As the holiday season arrives, the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport acquires what would only charitably be described as an eclectic array of decorations. Untold years ago, the owner of the FBO and flight school started the practice of suspending a small, creatively decorated Christmas tree, inverted, from the ceiling. The original reason has been lost but it was either to foil the airport dog from adding his contribution to the tree or as a gesture of respect and appreciation to those pilots who regularly flew aerobatics. Decorations appear, almost by magic, shortly after the tree is hung. Someone always brings a Menorah, someone else provides a jade Budda, Sandy -- our resident cargo pilot -- contributes a very odd-looking stuffed Santa Claus carrying a rubber chicken, there are pink flamingos covered with Christmas lights, a tiny model of Stonehenge and a nativity scene with a little bitty P-51 in the manger -- something for everyone. It is a happy place.
I find that I especially like visiting the Lounge between Christmas and New Year's. Some time about mid-way 'twixt those blowouts, there is one of those perfect evenings when the room is filled with pilots who have found themselves at sixes and sevens, as our British friends say, and to cure a vague sense of restlessness, make a trip out to the airport. Once there, ideas seem to flow.
Fortunately, this year was no exception. There was a good crowd, bad coffee and various topics of conversation drifting through the room. Old Hack, in full curmudgeonly form for winter, announced that, in his opinion, the general trend of improvement in the accident rate for general aviation was nonsense. (OK, OK, he used a stronger word.) He asserted that the data on hours flown per year generated by the FAA was so speculative as to be ignored and that the only meaningful way of measuring GA flight time per year was to look at gallons of avgas sold and that, from what he'd read, was going down, not up, and therefore our accident rate was actually getting worse. Sandy riposted that avgas sales aren't a good indicator, because many airplanes now use automobile gasoline, such as she does in her Citabria, which makes a "gallons of avgas burned" measure worthless.
The verbal jousting continued for a number of minutes without obvious casualties and no converts.
Not having enough information on the subject of annual flight time in GA airplanes to have an opinion, I simply listened. No conclusion was reached; however, once most of those present had contributed to the debate, there evolved a true consensus: No matter how the accident statistics are sliced, too many of our friends are dying in general aviation airplanes.
Old Hack looked at Sandy and summed things up as only he can: "It's pretty darn bad when some aging baby boomer with a massive beer gut, who couldn't pass a flight physical on his best day, isn't even smart enough to wear a helmet and has never had formal training worth mentioning, can get on a Harley and have a better chance of surviving a couple hundred mile ride to the big city than his next-door neighbor has of making that same run in a Cherokee 180. Yet that neighbor went through formal training, passed a flight physical, took an FAA written and checkride and has to do a flight review every two years."
Hack continued, "Maybe we better just admit that when we rise up off the ground, we put ourselves someplace that can be incredibly dangerous if we don't do things right. Maybe, just maybe, we need to admit that doing things right in airplanes takes a lot of work and a lot of thought along with good judgment and frequent practice. I'm thinking that we should admit that flying never has been and never will be any sort of 'drive it up and drive it down' exercise. Until we do, the chances of us being in a closed-coffin funeral are a lot better than that yahoo riding in traffic without any steel wrapped around him.
"Sandy, you take recurrent training twice a year as part of flying for your airline, and airline flying has an accident rate that is incredibly low. Seems to me that we nonairline types with our ugly tendency to kill ourselves in little airplanes could learn something from the way the airlines operate."
"Good grief, Hack." Sandy looked pretty exasperated. "I never thought I'd call you a wild-eyed idealist. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that the way to really cut down general aviation accidents would be to mandate serious recurrent training, something like the kind required under Part 135, every six months. It also doesn't take a genius to know that the general aviation community would scream bloody murder. Politically, it would never get anywhere. Amateur pilots are just too independent and bull-headed. You remember what happened when the FAA required a simple flight review with a CFI every two years? It was a heck of an uproar. You'd have thought the FAA was trying to ban flying."
Hack looked thoughtful, and said, "Yep. I hated having to put a transponder in the Super Cruiser so I could fly into some of the airports I had always used and I carried on something awful about the flight review requirement." He paused, and a pained expression crossed his face. He walked Sandy to the side of the room, "Do you know why I have taken dual every six months for the last 10 years?"
Sandy looked mischievous, "Because word got out about how you fly and you couldn't get insurance otherwise?"
"Keep a civil tongue in your head, young lady, I don't care if you are female and over 50, I can still kick your whatsis into the middle of next week," Hack rejoined. "No, it was about the time I got offered a ride to a fly-in breakfast with Mark in his Beech Musketeer. You probably remember him: nice guy, never-met-a-stranger type. Had that Musketeer on the east side of the hangar row. Anyhow, I'd never flown with him, but I'd seen him head out VFR on days I wasn't willing to go and there was something about him that made me vaguely uncomfortable. He never seemed to stay around to talk after a flight. A couple of times when he was here in the Lounge waiting for something, I noticed that when he picked up something to read it was never aviation-related. Never. He'd read a week-old Wall Street Journal, or some news magazine, even it were old, rather than anything about flying.
