When Trained Pilots Make Dumb Mistakes

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There are various dividing lines in the world of aviation, none more stark than that drawn between avocational pilots and professionals-the airline and military community. Although we should know better intellectually, those of us across the fence from the professionals tend toward surprise when the better equipped, better trained and more experienced pilots who fly for a living make dumb mistakes.Example: One theory circulating on the Colgan crash in Buffalo is that its cause will be a mundane stall/spin, nothing more or less. “I just can’t believe,” wrote one reader, “that a trained airline pilot could do that.” Well, a trained airline pilot can. The NTSB will decide if he did.On Tuesday, the U.S. Marines found themselves explaining how a Marine pilot flying an F/A-18 that was already in extremis-he had shut an engine down–decided to pass up an easy overwater approach to San Diego’s Naval Air Station North Island in favor of an approach to MCAS Miramar, that’s landlocked by dense urban development. When the other engine tanked, he ejected and the aircraft crashed into a neighborhood, killing four people on the ground.How could an expensively trained Marine aviator allow this to happen? For the same reason that a trained airline pilot can lose control of a perfectly good airplane: They, like the rest of us, are all too human and more than capable of making that single decision or a chain of decisions that end in a smoking hole.Try as we might, even the best training can’t reduce human variability to that point where every pilot will make the same decisions when faced with like circumstances. When that variability results in things turning out right, we call it judgment. When it turns things sour, we call it a mistake.In their press conference Tuesday describing the F/A-18 accident, the Marines were painfully blunt. The aircraft had known deficiencies and shouldn’t have been in the air. The pilot, for reasons unknown, flew right past a perfectly situated military air field and continued on to one in a congested area and lying under an overcast. If you listen to our podcast here,the point-of-no-return will be glaringly obvious. Also obvious is that the pilot had help making the choices that got the airplane airborne and pointed at Miramar.What conclusions can be drawn from this tragedy? Two in my view. The first is that this particular Marine unit and perhaps the service in general still struggles with cultural issues related to safety in decision-making. In this regard, their training may actually be a hindrance, emphasizing as it does the need to complete a mission at all costs in ways that don’t necessarily mix well with civilian environs. The officers conducting the press conference alluded as much. With so many members of our armed services in harm’s way, it’s unreasonable for us to assume civilians living near bases don’t share some risk. But it’s just as reasonable to expect the military to do better than this in reducing risk to themselves and others.But the larger issue for all of us is to well understand that any of us can be sucked into this kind of dark vortex of bad judgment at any time during our flying careers. All it takes is a bad day, a little fatigue or an innocent oversight. And there aren’t enough training dollars and hours on the planet to change that. If that sounds like another version of “it could happen to anybody,” I guess it really is. As for that Marine pilot, I don’t cut him much slack because he’s a highly trained aviator, but because he’s human.