Evidently, Legends Make Mistakes, Too

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

What the camera and teleprompter giveth, it can just as rapidly take away. That would be my salient observation from Harrison Ford’s recent dust-up at the Orange County Airport in California. You will not have missed, I’m sure, the story that Ford flew his Husky over the top of a stopped American Airlines 737 and followed that with a landing on a taxiway parallel to the runway he had actually been cleared to land on. Probably a perfect three pointer, too.

I’m less interested in dissecting the why of this incident than I am two other aspects: First, how to avoid such things in the first place and, second, what PR damage is done when a high-profile person like Ford gets involved in an accident or incident. This is the fourth such event for Ford and I’m sure that when EAA declared him to be a Living Legend of Aviation, they weren’t thinking of legendary exploits through the infinite variety of 91.13. But who among us hasn’t been in the barrel?

In aviation, we’re fond of using celebrities who fly as promotional vehicles for the industry. And why not? Ford has shown up to help promote various aviation causes and events and even though I’m not particularly wowed by famous people, I acknowledge that others are. If it sells avgas and flight lessons, I’m all for it. But I’m not particularly convinced such endorsements really achieve much.

The other edge of this blunt, rusty axe, however, is when said celebrity gets into a scrape, it gets a lot of press that, if not negative, isn’t exactly desirable, either. Scanning the hundreds of stories published of Ford’s Orange County incident, I see most of them are straight news, although a few determined reporters got sources to say this was much more dangerous than it in fact was and that he should turn in his certificates. Overreact much? Many news writers cut and paste the phrase that Ford is “an accomplished pilot” then in the very next sentence catalog the other mishaps he’s had.

To be honest, if celebrity promotion of aviation doesn’t do much to help, I don’t think something like this does much to hurt, either. It will spin out the news cycle by next week and we’ll be on to obsessing about President Trump’s palace intrigue.

As pilots, we know stuff like this happens every day, although not necessarily at Part 139 airports like John Wayne. We cover—we meaning AVweb—Ford because the mainstream media does and we have little choice to do otherwise lest we appear to be sandbagging. However, when I taxied the Cub into a Cirrus last Thursday and caused a fire that destroyed three airplanes, we didn’t cover it because I’m not a celebrity. OK, so that didn’t happen, but it could have. And we probably would have covered it because I’d have gotten good video and I’m all about the clicks. Viral gold is just one iPhone clip away.

The lemonade-from-lemons here is just for pilots. It gives bloggers like me grist to grind by pointing out that something like this is just as easily avoided as it is being something that can happen to any of us and probably has for anyone who has flown for many years. I’m sure other people a lot smarter than me will write thousands of words of theory to back up an analysis of why it happened to Harrison Ford. But I think it’s actually a lot simpler than that.

As wisdom seeps into my head despite my clinging to the maturity of a 17-year-old, I am less impressed with the complicated ways we sometimes employ to solve problems in aviation. One that comes to mind—and one I simply detest—is mnemonics like IMSAFE, which we blithely pass along like candy at Halloween. I can’t even remember what the damn letters are supposed to remind me of, so I don’t use it. Is it really just a diabolical short-term memory test?

I have become a big fan of OODA loops and have come to understand they work for everything. Years ago, I was taught this banal trick by a flight instructor named Ed Weber who checked me out in the first retractable I ever flew, a Mooney. Somewhere on final, he said, just say this to yourself: “Final landing check, the gear is down.” To this day, I still do that, usually out loud, and even in a fixed-gear airplane. Although we didn’t call it that then, that’s an OODA loop or perhaps a fragment of one.

What it does is this: It breaks up the target fixation we’re all capable of suffering when making decisions under duress—maybe it’s gusty, the radio is wall-to-wall, there’s a lot of traffic or the weather is low. To complete the desired task—say, landing—you naturally tune out all those distractions, but what also gets tuned out is reserve mental bandwidth to do error checking. In all but the most extreme of circumstances, the motor skills required to fly the airplane are baked in; you don’t need to think about it. That leaves a lot of surplus bandwidth to simply ask, “Have I forgotten anything?” All you need is some little trick to jar you loose from the closed loop of task fixation, a means to momentarily draw back and assess—the observe and orient part of OODA. Observe also means seeing the world as it is, not as you think it should be.  

Some years ago, when I visited the Navy’s LSO school in Norfolk, one of the instructors there mentioned to me something I’d heard several times. He said every LSO had some version of a “sugar call,” a magic word or two or a soothing tone meant to calm a pilot or snap him out of teeth-clenched tunnel vision focused on the deck, the AoA or some other distraction that should only be a piece of the whole picture, not the picture itself. “Final check, gear down” is my version of a self-generated sugar call. I’m sure you could devise your own or some other means of avoiding task fixation.  

