Clearance Over Compliance
Careful readers will note a connection between my blog on our experience with the Denton, Texas tower last Friday and the horrible Cirrus fatal accident at Melbourne, Florida last Wednesday. The connection is not necessarily obvious, but both of these incidents may be cut from the same cloth, specifically ATC clearances or instructions that either exceed the pilot's comfort level, are improper on their face or are just confusing.
I say "may be" because there is no established cause and effect for the Melbourne crash. For all we know, the accident would have occurred no matter what the control tower did or said. But the fact that the controller said on the frequency "cut it in tight" is a legitimate point of departure to discuss, shall we say, ATC instructions that encourage a pilot to get a little more jiggy with the airplane than he otherwise might.
Fortunately, there aren't many of these, but in poring over the NTSB's accident files, I see them from time to time. Almost all of them are, ultimately, the fault of the pilot. An acquaintance was killed at Oshkosh in 2001, the result of a textbook stall/spin caused by trying to over comply with a controller request to slow down and S-turn to build some space into the final sequence.
Yes, over comply. Now this sort of thing would never happen to me because I am an exceptional pilot. Always have been. And if ATC's plan requires a higher performance maneuver of some kind, well, I'm here to tell you my superior skills are more than up to the task. In fact, I am eager to demonstrate them with just the slightest encouragement. You want a tight turn in? I'll show you a tight turn in, brother. You get the idea. There is a vaporous membrane between, "wow, that guy is really a good stick" and "cripes, that guy just went in." Most of us, myself included, are probably ready to dance right up to that line and cross it without realizing it as a demonstration of our raw skill as pilots.
Despite how far we think we've come with training and awareness of what it means to be PIC, it sometimes doesn't take much to relinquish just enough of that to ATC to fly right out of the envelope. Remember the Jack Roush Beech Premier crash at Oshkosh in 2010? The NTSB hasn't gotten around to a final cause on that yet, but after the fact, Roush was quoted as saying the tower's instruction or landing clearance put him outside his comfort zone and in conflict with traffic on the runway. An attempt at a go-around was obviously unsuccessful. And if any place will do that, it's Oshkosh during AirVenture, when thousands of rusty pilots sign up for a virtual convention of over compliance.
Our little incident last Friday was, in the scheme of things, a gnat on an elephant's butt. Rather than declare "unable," we just angled away from the high obstacles we had been invited to ignore. Not that I think controllers should be enjoined from using phrases like "bring it in tight" or telling a pilot to taxi and depart without delay because traffic is on short final. I can't count the number of times when that kind of flexibility has saved me time and gas.
But when the stakes are higher, such as high-load-factor maneuvering or some other form of rush job, beware. Such a thing should illuminate a little red warning light that says: Hey, wait…I'm still PIC here. If you can't do it comfortably and confidently, don't try.
My writing about this here won't alter the arc of human nature enough to make any difference, I'm sure. We'll keep on doing what we've been doing. Still, I thought it was worth a mention, just in case.