Eye of Experience #13:
It Can Happen to Me!

The old saw says that there are two types of pilots: those who have had an accident and those who will. In this month's Eye of Experience, AVweb's Howard Fried discusses the five hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA that can lead to an accident. Learn how to recognize these attitudes, how to overcome them and how to avoid becoming a statistic.


Eye Of ExperienceWhenthe FAA first experimented with the Accident Prevention Program, an Aviation SafetyInspector in each of two district offices was assigned the duty of establishing a programto prevent accidents. After a one-year trial period in those two offices, the program wasdeemed a success and it went national. Apparently, the FAA is in love with words. Why elsewould they keep changing terminology every time some bureaucrat dreams up a new name forsomething? In any event, one inspector in each district office was designated an AccidentPrevention Specialist, or “Apes” as they were first called. Later, they becameAccident Prevention Program Managers, APPMs (probably on the theory that if you giveem the title of manager, you dont have to promote em and give emmore money). And finally, the name was changed to Safety Program Managers (or SPAMS), thistime because the word “safety” has a more positive connotation than the word”accident.” As the program grew, the voluntary flight proficiency check evolvedinto the biennial flight review.

ASPM LogoIn the beginning, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the first stepin preventing an accident is to admit that “It can happen to me!” We readthe accident reports and sympathize with the victims, but it is always those other guyswho are involved. Somehow we all have a sense of invincibility. None of this bad stuff canever happen to us. Well, Im here to tell you that indeed it can happen to any of usat any time. They say (whoever “they” are) that there are those who have landedgear-up and those who are going to. That hasnt happened to me yet, but Im notgoing to say it wont. Twice I tried to put an airplane down on the runway with thegear tucked away in the wheel wells and twice the tower saved me from the expense andembarrassment of doing so.


In recent years we have moved away from emphasizing the first step in preventing anaccident and it is important that we return to a recognition of the fact that it canhappen to any of us at any time. And I dont mean we must admit this intellectually;we must do so emotionally as well. The saying “Safety is no Accident iscertainly true and what it means is that safety must be intentionally pursued. In thispursuit of safety, we must first acknowledge that it is not always the other guy who isinvolved in an accident, but that IT CAN HAPPEN TO ME! This acknowledgementtranslates into action in the form of requiring a pilot to be constantly alert and toexpect the unexpected. There should be no surprises. If a pilot is well-trained and is notcaught by surprise, the probability is that he will be able to cope with almost anythingthat comes up. But first, he must admit that it can happen to him/her.

vh-huxThe intentional pursuit of safety requires that the pilot put his/her brainin gear and think at each step of the way on every flight. If, on every single takeoff, aspower is applied and the airplane starts down the runway the pilot is expecting to lose anengine, then when it does happen, he will be prepared and be in a position to takeappropriate action. He will be in control, rather than permitting the situation to controlhim. By being prepared and anticipating a problem, the pilot can have a course of actionin mind and can prevent a potential disaster.


There is almost no emergency situation with which the pilot of the average generalaviation airplane cannot cope if he is properly trained and if he keeps his cool. Itis panic thats the killer. If the pilot first remains calm and secondly doesas hes been taught, then he will likely extricate himself from the situation andavoid disaster. Of course, this is not easy. One must force oneself to keep calm, but itcan be done. The United States Navy used to teach its pilots that when confronted with anemergency, to take a deep breath and wind the clock on the panel! Nothing ishappening so fast that the pilot has to panic and this simple action forces one to pauseand determine the correct course of action.

Safety, in general, is a very difficult subject in which to get people interested. Thisis because accidents always happen to those “other” people. But, if we forceourselves to realize emotionally as well as intellectually that it can happen to me,then we will have taken that all-important first step in preventing an accident. It iseasy enough to know something like this intellectually, but it is frequently extremelydifficult to acknowledge it emotionally. Even so, this is a step which all pilots musttake if they are to operate in the airspace safely. Our training prepares us to deal withmost emergencies, but when emotion (extreme fear and panic) takes over, logic goes out thewindow. People have been known to become paralyzed with fear to the extent that theybecome absolutely helpless and unable to cope.