Flying more helps, too. These days, some of us are lucky to see 60 hours a year when 100 would do wonders for proficiency. Head tricks like sugar calls and OODA loops may do only so much to avoid bending metal or landing on the wrong runway, but then again, sometimes all you can do is fix what you can with what you’ve got.

Comments (36)

Years ago, back before Houston's Hobby Airport had a class B veil, I based my old Beech Sundowner there. Even then it was a very busy place. I remember that the tower guys would always say to the approaching aircraft "Check gear down, cleared to land runway ....". Although my plane was fixed gear, the phrase has stuck with me. Now with my retractable gear plane, I still mutter the phrase on final approach and put my thumb on top of the gear handle to confirm its position. It is no guarantee that someday a distraction might make me miss the critical step, but hopefully that and the GUMPS drill will keep me safe.

As for landing on the wrong runway (or taxiway), my sympathy goes out to Harrison Ford. We've all done dumb things, but thankfully not in front of the entire country.

Posted by: John McNamee | February 17, 2017 11:35 AM    Report this comment

A case of confirmation bias, I would guess. Three strips of pavement, cleared to land on the left....yeah, that's the leftmost strip right there.

Years ago I was cleared for Rwy 26 and out of haze came into view....two something. Must be it. Tower was very nice about it, commented that Rwy 21 didn't get much use anyway.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 17, 2017 5:08 PM    Report this comment

Obviously "evident indeed. Legends, whether experienced or not, current or not, proficient or not, can make mistakes. Sometimes amusing mistakes, sometimes fatal mistakes. Old age does not make things better. Time to flip burgers at the hangar Harrison.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 18, 2017 10:56 AM    Report this comment

I'm a big fan of OODA. As for Harrison, I empathize. I was lined-up in haze on a taxiway used by C-5s (i.e. Lots of pavement). Luckily I realized my mistake and sidestepped before the tower realized. My house like most other's has its share of glass. I try not to throw stones.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | February 20, 2017 7:55 AM    Report this comment

Flying out of a NAVY base I remember all pilots being reminded by the military controller about their landing gear when in the pattern for landing. My reply was always "down and welded" (flying the T-41a).

Posted by: Carlos Rodriguez | February 20, 2017 9:32 AM    Report this comment

"Three in the green, ready to go around" is my mantra. Taught to me by my Dad many years ago. He was a career navy pilot and FAA flight examiner, so the ready to go around was a prompt to be prepared for an abort.

I'm a bit miffed at Ford. We're the same age. I've flown in and out of KSNA probably hundreds of times, though not based there. The taxiway is about half way between 20L and the airline terminal. It is hard for me to imagine the sight picture he observed as looking correct. Makes us "seasoned" pilots look bad. Gus Grissom had the best description for such things...........

Zoom in on google earth to have a look for yourself.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 20, 2017 11:52 AM    Report this comment

Refresh my memory. What did Gus say? I'm not convinced age had anything to do with it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 20, 2017 11:57 AM    Report this comment

Good OODA loops ... Was was checking out in a new aircraft early on in my flying career. Once established on final the instructor called out "Reds, Blues & Greens" for mxiture, prop and gear. Still use it.

Posted by: Serena Ryan | February 20, 2017 3:21 PM    Report this comment

"Screwed the pooch" is the Gus-ism that I think that Edd is looking for.
"There but for the Grace of God go I" is also fitting.

Can't figure out why HF didn't notice that there was no "20L" anywhere in view at what looked like a threshold, and why a solid yellow line on a taxiway was mistaken for a broken white line on a basic VFR runway.

Posted by: MICHAEL MATISKO | February 20, 2017 9:39 PM    Report this comment

I did look at the GoogleMap pic and I sure don't see how HF could have mistaken that taxiway for a runway AND think it was OK to go over the top of an airliner AND think he'd receive a clearance to do so.. Runway 20L stands out compared to the taxiway although runway 20R might have washed out in his vision?. There's gotta be more to this story? That airliner's position shoulda tipped him off that something was amiss and to either sidestep or go around. Failure to correct his initial error on short final is likely where they'll "get" him?

On one hand, I'd be hesitant to seriously fault him. It'd be easy to say it was an honest mistake and all's well that ends well. On the other, however, I'd expect more from a guy who is flying a Sovereign and apparently flies often. Given his active support of the Young Eagles and other humanitarian efforts in Idaho, I hope the FAA cuts him some slack. More likely, they'll order him some recombobulation training. (I actually saw that word on an FAA sign in the security check area of the Milwaukee airport just yesterday!).

