The Pilots Lounge #146: Your First Line of Insurance Defense

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I happened to run into Armando during my last visit to the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport. He’s been around the aviation insurance world for some years, is a CFI and has a common-sense approach to the world. We had some of the lounge’s lousy coffee as we chatted and watched takeoffs and landings through the picture windows.

We talked insurance and what happens after a pilot has the misfortune to bend an airplane and make a claim with the insurance company. He commented that he’d observed that most of the aviation insurers try and make the claims process as painless as possible because most of the claims people are pilots and they have some understanding of the unpleasantness of the aftermath of an accident. We exchanged stories of friends who had had minor mishaps—that didn’t even involve insurance claims—and how they, as with most pilots, second-guessed themselves over the event, what caused it, the role they played in it and what they’d done, or hadn’t done, to prevent it. They second-guessed themselves for years.

It may be self-selection for the types of people who become pilots, but Armando and I commented that most every pilot we know obviously gives a damn about flying and those who have had an incident or accident are usually terribly upset by it.

As our conversation continued, Armando commented that he’s been glad to see that most pilots and aircraft owners have recognized and acted on one of the harsh truisms of aviation—if you have a risk, you buy insurance to cover it. I laughed and mentioned that I was pleased that I hadn’t recently heard anybody making oddball claims about magic ways to avoiding liability for a crash so that it wasn’t necessary to buy insurance. The “just put your airplane into a corporation and you can’t be sued following an accident” yahoos fortunately seem to have gone silent. Maybe they followed their own advice and discovered that because it was their grubby palms on the yoke when they rolled the airplane up into a ball that they were personally liable for damages even though the airplane was owned by a corporation.

Armando was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “You’ve got insurance, I’ve got insurance, all of the pilots I know have insurance, but it seems to me that our first line of defense—with insurance in place as a backup—is our willingness to fly precisely, to be in the habit of always flying as if precision matters, so that we cut the risk of tearing up an airplane and having to make use of our insurance.”

Armando has a way of cutting through the fog. It’d be stupid to own an airplane and fly it without insurance—anyone who can afford ownership probably has some assets she or he wants to protect. But, the smart thing to do is to fly as if we didn’t have insurance—as if the only thing that separates us from the bankruptcy is our skill with the airplane.

I suddenly thought about what Richard Bach did in the mid-1960s—before his stunning ability to write was recognized by the world—when he decided to see if he could make a living giving rides as a barnstormer in a pretty beat-up 1929 Detroit-Parks biplane. As he prepared, he contacted his insurance agent to get coverage for what he wanted to do—land in farm fields and give rides to whomever showed up with five bucks in cash. After a couple of weeks, he was told by the agent that he could find no company that would write a policy to cover barnstorming.

Bach thought about things for a while and decided that his protection would be his intimate knowledge of his airplane and his ability to fly it precisely. He already could take its Wright engine apart and put it back together, and knew its strengths and weaknesses, so he set out to make sure he could get out of the airplane every bit of performance that was built in. He practiced until he knew precisely how much altitude he had to have to return and land on a field if the engine quit on takeoff; he worked on his skills until he was confident that he could pull the power to idle at 1000 feet and touch down within a few feet of a selected point as well as safely use a runway that was only a couple of feet wider than his landing gear. On top of that, he got to such a level of proficiency with his airplane that he could pick up a handkerchief from the ground with a wingtip—yes, while in flight.

Bach’s determination paid off—he successfully barnstormed off and on for some years, writing about it in the classic, Nothing by Chance.

After Armando washed out his coffee cup, put it on the drying rack and headed out of the lounge, I kept thinking about what he said. If you don’t bend an airplane, you never have to worry about filing an insurance claim or waking up at two in the morning agonizing, asking “Why? Why? Why?” without an answer. It seemed to me that a pilot that follows a combination of what Armando said and what Richard Bach did will establish an effective first line of defense and go a long way toward having a bent-airplane-free life.

OK, the theory sounds great, but how do you make it work?

Because It May Really Matter

I thought about the flying I do most of the time—from runways at least 75 feet wide and over 3000 feet long. That kind of real estate will tolerate all sorts of sloppiness. Unless I’m in a tailwheel airplane, the chances are that the airplane won’t try to swap ends if I touch down yawed slightly. If I carry 20 extra knots on final and float 1000 feet down the runway, I’ll still be able to get stopped by the end. That’s real life.