"So, when he offered me a ride to that fly-in breakfast, and I realized I'd be sitting in the back seat, I didn't like it. I was uncomfortable being in an airplane with him flying when I couldn't reach the controls. I made some excuse or other and didn't go. Mark made the trip with a couple of folks from here. Everything went fine. I wondered why I turned down the flight.
"It was the next morning when I woke up that I was able to put it into words: I won't get into a GA airplane where I can't reach the controls unless I have a certain level of confidence in the pilot. I wouldn't get into the back seat of an airplane with a pilot who didn't take regular recurrent training and didn't spend any time reading and talking about flying. I was not willing to ride with someone who did not spend some time each day at least thinking about flying and regularly doing something to improve his or her skills.
"Once I was able to outline what I wanted in a pilot when I was in the backseat, I decided that if I'm going to carry any passengers, then I owe it to them to make sure I was the kind of pilot that I would ride with in the back seat."
Overhearing that conversation between Old Hack and Sandy, I got to thinking about what I needed to do to be a pilot that I'd be willing to ride with in the back seat. It struck me that this column would be coming out on the first day of the new year so, in deference to all of those pilots who are wearing soft-soled shoes and corrective hats and reading this through very red eyes, I thought I'd set it out as a series of quiet, low-key, New Year's resolutions -- resolutions that it would be wise to keep so as to maximize one's chances of staying alive to greet the next New Year's Day with that corrective hat, soft-soled shoes and red eyes.
For 2007 it is resolved that we who wish to fly, survive and enjoy little airplanes will:
Read at least one aviation-related publication each week.
Be regularly involved in a good aviation-related internet forum -- Avsig or one of the owner or operator forums -- where there is an exchange of operating techniques and ideas by competent folks. It's been the subject of a lot of interest that -- of the Cirrus owners who have died thus far flying their airplanes -- very, very few of them were signed up for and involved with the Cirrus Owners' forum. That piece of data is consistent with another significant data point: The pilots who are active in the FAA Wings program or even just attend safety seminars have a far lower accident rate than others. It appears that those who spend part of the day thinking about moving in the third dimension and interacting with others on the good-quality web sites are more likely to have a satisfying life flying little airplanes and die in bed rather than in wreckage.
Be absolutely resolute in never trying to fly VFR into IMC. Every single year it is in the top two or three killers of general aviation pilots and their innocent passengers. You'd think we'd learn. Well, darn it, we know about it; let's spend some time thinking about it right here and now and make a conscious decision to stay out of marginal weather and to climb and confess our predicament should we get into weather so that we can get help and have a fighting chance of living through the experience.
Always remember that extra speed on final approach is the most common reason that pilots wreck airplanes on landing. Therefore, be resolute about flying at exactly the published approach speed plus no more than half the gust factor, no matter what flap setting is used on landing.
Take a few minutes this day to write down the maximum acceptable crosswind in any airplane to be flown this year. Then, keep those numbers in the flight case so that if pressure is being applied to fly in marginal conditions, the number is there as a reference and a good, strong reason to "just say no." Do the same for the minimum acceptable runway length for a hot day in those airplanes.
A little more writing: Set out the minimum ceiling and visibility acceptable for VFR flight. Resolve that if either the ceiling or visibility lowers to something close to those numbers while in flight, we'll divert to the nearest airport and land or, if it is getting worse fast and turning around won't work, to make a precautionary landing on a field.
If IFR flying is on the agenda, write down the minimum ceiling and visibility acceptable for instrument approaches under the following conditions: day, precision, non-precision and circle-to-land; night precision and non-precision. Decide if it is acceptable to make circle-to-land instrument approaches, single-pilot, at night if it is not an emergency. We pilots are bright and intelligent, and resolve to think about it now, at the first of the year, and write ourselves a note on these subjects and keep it in the flight case where we can find it five months from now and see whether the resolutions were good ones and if we kept each one.
Be willing to declare an emergency if a situation deteriorates to below normal parameters -- to be the pilot in command and use all of the assets available should something go wrong. We'll think about how hard it will be to make that emergency call if the problem arose because of something less than brilliant we did. We'll consider that it is not better to be dead than embarrassed and that a real pilot is mature enough to get help, to marshal the available resources to keep everyone in the airplane alive, no matter who or what triggered the emergency in the first place.
Wear all available restraints, seat belt and shoulder harness, all the time. Our little airplanes do amazingly well in protecting the occupants in a crash when they hit right-side-up and as slowly as possible, if the seat belts and shoulder harnesses are worn. Without them, all bets are off. By the way, there have been a lot of studies that have concluded that there really is not time to put on the shoulder harness before impact if it is not being worn and something goes wrong in flight.
Fly precisely all the time. Instill the habit because we all know that if it's not there normally, it's not going to be there when it matters.
Be willing to postpone the trip for weather or mechanical problems.
Stay humble and willing to learn. We know that each of us is the best pilot in the world, but when we set aside the ego, we know that there is something we can learn from even the very worst pilot. We know that knowledge is power when it comes to staying alive in little airplanes and we resolve to be seekers after knowledge.
Fly how we would fly if we were in the back seat, out of reach of the controls.
See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.