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 21, 2017 5:25 AM    Report this comment

"Runway 20L stands out compared to the taxiway although runway 20R might have washed out in his vision?"

Is the Husky soloed from the front or rear? If from the rear like in a Cub, I could see how a taxiway might be mistaken for a runway.

I know of a local incident that happened a couple years ago where someone (also by an older pilot) landed on a taxiway parallel to the actual runway, though this was at night. In that case, there definitely was more to the story and involved much more than just the simple mistake on short final.I would be surprised if there isn't similarly more to what happened (or at least, a plausible excuse for mistaking the taxiway for a runway) in this case as well. Age may be a contributing factor, but quite likely not *the* factor.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 21, 2017 7:31 AM    Report this comment

"Denial ain't just a river in ..." How many times must an individual bang his or her head against the instrument panel to realize that maybe, just maybe, it is time for an alternate hobby.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2017 9:08 AM    Report this comment

Husky solos from the front. Only the J-3 among taildraggers is limited to the rear.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 21, 2017 9:10 AM    Report this comment

At a minimum, HF should file an ASRS report.

Posted by: BRUCE POULTON | February 21, 2017 11:13 AM    Report this comment

"Given his active support of the Young Eagles and other humanitarian efforts in Idaho, I hope the FAA cuts him some slack."

That doesn't follow. Safety is safety, good works are something else. Mr. Ford needs to fly safely, just like any other pilot. And if he is still doing Young Eagles flights (beyond that PR one last summer) then he REALLY needs to be flying safely.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | February 21, 2017 3:17 PM    Report this comment

AOPA On pilot aging:


The most frequently voiced concerns about older pilots have to do with changes in cognitive
capacity--diminished ability to stay ahead of the aircraft, maintain situational awareness, divide
attention among multiple tasks, make good decisions, and communicate effectively. A significant
amount of scientific research has been done in these areas, and though there are many points of
agreement among the various studies, once again it seems rare to find two publications whose
results match precisely. Rather than delve into the various data here (see Selected Resources for
further info), we would instead point to a report titled "Age and Pilot Performance," in which
researcher Pamela Tsang provides a good overview of the situation:
"The psychological literature shows definite age-related changes in certain
cognitive functions that have been identified to be essential for flight performance
(e.g., perceptual processing, certain aspects of memory performance, and certain
psychomotor control). The cognitive functions that ..."


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2017 3:18 PM    Report this comment

Raf, aren't you suggesting conclusions not in evidence?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 21, 2017 3:22 PM    Report this comment

My concern is that WE old guys deny the degradation of the our skills as we age. Some succumb to age maladies more than others. It may not apply to all, and at this point Id like to exclude Harrison Ford from the argument, but in general we are subject to age-related changes that can lead to a catastrophe.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2017 3:43 PM    Report this comment

You have to deny it. I deny it every day and that's what gets me out of bed and doing the things I do, ignoring the pain (not that there's much) and learning to accommodate and compensate for the realities of age.

The alternative is to roll up in a ball and die in bed. Or play f%^($# bingo or attend the aquacise. That's a choice, I guess, but not one for me. I would argue that the standard, default condition is this: I can do this. I will do this. I will learn to compensate where I need to, I will engage in things that keep me mentally sharp and capable.

And having done that, I will retain just enough sensitivity and self-awareness to try and self-diagnose my own limitations. But my default is not to find reasons why I can't. If Harrison Ford is doing the same, Bravo!


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 21, 2017 4:08 PM    Report this comment

Paul, I'm impressed with your gung-honess. Denying pain is one thing, denying a deficient mental readiness is another. Thus my approach to the aging dilemma - Old bull, young bull.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2017 5:18 PM    Report this comment

Geezus ... yesterday I learned 'Recombobulation' at MKE and today I learn 'YMMV' here. Sweet.

With Septuagenarian status looming just above MY instrument panel brow later this year I, too, ain't giving up my airplanes until someone pry's 'em from me. I compensate for my age by picking and choosing the conditions under which I fly recreationally. If there's any doubt, I defer to chemical engineering work ... turning beer into ... well, you know. Although I don't detect any real degradation in my personal abilities, I also recognize that I ain't the former USAF stud that was 10' tall and bullet proof. Nearly 50 years of aviating have taught me much. What I may lack in motor skills can be compensated for by experience, judgment and attention to detail. So far, it's worked.

That said, I WAS in The Villages last week and some of those really custom golf carts got my attention. All those golf courses, local village playgrounds and Town Squares look pretty good. IF I ever give up flying, I want a golf cart shaped like a '57 Chevy. And IF they have Bingo ... hmmm.

