Responding to Reality

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The importance of careful flight planning is drummed into our heads from our first flight. The very first regulation in FAR 91, Subpart B, on Flight Rules (91.103) states that "each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." It then continues with a list of specific items including current and forecast weather, fuel requirements, airport information, weight and balance, and aircraft performance.

Nestled in this regulation is a little phrase about assessing "alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed." This is not the more specific requirement for an alternate in 91.167, which covers fuel requirements for flight in IFR conditions. This is a much more general requirement that every pilot planning every flight that is "under IFR or not in the vicinity of an airport" carefully consider what alternatives are available if things don't work out as planned.

Implicit in this phrase is the idea that things may not go the way we think they will. Whether a pilot spent hours carefully considering all the available information or just took a quick look out the window, each pilot has a plan in his mind as to how to accomplish that flight. The problem is that we can begin to mistake our plan for reality. The picture we form in our minds can block our perception of what is actually going on around us.

Laurence Gonzales has written a fascinating book called Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. While the emphasis is on survival in extreme situations in the wilderness or on the ocean, much of it applies to the thought process we go through as pilots. Gonzales says that one of the biggest problems that get people into trouble in survival situations is that they do not face reality. They want to believe they can still proceed according to their plan, and this blocks an accurate assessment of their real situation. Gonzales learned through survival training that "to see and know the world was the key to surviving in it. I had to accept the world in which I found myself."

Gonzales applies this to flying when he says, "Plan the flight and fly the plan. But don't fall in love with the plan. Be open to a changing world and let go of the plan when necessary so that you can make a new plan." I believe this really speaks to one of the major problems that gets pilots in trouble -- we fall in love with our plan. Especially if we invested a lot in that plan -- doing hours of research and analysis, plotting everything out, thinking we have it all covered -- it can be hard to abandon all that hard work, to accept that things aren't working out according to our plan, and we need to throw that plan in the trash and come up with a new one that responds to the new situation we have found ourselves in. An overriding desire to get to the destination on time only makes it harder to give up our plan.

We have to remember that when we leave the solid ground where we spend most of our time, we enter an entirely different world. Gonzales points out that in our complex, technological world we have come to depend on a problem-solving strategy that "often gives us an illusory sense of control that fails us in moments of crisis. Its stepwise linearity is no match for nonlinear dynamic systems, which can behave in turbulent, unpredictable ways, making quantum leaps as they rapidly change their nature."

The result of focusing on our plan rather than on what is really happening around us is that we get in too far. By the time the reality of our situation finally breaks through into our consciousness, it is too late. AOPA has developed a compelling example of how this can lead to the typical VFR into IFR accident (flash.aopa.org/asf/acs_vfrimc/). Using actual recordings of the pilot and controllers and a simulation developed using Microsoft Flight Simulator, a narrator takes us through the decisions that led up to a fatal VFR into IFR accident.

It was a clear day when the non-instrument rated commercial pilot named Mark left Billings, Montana, in his Beechcraft Debonair. However, the weather along his route through the mountains was not good and was forecast to get worse. When the briefer says twice that VFR flight is not recommended, Mark's response is that the sooner he leaves the better, and that he can "get a long way down there and then take another look."

Mark is up against some of the strongest traps in aviation. It is an unfortunate fact that the FAA vastly overuses the phrase "VFR Not Recommended." Every pilot has heard that phrase during a briefing and then had clear weather the entire trip. That is because the briefer is required to state that VFR is not recommended if there are any areas of mountain obscuration anywhere in the briefing area.

Mark's situation is very different. He will be flying over high elevations between and through some of the most rugged terrain in the country. He falls into another trap by taking off and flying towards weather that is marginal at best and forecast to get worse. There is nothing wrong with taking a look, but a lot depends on the terrain, the pilot's ability and the weather, and the closer we get to the destination, the harder it is to turn around.

After flying for several hours in clear weather or under a high overcast, Mark begins to approach the deteriorating weather. Controllers and FSS briefers try to warn him on several occasions of the low ceilings, moderate turbulence and icing. Unfortunately, the actual conditions reported at the few reporting stations along the remaining route don't sound quite so bad. His response is that he will just "slide in there and take a peek. If it won't work, I'll just slide back out."

Mark's focus on his plan of "sliding in and taking a look" is so strong that he gradually descends to within a few hundred feet of the ground as he follows the highway towards the pass that he hopes will take him through the mountains to his destination. He is only 300 feet above the ground when he passes the last available airport where he could land and wait for better weather. In the meantime the controllers work very hard to tell "this little guy" that "the weather is too bad; don't even try it." Having lost radar contact for a while the controller gets one hit and says, "There he is, right there. Well, he's still alive."

It is an amazing experience to watch Mark as he uses every tiny bit of hope to cling to his plan while the world around him and the controllers and briefers are desperately trying to tell him that things are different now and his plan just isn't going to work. It becomes even more chilling when you realize that you are hearing the last words of a careful, professional pilot who had successfully flown over 1,000 hours. I recommend that every pilot reading this article watch the AOPA reenactment. Hopefully it will establish a mental picture of what it looks like when a pilot clings to a plan for a situation that no longer exists, and help us to turn around before it is too late.

Gonzales has some practical tips that could help pilots become aware of life-threatening situations and respond appropriately while there is still time to do so:

Keep your mental map true to the world -- Constantly force yourself to assess what is really happening, not what you planned for or hope will happen. • Ask yourself, what is the correct feeling of this? What is the correct action? Trust your gut -- If you have that funny feeling everything is not right, or even worse, if your stomach is churning, it is time for a new course of action. • In the heat of a crisis, the only thought you can allow yourself concerns your next correct action -- Don't worry about what will happen if you don't reach your destination on time, just focus on the current situation and sort the rest out later. • Take bold action while exercising great caution -- You may have to break some rules to survive, but do so very carefully and cautiously. • A sense of humor is not a luxury; it is a vital organ for survival -- There is nothing funny about being in an extreme, life-threatening situation. However, if you "beat yourself up" for allowing yourself to get in that situation, you only waste energy and further distract yourself. Just chuckle at what an idiot you have been, and then focus on staying alive and getting out.

Gonzales points out that indifferent forces punish inattention or arrogance, so we need to always maintain humility even while being bold. He says that we are "all, always, students, and that to stop being a student is to stop living." A pilot should never get to the point that he thinks he knows everything. A humble pilot carefully plans every flight, even the simple ones. Even though he has a plan, he is continually alert for indications that the situation now calls for a different approach. Above all, he is always watching and always learning from the people around him and situations he finds himself in.