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

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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 ExperienceWhen the FAA first experimented with the Accident Prevention Program, an Aviation Safety Inspector in each of two district offices was assigned the duty of establishing a program to prevent accidents. After a one-year trial period in those two offices, the program was deemed a success and it went national. Apparently, the FAA is in love with words. Why else would they keep changing terminology every time some bureaucrat dreams up a new name for something? In any event, one inspector in each district office was designated an Accident Prevention Specialist, or "Apes" as they were first called. Later, they became Accident Prevention Program Managers, APPMs (probably on the theory that if you give Ďem the title of manager, you donít have to promote Ďem and give Ďem more money). And finally, the name was changed to Safety Program Managers (or SPAMS), this time because the word "safety" has a more positive connotation than the word "accident." As the program grew, the voluntary flight proficiency check evolved into the biennial flight review.

ASPM LogoIn the beginning, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the first step in preventing an accident is to admit that "It can happen to me!" We read the accident reports and sympathize with the victims, but it is always those other guys who are involved. Somehow we all have a sense of invincibility. None of this bad stuff can ever happen to us. Well, Iím here to tell you that indeed it can happen to any of us at any time. They say (whoever "they" are) that there are those who have landed gear-up and those who are going to. That hasnít happened to me yet, but Iím not going to say it wonít. Twice I tried to put an airplane down on the runway with the gear tucked away in the wheel wells and twice the tower saved me from the expense and embarrassment of doing so.


In recent years we have moved away from emphasizing the first step in preventing an accident and it is important that we return to a recognition of the fact that it can happen to any of us at any time. And I donít mean we must admit this intellectually; we must do so emotionally as well. The saying "Safety is no Accident" is certainly true and what it means is that safety must be intentionally pursued. In this pursuit of safety, we must first acknowledge that it is not always the other guy who is involved in an accident, but that IT CAN HAPPEN TO ME! This acknowledgement translates into action in the form of requiring a pilot to be constantly alert and to expect the unexpected. There should be no surprises. If a pilot is well-trained and is not caught by surprise, the probability is that he will be able to cope with almost anything that 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 brain in gear and think at each step of the way on every flight. If, on every single takeoff, as power is applied and the airplane starts down the runway the pilot is expecting to lose an engine, then when it does happen, he will be prepared and be in a position to take appropriate action. He will be in control, rather than permitting the situation to control him. By being prepared and anticipating a problem, the pilot can have a course of action in mind and can prevent a potential disaster.


There is almost no emergency situation with which the pilot of the average general aviation airplane cannot cope if he is properly trained and if he keeps his cool. It is panic thatís the killer. If the pilot first remains calm and secondly does as heís been taught, then he will likely extricate himself from the situation and avoid disaster. Of course, this is not easy. One must force oneself to keep calm, but it can be done. The United States Navy used to teach its pilots that when confronted with an emergency, to take a deep breath and wind the clock on the panel! Nothing is happening so fast that the pilot has to panic and this simple action forces one to pause and determine the correct course of action.

Safety, in general, is a very difficult subject in which to get people interested. This is because accidents always happen to those "other" people. But, if we force ourselves 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 is easy enough to know something like this intellectually, but it is frequently extremely difficult to acknowledge it emotionally. Even so, this is a step which all pilots must take if they are to operate in the airspace safely. Our training prepares us to deal with most emergencies, but when emotion (extreme fear and panic) takes over, logic goes out the window. People have been known to become paralyzed with fear to the extent that they become absolutely helpless and unable to cope.

Hazardous Attitudes

We are now starting to train pilots to recognize and counteract the more common mind-sets that help create dangerous situations. If we can recognize within ourselves the underlying predisposition making for a dangerous attitude and we know and apply the antidote, then we will have gone a long way toward preventing a potential accident. There are certain conditions and situations that no amount of forethought or anticipation can prevent, 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 do something. These are hazardous attitudes within ourselves. To help us understand these hazardous attitudes and how they affect aviation safety, the FAA has identified five of them and spelled out the antidote for each.