Mr. Ford's 1999 helicopter incident was just a matter of a fraction of a second of judgment of when to pour the coals to the turbine. At the time, he was in training status for the helicopter rating. He has subsequently amassed 500 safe hours in turbine rotorcraft. His 2000 runway departure in Lincoln, NE was blamed on a gust of wind; the Bonanza only sustained 'minor' damage. The 2015 Ryan ST3KR crash was due to hard engine failure. Were it not for that darned tree, he'da made the Penmar golf course OK. So why are we trying and convicting him before the final report here?

Rolin ... I agree ... safety IS safety. My comment was directed toward the severity of the punishment ... NOT that he wasn't guilty of a violation.

I HAVE to defend this guy ... he took his first flying lessons at the next little airport north of where I hang out in summertime ... still a great place. Besides ... he saved Chewbacca ... remember?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 21, 2017 7:39 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: Dave Miller | February 21, 2017 7:56 PM    Report this comment

Hey, what's wrong with aquacise? One gets to meet very interesting people.


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2017 9:30 PM    Report this comment

Say ... speaking of mnemonics (because cognition in aging pilots must be a problem), I just learned that the folks on Independence Ave have established a #FlySafe campaign to prevent LOC accidents ... the #1 killer in GA, one every four days. This month's focus is on ADM and personal minimums, easily remembered by using a CFI to help develop your personal PAVE checklist. The Administrator says that by writing them down and keeping them in a safe place, it will help save my life when I fly. So lemme see if I have this right. If I do all this stuff, I live longer thus becoming an aging pilot who has to become a burger flipper once my head hits the instrument panel four times. Geez ... how cool is that? No wonder the GA pilot population is dwindling?

Maybe that is what happened here, Harrison forgot to get his PAVE checklist out of his safe, lost control on final (resulting in accidental and unintentional landing on a taxiway) and maybe flew on the fourth day? I hope he mentions this on his ASRS submittal. Thank goodness he survived.

Seriously, however, I dug out my copy of FAA National Policy Order 8000.373 dated June 26, 2015 and hand signed by the Administrator. It is titled FAA Compliance Policy. Para 3d says that when a deviation occurs, the FAA's goal is to return the individual to full compliance and prevent reoccurrence. Para 3e says, in full, "The FAA recognizes that some deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills. (I hope that covers aging pilots?). The Agency believes that deviations of this nature can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness. However, reluctance or failure in adopting these methods to remediate deviations or instances of repeated deviations might result in enforcement."

I'd recommend that every pilot print a copy of this two page order and keep it in their flight case next to their ASRS forms and stamps. Good luck, Harrison.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 22, 2017 3:42 AM    Report this comment

Paul, in the spirit of nitpicking I would point out that lots of taildraggers are flown from the rear seat, all but the Cub are biplanes.

As far as HF goes, a chat with the Feds and a 709 ride might be in order, just as a formality before the flogging.

Posted by: Richard Montague | February 22, 2017 8:36 AM    Report this comment

I like Harrison Ford, I appreciate what he has done for general aviation. But the fact is he needs to be treated the same as any of us pilots who have committed a serious violation. At the minimum he needs a check ride with a FAA examiner.

Posted by: DAVID KRAKOWSKY | February 22, 2017 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Since the government outlawed water boarding, we now have the 709 ride. These have been taken to a new level of sadistic exquisite pain. From what I have seen, there is no remediation, or learning, just lots of airborne nit picking leading to failure, then certificate action.

Now I must be careful, as this will be held against me should, I have an alleged incident.

Bottom line, be careful out there. There are hundreds of opportunities to get crosswise with the feindly folks at the FAA on every flight. As we age, we have to be more careful and more deliberate in our execution. We should do this for the sake of being a safe and professional pilot.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 22, 2017 8:53 AM    Report this comment

"But the fact is he needs to be treated the same as any of us pilots who have committed a serious violation. At the minimum he needs a check ride with a FAA examiner."

I don't think I'd call landing on a taxiway a "serious violation", at least not on its own. I'd say it's only because there was an airliner involved (and a famous person) that it's getting attention. True, landing on a taxiway is supposed to be a mandatory report by the tower, but tower folks have been known to ignore that from time-to-time (I know this from experience, though thankfully not because I was personally involved).

