna 210, I was alerted to the fact that I had neglected to turn the pitot heat on when the airspeed fell to zero. It was at night. There was icing, as you might have surmised. Now, at least, there is an annunciator panel that tells me that I have forgotten—once again. Pitot heat was especially vexing when I owned a Cheyenne.

I was continually trying to impress my airline friends with what a pro I was. I was always turning the anti-collision lights on and off, calling “clear right” and generally looking and sounding like a wannabe fool. Once airborne, I would try to casually turn the heat on without anybody noticing.

Garbled readbacks are another personal specialty. Sometimes I wonder if I learned English as a second language.

At the completion of some of the more complicated readbacks, I am at a loss to utter our N number. Was that “turn right to 270 and maintain 250” or “turn right to 250 and descend to 270”? When I push the mic button to clarify, the frequency is crowded forever with the guy just checking in at 1,500 feet looking for a clearance to Beijing.

Did I check the oxygen on board? Or is that gauge slowly sinking as we leak our way up the Eastern seaboard? I see the oxygen control valve on the checklist, but not oxygen quantity. It must be time to author that homemade checklist.

Then there are the killer items, such as trim, spoilers, control locks, flight controls free and correct and permission to take off from the correct runway. I can still see in my mind the fatal King Air crash scene in upstate New York some 40 years ago. Taking off with some sort of control lock in place, they almost hit the tower. Visiting the wreckage, I remember seeing a black shoe stuck under a rudder pedal.

Looking back at an entirely satisfying career as a surgeon specializing in treating patients with cancer of the pancreas, liver and esophagus, I get a familiar feeling of falling short.

My friends tell me how great I was, but that is probably why they are my friends. I will admit to a knack for surgery that I don’t possess when it comes to flying, but, even so, I remember mostly mistakes and bad outcomes. I don’t ever remember a perfectly performed surgical procedure.

Some people tell me I was the best technical surgeon they’d ever seen, as unlikely as you might think this to be true. (Bear with me on the outrageous statement for a moment; I have a point here.) It took me a while before I came to concentrate on the adjective “technical.” They were telling me I was a good stick, but also reminding me that other surgeons had more knowledge, were better read and had a better understanding of physiology. Otherwise they would have said best “complete” surgeon.

This matter of different strengths is true in aviation too. When I ran into two former flying colleagues just out of their periodic 297 check ride, they were ecstatic about the outcome but quick to point out the relative contributions each had made to the other. “He keeps us safe in the sim while I know all the numbers about thrust and weights,” one said. To which the other said, “Yeah, I’m the guy who knows how to fly the thing.”

Is it possible that the flight closest to perfection will come when I am least focused on the perfect flight? Am I holding on to perfection to the exclusion of competency and, more interestingly, of joy? Or is this fixation on perfection the demon (or muse) that lives in every pilot—the one who goads us to get better every time we buckle a shoulder harness?

Feel free to brag here if you are a “complete” pilot.