Hazardous Attitudes

We are now starting to train pilots to recognize and counteract the more commonmind-sets that help create dangerous situations. If we can recognize within ourselves theunderlying predisposition making for a dangerous attitude and we know and apply theantidote, then we will have gone a long way toward preventing a potential accident. Thereare certain conditions and situations that no amount of forethought or anticipation canprevent, such as some kinds of mechanical problems, unexpected, unforecast weather, etc.However, there are other factors that may lead to potential disaster about which we can dosomething. These are hazardous attitudes within ourselves. To help us understand thesehazardous attitudes and how they affect aviation safety, the FAA has identified five ofthem and spelled out the antidote for each.


The first of these hazardous attitudes is the feeling of invulnerability thatmost of us have to one degree or another. This is that attitude leading us to believe thataccidents always happen to that other guy, never to us. We can read and even studyin-depth published accounts of aviation accidents in order to learn from them, but westill have that unjustified feeling that this sort of thing wont ever happen to me.Its always the other guy who runs out of fuel or forgets to lower his landing gear.

The antidote for this one is simply to know that it can happen to me. Each of uscan dredge up from our past several close calls. As we read the accident reports andreflect on our own close calls, we can say to ourselves, “There but for the grace ofGod go I.”

lear_laxAs I mentioned above, I have twice attempted to land an airplanewithout first extending its landing gear. Both occasions involved classic distractionswhich took my attention away from the job at hand. One of these events occurred when I wason angling final at a tower-controlled airport. I was cleared to land about four miles outwhen another, faster airplane called in and announced that he was lined up for astraight-in approach and landing and was about five miles out on final. I turned myattention from the pre-landing check and turned my head to look out the right window,diving toward the runway the whole time. As I lined up and started to flare, the localcontroller in the tower advised me that my gear appeared to still be up! I instantlypopped the gear and set the airplane down. I had been going much too fast to activate thegear warning device. You can well imagine how angry I was (and still am) at myself and howunderstandably upset I was (and still am) with the pilot of the faster airplane who was atleast ten miles off to my right rear when he called (miscalled) his position, leading meto believe he was abeam me.

On the other occasion that I attempted to take that short step from the airplane to theground, I was administering a flight test to an individual in a light twin and I calledfor a go-around from a balked landing. I even reminded myself to be alert for thepossibility of a gear-up landing when he retracted the gear for the go-around (this is aclassic setup for a gear-up landing – the pilot knows hes already extendedthe gear). However, I became so engrossed in observing his technique and airspeed on theapproach that I forgot about the retracted landing gear, as did he. Once again, the towercame to the rescue. Now, I know the applicant was Pilot-in-Command, but how do you think Iwould have felt had I permitted him to finish the landing with the gear up? In fact, howfoolish do you think I feel anyway? Even though he was PIC, who would have been liable forthe damage? Good question, huh?


We all know pilots with an anti-authority attitude, which is the next of thehazardous attitudes identified by the FAA. This is the guy who says, “Dont tellme what I can and cant do!” Rules are for other people, not me. This isthe pilot who says, “Why should I take a Biennial Flight Review? Ive alreadydemonstrated my competence when I passed the check ride. I dont have to proveanything.” He then consciously refrains from presenting himself to an instructor fora BFR and he no doubt needs it more than the conscientious pilot who avails himself ofregular refresher training does. He disagrees with almost all the rules and he breaks themevery time he thinks he can get away with it. Sooner or later this attitude will get himin serious trouble – and I dont mean a violation with suspension or revocation – Imean a serious accident!

The antidote for this one is very simple. Whether we necessarily agree with them ornot, we must follow the rules. They are usually right and, believe it or not, on the wholethey were made for our own safety. There are, of course, many regulations that do nothingpositive, but there are means within the system for getting these changed. Of course thisis not an easy task. It is extremely difficult, but it can be done.


Another of the hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA is that of impulsivity.This is the one that results in immediate action without benefit of thought. It is theurge to do something, anything. And do it quickly. Often when the pilot acts impulsivelyhe does the wrong thing and makes a bad situation worse.

As I pointed out earlier, nothing is happening so fast that the pilot has to panic.Therefore, the antidote for impulsivity is to pause and think. If the pilot puts his mindin gear and thinks first before taking action, then he can briefly review his options andselect the appropriate course of action to solve the problem. No one can be taught theproper response to every possible situation, but if the pilot understands the problem, hecan work out his own solution. Remember that panic – resulting in hasty, thoughtlessaction – is the killer.

Mr. Macho

fokker28We all also know more than one Mr. Macho. Hes theone who thinks he can do anything. Hes not only confident, hes overconfident.He consistently takes unnecessary chances in the certain knowledge that he can get awaywith it. Hes probably already had several minor mishaps, such as powering hisairplane through a snowbank and damaging the propeller, hitting a wingtip on a building ashe rapidly taxis past, or forcing something that doesnt quite fit. When he does apre-takeoff run-up and gets an unusual mag drop, he says, “What the heck, I canhandle this. After all, Ive got a spare mag. Who needs two?” And off he goes,without his charts because he knows where hes going and he doesnt really needa chart to get there. He gets away with these little lapses until one day he attempts thereally impossible, at which time we read about his final adventure in the newspaper.

The antidote for this macho attitude is to simply know that taking unnecessarychances is foolish and sooner or later this kind of activity will catch up with you. Mr.Macho conceives himself as he thinks others view him, but little does he know that heis thought of as a fool who takes unnecessary risks, because the wise pilot knows thattaking chances is foolish. If we feel even the beginning of a trace of the machoattitude creeping into our ourselves, we must make ourselves believe, emotionally aswell as intellectually, that taking chances is foolish and no one likes to be thought ofas a fool. In aviation, every single step must be taken with care. This means everythingfrom using our checklist to ensuring that we are physically prepared for flight. Mr.Macho, of course, deigns to use a checklist. After all, he can do it without that kindof crutch, and as for his own physical condition, he knows hes ready for flight,head cold, fever, emotional upset, fatigue, or whatever.


The final hazardous attitude identified by the FAA is that of resignation. Inthis one, the pilot thinks, “Whats the use?” He feels helpless and unableto cope with the situation. He simply gives up. Feeling that theres nothing he cando to extricate himself and solve the problem, he permits the situation to control himrather than remaining in charge and controlling his own destiny. Although decision-makingis one of the most difficult functions in which human being engage, we still like to feelthat we are in control and when we abandon this belief we are indeed in trouble. Failingto realize that he can call on his training, skill, and experience, the pilot just givesup and lets nature (perhaps gravity) take its course. This helpless feeling can paralyzean individual and render him incapable of action of any kind.

Here, the antidote is to realize that the situation is not hopeless. The pilot must sayto himself, “Im not helpless. I can make a difference.” Here, as in theantidote for impulsivity, the pilot must force himself to remain calm and fly theairplane. As always, he must control the airplane rather than let it control him. If thepilot realizes that hes not helpless and that he can make a difference, he then onlyneeds to keep his cool and do what he was taught. Once more, it is not easy, but it can bedone.

sydney_aus_060698What this all boils down to is: Not only is theattitude of the airplane in its three dimensional situation important, but the attitude ofthe pilot is equally important.


There are no doubt other hazardous attitudes which make dangerous situations worse, orconvert a small difficulty into a disaster, but the foregoing five are the ones identifiedby the FAA as being the ones we as pilots must be particularly alert to avoid. If werecognize any of these attitudes within ourselves, and apply the antidote, and if we forceourselves to acknowledge that no one is immune (it can happen to me), we will have gone along way toward reducing the human factor in the aviation accident record. And as we allknow the majority of aviation accidents result from human factors.

Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, pleasepost it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefitfrom your input.