There's also some question if an ASRS report would exempt a pilot from having to submit to a 709 or worse in such an instance.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 22, 2017 10:29 AM    Report this comment

Recommend everyone watch the video we posted in today's news feed. Makes the whole thing look like a bit of a yawn.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 22, 2017 10:56 AM    Report this comment

Well, at PSP there was a time where there were frequent taxiway landings. Like once a month. The FAA thought it was serious enough to invest in vivid markings accentuating both runways and taxiways recognizing that marking deficiencies were contributing factors to taxiway landings and other incursions. Not just pilot error. I wonder if SNA needs to enhance the runway/taxiway markings.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 22, 2017 10:57 AM    Report this comment

There seems to be a theme threading through the comments here that does aviation an injustice. The first theme is the obvious. This was the "Harrison Ford", the Winged Man himself so if he made a mistake well, there must be some other reason that very basic pilot error. Sitting in the back seat, washed out view, loss of SA, but never you mind, a quick up and down with at Trainer and we're good as new.

The second less comfortable which is age and the impact it has on flying. From what I gather, mainly in GA, the pilot average pilot age is increasing as the bubble of pilots that entered flight in the time of "cheap" flight occured slips into the golden age, not to be as replaced by younger folk. Let's whitewash the incident, because there for the grace of god...and I want the same treatment.

He flew into an airport he certainly knows
It was a Visual flight
He had clear view of his turn to final, enough to determine one strip of gray with a number , the other without and it having a vary large airplane next to it.

During the approach after final he had ample time to double check and clearly he was able to see the large airplane full of people that he jsut flew over.

This was not a minor incident. Had that been, say a corp jet, or worse a commercial jet we would have already excoriated the pilots. Had it been just an average Joe we would have harangued and decried the pilots ability, but instead. It was good old Harrison Ford.

I'm not calling to hang him by his toenails, but at the least he needs to be set down for some time, not given one checkride but a few where his cognitive capabilities are loaded to see if he can truly handle the stress. A minor incident is when I turned onto a taxiway only to see a plane taxing the opposite way and we both stopped, unable to turn around. Maybe we all hate what if, but then when we fly, don't wa play that game. What if I lose an engine here or here or here....what if Harrison had lost an engine on short final gliding towards a taxiway where a 737 sat right in his way.

Sorry, I'm not cutting him any slack.

Posted by: Justin Hull | February 22, 2017 11:20 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I wish I could contact you personally but I'm sure this information will be useful to other members as well.

I'm pretty bummed by your misuse of OODA Loop and it is obvious in the comments above that the misuse is being spread further unfortunately... What you are describing when using the term "OODA Loop" is technically called "Mnemonic Chaining" and you can read about it in the Aviation Instructor's Handbook (FAA-H-808309A) chapter 2 page 36. Mnemonic chaining is a fantastic tool for all the reasons you describe above, OODA Loop is a way to understand the decision making process which can be used to train efficiently and shorten the decision time.

If you would like to know more about OODA Loop checkout the wiki page on what OODA Loop really is or even better read a book about John Boyd, who was a fascinating fighter pilot and strategist.

Keep up the good work,

Posted by: Hank Titus | February 22, 2017 11:32 AM    Report this comment

Don't be bummed. Neither of owns the way OODA loops are defined, delineated or interpreted. I think it can be applied as the user sees fit. I read Boyd's book, which is how I found out about the concept and have been discussing it for years. For me, he put substance to what I was already doing without realizing it.

I take your point on mnemonic chaining, which is why I call my trick a fragment of an OODA loop. We use this in competitive skydiving all the time, without calling it as much. In that sport, there's no time for mnemonic processing, but the observe/orient part is critical and it repeats at one or two second intervals; hence the loop.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 22, 2017 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Not a serious violation? I would like to hear from the Captain and FO of the AA 737.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 22, 2017 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Been flying close to 11,000 hours, mostly squawking from the right seat while sitting on my hands in SEL airplanes. I had never forgotten to cancel an IFR clearance until I forgot twice in the past year. In both cases it happened when "coaching" an approach to minimums. I am calling it "loop lock". The brain got locked in the coaching/situation analysis and forgot to exit. Have had this happen in a few other situations over the years and still haven't figured out the remedy. Fixation...you are the devil!

Posted by: Frank Loeffler | February 23, 2017 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Hmmm. After watching the YouTube video and listening to the radio calls, Harrison Ford all tongue-tied with ATC, I think he needs to spend more time in airplanes. It never occurred to me that age-related diminished capacity played any part in his lack of situational awareness. It seems much more likely he was behind the airplane for want of recency. If Ford was 94 instead of 74 I would be more amenable to the age argument. I recently flew right seat from California to the Midwest, crossing the Rockies with a couple of IMC departures and approaches with a pilot in his 80s. No glass, almost no A/P, no coupled approaches, right-on orientation, and great work with ATC when cells started popping up.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | February 24, 2017 10:38 AM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?


Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration