By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the February 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviationmagazine.
Having been around airplanes and flying for several decades, I’m always surprised when otherwise good pilots make poor choices. At times, it seems they are tempting fate. Rather than a matter of complacency, it’s when a pilot performs an act that could easily have dire consequences if things don’t go as planned.
Case in point: Years ago, a highly experienced instructor was giving dual multiengine instruction to a student. In the midst of this activity, the instructor decided to demonstrate how the squat switch on the landing gear prevented accidental retraction of the landing gear while on the ground. Much to his dismay, he made a superb demonstration of what can happen when a squat switch on the landing gear fails. He selected gear up while taxiing, and ended up gear up on the pavement. In addition to being an expensive mistake, I’m sure it was highly embarrassing. Nobody was injured, but I’m sure the instructor’s pride was substantially damaged. It was a silly mistake that could have — and should have — been avoided.
It turns out some pilots do occasionally make decisions that seemingly tempt fate. None of us are immune to making bad decisions, but perhaps if we consider some of these risky practices, we’ll be less likely to commit them.
Let a Passenger Out of an Aircraft With the Engine Running
That propeller spinning on the front end of an airplane represents a serious hazard, especially for those not indoctrinated in aviation safety precautions. A rotating propeller can be difficult to see despite the engine noise, and even experienced pilots and mechanics have made the mistake of walking into one that’s in motion. All it takes is a split-second lapse in protocol, judgment, or personal awareness to end up with a horrific injury or death. Sure, it might cost us a couple minutes to shut the engine down and then restart, but the consequences of the mistake are just too high to allow the risk in my book.
One particularly avoidable problem for pilots is fuel exhaustion, but too often we read accident reports where fuel exhaustion is involved. The one gauge we should always treat with suspicion is the fuel gauge. Accident investigations frequently determine that fuel exhaustion occurred exactly when the pilot’s operating handbook would have predicted such. Making a plan based on the reading on the fuel gauge can be truly tempting fate. Just because we have a fuel gauge that reads half-full for a 40-gallon tank does not mean we actually have 20 gallons of fuel. That reading can be misleading, and typically the error is not in our favor. The only way to be certain is to stick the tank, or put a known amount of fuel in the tanks (and then stick them). And that required 30- or 45-minute reserve fuel should not be a target. Lots can go wrong that could take more time than that to sort out in flight.
Pulling the Stall Warning Circuit Breaker
Disabling any safety device should generally be considered a bad idea. Some pilots — recognizing that the stall warning may blare at touchdown or on climb-out on a bumpy day — will disable the stall warning by pulling the circuit breaker. Their intent is to avoid having the stall warning horn scare their passengers, but doing this in the name of passenger comfort might be a misguided practice. After all, a stall/spin close to the ground can also be particularly uncomfortable for passengers.
We often see pilots short their safety margin by performing an intersection takeoff. There may be plenty of runway remaining ahead of them for a planned normal takeoff, but things don’t always go as planned. If an engine should fail, or some other issue arises during the attempted takeoff, it might be real convenient to have that extra runway in front of us rather than behind us. Perhaps we don’t need an entire 10,000-foot runway for a sea level departure in a Cessna 172, but on a shorter runway, taking this shortcut could put us on the wrong side of the safety equation.
Another shortcut some pilots take is deferring maintenance items that should be dealt with promptly. While they might get away with overlooking minor defects, the practice can eventually catch up with them. For example, what might seem like a minor engine oil leak or seepage could actually be the first symptom of a crankcase crack that ultimately leads to an engine failure. Seepage associated with the undercarriage might signal a growing crack or other issue with brakes or hydraulics, which ultimately results in failure of one of those systems. One doesn’t need too much imagination to foresee how such a situation could unfold. As I wrote about in a recent article, a few missing fasteners could set us up for the loss of a cowling or other important item that ends up causing downstream danger, like loss of elevator control and a fatal crash.
One reason pilots let seemingly minor issues develop into serious problems is an effect called “normalization of deviation.” We slowly become used to the issues and stop recognizing them as actual problems. Steve Krog wrote about this phenomenon in his “Classic Instructor” column last month. To avoid the effect, take all defects seriously, and address them promptly.
Another place we might make choices that tempt fate is in the traffic pattern. It can be frustrating to some pilots when others seemingly cut them off, take advantage, or enter a pattern for a different runway. Such actions might seem unnecessary and a danger or distraction to others. Some pilots, in defiant retaliation, might refuse to yield to other aircraft, give them a good tongue lashing over the radio, or trail them too closely as they approach a landing. The truth is that we don’t always have a full understanding of why one pilot chooses a particular course of action, but we each have a responsibility to assure a safe outcome. Rather than screaming at them or playing “chicken” in the pattern, we need to put our skills and judgment to work and adjust our pattern to increase the level of safety for everyone.
Yet another means of tempting fate is low-level maneuvering. Some might find it a thrill to zip along the trees, buzz the beach, or skim the rooftops, but such activities can quickly press us into a corner in terms of safety. Many fatal accidents initiate from low-level flight. The lower we are when something goes awry, the less time we have to recognize it and take corrective action. Rather than fly at low altitude, we can choose a more appropriate altitude that allows us time to react to the unexpected, such as an engine failure, bird strike, terrain or obstacles, power lines and wires, sudden downdraft, or another aircraft or a drone.
Few pilots consciously tempt fate, but it pays to look at our actions when flying, to improve our decision-making and safety. After all, not everything goes as planned.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.