The first of these hazardous attitudes is the feeling of invulnerability that most of us have to one degree or another. This is that attitude leading us to believe that accidents always happen to that other guy, never to us. We can read and even study in-depth published accounts of aviation accidents in order to learn from them, but we still have that unjustified feeling that this sort of thing wonít ever happen to me. Itís 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 us can dredge up from our past several close calls. As we read the accident reports and reflect on our own close calls, we can say to ourselves, "There but for the grace of God go I."

lear_laxAs I mentioned above, I have twice attempted to land an airplane without first extending its landing gear. Both occasions involved classic distractions which took my attention away from the job at hand. One of these events occurred when I was on angling final at a tower-controlled airport. I was cleared to land about four miles out when another, faster airplane called in and announced that he was lined up for a straight-in approach and landing and was about five miles out on final. I turned my attention 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 local controller in the tower advised me that my gear appeared to still be up! I instantly popped the gear and set the airplane down. I had been going much too fast to activate the gear warning device. You can well imagine how angry I was (and still am) at myself and how understandably upset I was (and still am) with the pilot of the faster airplane who was at least ten miles off to my right rear when he called (miscalled) his position, leading me to believe he was abeam me.

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


We all know pilots with an anti-authority attitude, which is the next of the hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA. This is the guy who says, "Donít tell me what I can and canít do!" Rules are for other people, not me. This is the pilot who says, "Why should I take a Biennial Flight Review? Iíve already demonstrated my competence when I passed the check ride. I donít have to prove anything." He then consciously refrains from presenting himself to an instructor for a BFR and he no doubt needs it more than the conscientious pilot who avails himself of regular refresher training does. He disagrees with almost all the rules and he breaks them every time he thinks he can get away with it. Sooner or later this attitude will get him in serious trouble ó and I donít mean a violation with suspension or revocation ó I mean a serious accident!

The antidote for this one is very simple. Whether we necessarily agree with them or not, we must follow the rules. They are usually right and, believe it or not, on the whole they were made for our own safety. There are, of course, many regulations that do nothing positive, but there are means within the system for getting these changed. Of course this is 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 the urge to do something, anything. And do it quickly. Often when the pilot acts impulsively he 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 mind in gear and thinks first before taking action, then he can briefly review his options and select the appropriate course of action to solve the problem. No one can be taught the proper response to every possible situation, but if the pilot understands the problem, he can work out his own solution. Remember that panic ó resulting in hasty, thoughtless action ó is the killer.

Mr. Macho

fokker28We all also know more than one Mr. Macho. Heís the one who thinks he can do anything. Heís not only confident, heís overconfident. He consistently takes unnecessary chances in the certain knowledge that he can get away with it. Heís probably already had several minor mishaps, such as powering his airplane through a snowbank and damaging the propeller, hitting a wingtip on a building as he rapidly taxis past, or forcing something that doesnít quite fit. When he does a pre-takeoff run-up and gets an unusual mag drop, he says, "What the heck, I can handle this. After all, Iíve got a spare mag. Who needs two?" And off he goes, without his charts because he knows where heís going and he doesnít really need a chart to get there. He gets away with these little lapses until one day he attempts the really 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 unnecessary chances 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 he is thought of as a fool who takes unnecessary risks, because the wise pilot knows that taking chances is foolish. If we feel even the beginning of a trace of the macho attitude creeping into our ourselves, we must make ourselves believe, emotionally as well as intellectually, that taking chances is foolish and no one likes to be thought of as a fool. In aviation, every single step must be taken with care. This means everything from 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 kind of crutch, and as for his own physical condition, he knows heís ready for flight, head cold, fever, emotional upset, fatigue, or whatever.


The final hazardous attitude identified by the FAA is that of resignation. In this one, the pilot thinks, "Whatís the use?" He feels helpless and unable to cope with the situation. He simply gives up. Feeling that thereís nothing he can do to extricate himself and solve the problem, he permits the situation to control him rather than remaining in charge and controlling his own destiny. Although decision-making is one of the most difficult functions in which human being engage, we still like to feel that we are in control and when we abandon this belief we are indeed in trouble. Failing to realize that he can call on his training, skill, and experience, the pilot just gives up and lets nature (perhaps gravity) take its course. This helpless feeling can paralyze an 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 say to himself, "Iím not helpless. I can make a difference." Here, as in the antidote for impulsivity, the pilot must force himself to remain calm and fly the airplane. As always, he must control the airplane rather than let it control him. If the pilot realizes that heís not helpless and that he can make a difference, he then only needs to keep his cool and do what he was taught. Once more, it is not easy, but it can be done.

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


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

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