CEO of the Cockpit #41: Risky Business

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Safety is an indistinct concept -- in airplanes and in more terrestrial vehicles. You can be the safest person, attentive and defensive; but when a car (or plane) just misses you, luck seems to be much more involved. AVweb's CEO had a close encounter that kept him wondering how safe we are.

Dodging airborne 737s is one thing, but dodging airborne Chevy Trailblazers is a totally different situation. As usual, the drive to the airport proved to be much more dangerous than the flying trip. I had avoided a major roadway boning on the way to work and was still a little shook up about it as we crossed the front range of the Rockies on our way westbound to San Fran.

We had a full cockpit on our westward expedition today. Both jump seats were filled with aviation-oriented buttocks. One jumpseater was a commuting pilot going home and the other was occupied by a line-checking Kool-Aid drinker named Joe. Add my co-pilot Margaret, and we had enough people in the cockpit to minimally staff a poker game or at least a corner booth at Hooters.

Bumps Over Denver

It wasn't surprising that we were getting our butts kicked by turbulence as we crossed over Denver on our way to SFO. It is a given that there are always some bumps as you approach the front range, especially in winter, but today's jostling was more -- shall we say -- "vibrant" than usual. Our cruising altitude was in keeping with our flight plan and Flight Control had planned for it to be bumpy here, but I don't think they expected stuff to be bouncing off of our cockpit ceiling.

Hey Margaret, if you can get ahold of the microphone next time it flies by, could you ask if it is any smoother down a little lower?

She laughed, because she was already trying to: (1) Pick her Jepp binder off of the cockpit floor where it had fallen; and (2) Clean the coffee off of her shirt where it had splashed when her coffee cup went airborne.

Denver Center then chimed in to tell us that it was "... slightly smoother at four-one-oh and also slightly better at three-one-oh." I point my finger down and Margaret asks for and gets thirty-one. A punch of the Flight Level Change Button and we were on our way downward.

Joe, our well-meaning line check airman, who up until now had contented himself through the turbulence by clinging to my seatback like it was the stern guardrail on the Titanic, leaned up and said, "Say, have you considered the fuel efficiency associated with going up to find smooth air instead of down?"

It goes back to early learning, Joe. You were a big-time fighter pilot in your pre-airline days, weren't you? "You bet," he says. "I flew F-106s and -- unlike Dubya -- kept flying them until they got rid of 'em."

OK then, you were used to the very thin air of the upper atmosphere and I'd be willing to bet that -- given this very same situation -- you'd be more likely to climb for smooth then descend for it, right? Well, my background was flying "heavy" Champs, Cessna 150s and Piper Aztecs. I flew forestry patrol in beat-up 182s, and the bumpy air I had to deal with in my aviation infancy was all down very low and close to the ground. So, my theory, if you want to call it that, is that if the turbulence is this bad and might get worse I'd rather be flying through thicker air than thinner.

The CEO 'Disses Squids World-Wide

I think it is the same deal on crosswind landings and Navy pilots.

This statement got the attention of Adam, our commuting-home jumpseat rider who up until now was snoring through the bumps. "Say what?" he said. "I'm an ex-Navy COD flyer and I think I resemble that remark."

This is nothing against Navy guys. God knows that a combination of cowardice and aversion to salt water kept me out of the Navy flying program, but you carrier-based guys almost never landed on a deck with a crosswind, did you?

Because I've been a CFI for 30+ years, I've done or sat through thousands of crosswind landings, they hold no fear for me. If you put me in tropical storms and whatnot you had to deal with flying the COD (carrier onboard delivery), you'd probably be way more comfortable than me. That's all I'm saying.

The chop was settling down from constant moderate to constant light as we descended through thirty-three grand, so I relaxed a little bit until Joe asked me to tell them about my near-miss on the way to work.

Is It Really a "Near-Miss" or a "Near Hit"?

I was in the fast lane of the interstate on the way to work this morning and out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a Chevy Trailblazer doing the "jeep dance" in the lanes across in the opposite direction.

By "jeep dance" I'm talking about the video clips they always show of Jeeps and other SUVs jumping back and forth before they turn over. This oncoming soccer-team hauler was weaving back and forth with not all the wheels hitting the ground at the same time, if you catch my drift.