Yet real life in aviation has a way of knocking pilots upside the head when they least expect it. There’s the crosswind that is a little stronger than forecast; there’s the departure from the resort airstrip with trees at the end that got delayed until the heat of the afternoon and two of your passengers bought souvenirs that they just had to have and weighed 30 pounds, so now there’s a question of clearing the trees on takeoff; there’s the airplane that blows a tire and blocks the sole runway at your destination as you’re on downwind with 45 minutes of fuel on board—it’s going to take an hour to move the disabled airplane and your alternatives are landing on the narrow taxiway parallel to the runway or diverting to a 2500-foot grass strip 90 degrees to the existing wind . . .

The problem is that we don’t know when having instilled a habit of flying precisely is going to make the difference between a landing that keeps you on the edge of—but inside—your skill level and one where you lose it on rollout and have to make an insurance claim.

We spend most of our aeronautical lives tolerating big altitude deviations in cruise, letting headings wander 20 degrees one way or another as we wander down the magenta line and tack on 10-20 extra knots down final because the airplane “feels” better—and we almost always get away with it. Almost.

The reality is that we can’t spend every second flying in hyper-alert mode dodging unknown and unnamed dangers coming at us in full stealth mode so that we avoid any risk of an accident. What we can do is decide that flying precisely and knowing our airplane is a point of pride as a pilot. If we didn’t think we were pretty good pilots, we wouldn’t be flying. We take pride in the landing where it’s simply not possible to identify the moment that the wheels started to roll on touchdown. We take pride in that crosswind takeoff where we hold the ailerons into the wind so that the airplane lifts off and makes an immediate, coordinated turn into the wind, setting up the correct angle of crab, and we climb out right over the centerline of the runway. We take pride in those events because they are an embodiment, a demonstration of the skill level we’ve worked so very hard to achieve.

So, why not take things one step further? Why not make precision flight and intimate knowledge of one’s airplane twin roots of the pride we take in flying? Why not double-check the weight and balance data for the airplane we routinely fly, memorize how much weight we can carry in the cabin with full fuel and how we’ll have to distribute the load? It’ll make that go/no go hot summer day takeoff decision nearly automatic.

While you’ve got the POH in your hand, why not sit in the left seat and run through all of the emergency procedures, touching each switch or control as you do so? On your last flight review you may have done some of the emergencies outlined, but I’m willing to bet you didn’t do all of them.

This training time doesn’t cost anything and it’s in the airplane you fly, so what you practice will carry over directly to what might happen in the real world. If you have an engine fire, should the cabin air vents be open or closed? It varies between airplanes. Do you know for sure? Is there a way to block the doors open before you land after an engine stoppage? Check and see—on Cessna singles it’s easy to open the doors (in flight they will streamline open about an inch) and you can then rotate the door handle to the locked position, which extends the locking pin so far aft that the door will not close during the rollout after landing. That way, you aren’t delayed getting out of the airplane by a stuck door.

On other airplanes you may have to stick something between the door and the frame that will stay in place. While you’re in the airplane, why not look around and figure out what you can use for that task?

Why not use the POH and put together a V-speed card? List the speeds that really matter to you: VX, VY, VA and the speed to hold on final for a short-field landing. Stick it someplace where you can find it fast. If it is a warm day and a short field, knowing VX for the airplane’s weight just might matter.

Some time ago you became a member of the tiny fraction of our population who has learned how to operate a flying machine. You are one of fewer than one-tenth of one percent of the population of the U.S. who possesses such a skill and knowledge set. I hope that you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished—you deserve to be. I’ve come to think that a pilot should not tarnish what she or he has accomplished by giving less than a full effort to fly precisely each time there is the opportunity to rise up off of the ground—away from the mundane—and go fly. It seems to me that it’s worthwhile to strive to fly as perfectly as we can every time we strap in—if for no other reason than because we know that the better we do something, the more fun it is. And, yes, when it comes down to whatever end-of-the-day clich you prefer, we fly because it is fun.

For sheer enjoyment and because we are proud of what we can do, shouldn’t we establish a habit of flying our airplanes to the best of our abilities? Shouldn’t we seek to nail climb speeds and cruise altitudes and land exactly on centerline, within a few feet of a spot we’ve selected? After all, if we get into the habit of thinking about our airplanes and flying them with lan, it seems to me that we’ll enjoy our flying much more and when Murphy’s Law kicks in and things start going down the tubes, the odds are that we’ll put the airplane on the ground under our terms, where we want it, under control and won’t bend it.

That’s when we’ll demonstrate that our determination to fly at the highest level, all of the time, is really our first line of insurance defense when something goes wrong.


Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author ofThe Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.