Is Stupidity An Art, A Skill Or A Talent?
“Why do you get so mad?” It was my wife, Val, asking the question in that incandescently irritating tone that only long-term spouses can summon because they absolutely already know the answer. We had been stuck in stop-and-go traffic on I-75 for seven hours (really 15 minutes) north of Tampa. The cause of it, when we finally got there, was an SUV rollover in the median which, in Florida, counts for just another version of parallel parking. Three lanes of interstate, two response vehicles in the median, not even on the shoulder; no lane blockage.
Yet everyone was slowing to a near stop to take in the spectacle. “What the &^% is wrong with you people?! Just drive!” Of course, I slowed to get a closer look, too. This is because the urge to view train wrecks was baked into our DNA long before trains were even invented. I’m sure the first homo sapien to bash another with a rock had an audience. And this is why, half a million years later, we write articles about airplane wrecks. Oh, make no mistake, as editors, we’ll use high-minded phrases like “lessons learned” and “raising safety awareness,” but really, accident articles are just SUV rollovers by another name. There has always been and always will be an inexhaustible supply of these essentially because, as Albert Einstein was purported to have said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Having been both a student of and a participant in stupidity in airplanes, I’ve come to believe it actually requires a certain kind of numb-minded effort to achieve truly stupendous and inspirational acts of sheer idiocy. And here, let’s delineate simple mistakes from what I’ll call stupidity in depth. Everyone, I think, is capable of both, but all of us make simple mistakes on every flight. Let’s say you lose control on a crosswind landing and clip a runway edge light. That’s not stupidity, but a momentary lapse in judgment or skill, unless you fished around in the TAFs looking for a 35-knot crosswind. That would be stupidity in depth, because it requires planning, forethought, cognitive processing and a willful decision to ignore that little voice we all have. Well, most of us.
Another thing we all have in our logbooks, I’m sure, is an example of when we’ve done just that: piled up a bunch of obviously bad decisions into a towering, streaming heap of why-the-hell-did-I-ever do that? I have several and I invite you to share yours. But one stands out. It had everything: denial, ignorance, arrogance, even a barely controllable urge to pee.
This occurred right around the time Garmin introduced the GNS 530. I’d flown our Mooney 201 to Olathe to report on the new box and was homeward bound back to Connecticut against a tight magazine deadline. It was late winter or early spring and part of the forecast was perfect for eastbound flight: about 60 knots of tailwind, I recall. I could non-stop the 1000 miles in a little under five hours with 1:45 in reserve. It doesn’t get any better unless you own a jet.
The rest of the weather was, well, not that great. The entire route was covered in cloud, but the highest tops were only 5000 feet and the lowest bases in the 500-foot range. I’d be in sunshine for the entire cruise portion of the flight. Icing, as always, was in the forecast and there were numerous PIREPs indicating it was there, too. But all of them were trace to light, the little whiskers of frost you expect in cold-weather flying. Like the good scout I am not, I checked METARs, TAFs and PIREPs hourly enroute and conditions sounded stable. I tuned out those inconvenient reports of moderate icing and I’m going to guess I completely missed several tops reports that clearly showed the tops were rising the further east I flew. I know this because after I landed, I examined the PIREPs carefully … a little late, but then isn’t that a requirement for stupidity in depth?
I’d planned to fly at 9000 feet, but over central Pennsylvania, I was already skimming the tops at 11,000 feet and picking up splotches of rime with just a few seconds exposure. At the time, I had a lot of instrument experience in the northeast and had seen plenty of icing in both protected and unprotected airplanes. As long as the layers were thin and I knew I could climb out of it or the bases were high with above-freezing temps on the surface, I didn’t get too rattled.
I asked for and got 13,000 feet and checked the AWOS at my destination, which was Oxford, Connecticut. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but it was something like 300 and a mile, just about at the ILS mins. For the briefest moment, wisdom intruded in the deafening cacophony of bad decisions when I elected to fly past Oxford and land at Bridgeport, 20 miles south. Oxford is on a hill, Bridgeport is on the coast so it often has better weather. And it did. About 1000 and five and 40 degrees on the surface. Piece of cake.
But cake with thick icing, as it turned out. Bless New York Approach which acceded to my request for a pilot’s discretion descent starting around Poughkeepsie, New York, 40 miles out. I was planning on a more or less hair-on-fire dive to the initial approach fix at Bridgeport. To this day, I don’t believe I have ever encountered severe icing, but I’m sure I was in the robust middle of moderate that day. Within a minute or two, the windshield was thickly opaque and the wing leading edges had lost their shape under a thick layer of mixed rime. If you’ve ever encountered this kind of icing, you can actually hear it accrete. It makes a sort of hissing sound.
I encountered the freezing level around 4000 feet and the ice stopped building, but by then the airplane was a cotton ball and the wing leading edges were just getting that ram’s head shape that you just never want to see. Ever. It took nearly full power to maintain 100 knots in level flight. Just as I broke out on the ILS, the windshield ice sloughed off in one loud gush and banged against the tail. Much of the wing ice went, too, but I landed with some of it. The runway was water covered and, I’ll never forget this, there were chunks of congealed snow sailing around on the puddles in a stiff crosswind, like little icebergs. And here comes the Titanic with Captain Smith at the helm.
But I landed OK and made the third turnoff. Didn’t have to retract the flaps since I hadn’t dared use them. When I came to a splashy stop, the tower controller, in a moment of sheer understatement, laconically asked about braking action and any icing on the approach? “Umm … moderate,” I replied. (Perhaps that was post-stupidity stupidity. I think all pilots tend to under-report icing for various reasons, one of which is they don’t want to admit to themselves that they actually willfully flew into it.)
I don’t think another pilot can learn much from my narrative here any more than a passing motorist can learn much about driving from seeing an upended SUV. I place it here merely for edification and entertainment. The experience didn’t scare me away from winter flying, even with ice afoot. But it did remind me to be aware of seeing things in forecasts and reports that aren’t there and of not seeing things that are. Ultimately, that’s what defines stupidity in depth and anyone who claims to be immune to it is practicing something else: self-delusion.