Be Careful Out There, Now
"Be careful out there, now."
I can't begin to explain how irritating I find this phrase. It was said to me twice last week, both times as I was about to set off on my bicycle on the way home from the gym. Both guys who said it to me either knew someone who had been in a crash or had been themselves. Well, so I have I, but it doesn't make me any more or less careful, just a lot savvier about crossing concrete-to-grass sidewalk seams.
As pilots and instructors, we hear this phrase all the time and if you actually say it, make a note to yourself to stop. It has absolutely no meaning in the real world of understanding risk and I suspect people who are risk takers—I plead guilty—either ignore it or bubble over with annoyance. An example of the latter occurred to me the one and only time I remember ever saying: Be careful. I said it to Pete Allum, a world class Brit skydiver I know. He was doing a discipline in skydiving called swooping, which has a rather high casualty rate among amateurs, but professionals pull it off with aplomb. No sooner had the phrase left my fat flapping lips than Pete's brow furrowed and he gave me a snappy comeback I still use myself: "Well, I wasn't going to be, but now that you've reminded it, I will try." I issued an apology in triplicate.
"Be careful" is simply a banal generality; a lazy shorthand excuse for the person saying it to not think through the specific risk factors he thinks he has in mind. If you were launching into low weather, a better nudge, if you're trying to get your hapless subject to show evidence of rational forethought, might be to ask about the proposed flight as though you were considering it yourself. "What kind of alternates do you have today?" or "Any ice in the PIREPS?" That gets the conversation started on a higher plane for I have found it to be universally true that the more sincere and pained the look on the face of the person saying, "be careful," the more clueless that person is about risk.
With regard to risk, I think people sort into As and Bs. The A's tend to view risk as a featureless monolith, while B's see it as textured thing, with spikes here and there that rise above the background field of whatever "risky" activity is being entertained. To an A, all hazards are more or less equal and likely to conjure images of the monthly accident reports we in the aviation press are so fond of writing. B's blow that stuff off and break down the risk at hand into its component parts. They're the guys who look for tops reports and PIREPS when trying to make a go decision against an ice forecast, while for the A, the process is more binary. Ice in the forecast? Trip cancelled.
In the aviation press, we're fond of the term "risk management," but I've increasingly come to believe it's just so much psychobabble. Risk management is just another fancy word for having alternate plans if the first one crumps and for hoping to be lucky if Plan B also flames.
Vacuum pump quits? I got a backup. Electrical failure? I have an essential bus. Cabin fire? Well, I'm probably screwed, but at least I have a fire extinguisher.
When I was intensely involved in instrument instruction 15 years ago, I'd launch into about any kind of weather, so I tended to attract students who wanted not just actual IMC, but challenging actual. We did a lot of this in single-engine airplanes, some with backup gyros, some not. No datalink weather in those days and not a lot of GPS, either. One fine misty morning with a 300-foot overcast, one the airport couch rats, after telling me to be careful, asked me just what I was going do if that single engine quit off the end of the runway. I informed that I intended to crash into the trees in the housing development south of the airport.
I wasn't kidding, either. That is a form of extreme risk management that relies largely on the high probability of things going your way. If they don't, your out may depend on good seatbelts and luck. You either accept that level of risk or you don't. But "being careful" doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with it.