Without really thinking anything except, "I gotta get past this guy," I gun the mighty four-cylinder engine of my Toyota and accelerate to about 85 mph. Just as I pull ahead, the Chevy across the way crosses the median in the air, inverted, and crashes into a Saturn sedan that was slightly behind me in the slow lane.

By the time I see the impact -- the explosion of this total mismatch in gross weights and inertia -- I am about 600 yards downrange from the accident site. I notice two state police cars with their bubblegum machines flashing heading down toward the wreck so I press on for home base. Maybe the Smokies were chasing the SUV in question, I dunno. What I do know is that if I had been changing a CD or looking the other way I would be dead right now and you'd still be waiting for a reserve captain to come out and fly this leg.

Joe the line-check guy said, "Well, you survived because you were paying attention, not because you were lucky. It is the same thing as flying. The pilots who have good situational awareness live and the goof-offs die."

"I'm not sure that is true," said Adam. "I mean, you could have been paying perfectly good attention by looking to your right at the slow lane instead of left at the oncoming traffic and gotten totally boned by the SUV. I think that it may not be luck or even skill that can save you on any given day. I think it is just the luck of the draw."

The Concept of a Bad Day

I have to agree with Adam. I know that pilots can avoid a lot of accidents, aluminum enemas, and post-crash investigations if they mind the store, take care of business or monitor "SA" -- situational awareness Whatever you want to call paying attention, I have always said that is a good idea.

On the other hand, I am a firm believer in the concept of having a "bad day." Sometimes you are at the wrong place at the wrong time and there is nothing you can do about it. For example, the poor person driving the Saturn had no idea they were about to be hit by an inverted airborne Chevy because right up until just before impact my car was blocking their view of oncoming traffic.

My initial flight-engineer instructor when I got hired later died in a horrendous landing/wind-shear accident that killed hundreds. He was the sharpest guy I knew at the time, and I know he probably paid more attention to details when flying than I ever have. He and his crew died in the severe wind shear. The plane that landed in front of them only encountered heavy rain. Was it luck, or random chance?

"I've seen the same sort of thing on the ship," said Adam. "One guy will do fine and the next one bites it because of an unforeseen mechanical. When it is time, it is sometimes simply your time."

We've Gotten Better, But ...

We've gotten a lot better about wind shears. Back when my instructor died they didn't really know much about them. Now we have onboard warning systems, we train better ... and more important, the controllers are better prepared to warn us and keep us out of potential danger. Still, the next wind shear wreck could happen tomorrow.

A few hundred years ago people had to face the fact that an "act of God" could come down and smite them at any time. Churches of the time seemed to be especially susceptible to God's wrath -- they kept getting struck by thunderbolts and burning to the ground. Then, Benjamin Franklin came along, invented the lightning rod, and what had once been random chance -- a decision of God -- became something you could defend against.

The terrible Tsunami that killed all of those people recently has been called an "act of God" as well, and I can't say one way or another if there really is any way anybody could prepare for something that big and frightening. It seems like a whole lot or randomness was at work there. Will science ever solve that problem and come up with a way to keep people from dying in tidal waves? I wonder. I'm sure nobody thought there was a cure for lightning until Franklin invented it.

Margaret Has The Last Word

"You just have to do the best you can," said Margaret. "You can drive yourself crazy with what-ifs; and trust me, you have been driving us all crazy with your story about the SUV. Maybe it is better to not think too much about that sort of stuff. There is nothing you can do about any of it except the best you can."

That is true. Any kind of safety, but especially aviation safety, has to do with rational thought and random chance. The only way to fly a totally safe airliner is to never take it off of the ground. The old quote is true: "Ships are only really safe when they are tied up in the harbor -- but that is not what ships are for."

I don't want to be the pilot who has a wreck and is remembered for being an inattentive idiot. I think that is the real fear of all pilots: Not that they might have an accident and get hurt or die, but that they do it wrong, screw it up and people get hurt or die.

The air was almost at a constantly smooth state now and our conversation moved on to more important things than my latest brush with death. There was the list of things I had already done wrong procedurally that Joe the line-check geek wanted to cover. Adam had a great story about a week he once spent in the Philippines that included frequent use of the "F" word, and Margaret went back to doing her now coffee-soaked Jepp revisions.

Life goes on and unless there is a "random act of getting lucky" in my future, this trip will be routine from here out.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.