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Features March 2013 Issue

Why We Crash

The FAA says we should stop crashing—good idea, yes? The problem, though, is to figure out why we crash so we can stop doing whatever it is that makes us crash. I have a few broad-brush ideas about why we crash: bad luck, incompetence and bad judgment.

Unavoidable factors like engine failure at 400 feet after take-off, or an elephant who wants the same part of the runway you’re using to finish your take-off are just bad luck. Not much you can do about that. Fortunately, engines are pretty reliable and there aren’t many airport elephants we need to worry about. That leaves us incompetence and bad judgment, often hand in hand.

Say crosswind landings were never your thing and you find yourself with 30 knots right across the runway. The pilot with sound judgment goes somewhere else, protecting himself from his lack of crosswind competence. The pilot with bad judgment, though, tries it anyway and becomes an RLOC statistic.

Incompetence can usually be converted into competence with training, but teaching good judgment has been the challenge of the industry forever. After all, you should know you can’t handle crosswinds, but we don’t usually go around deliberately and knowingly making a bad choice. We only get to label it bad judgment in the rear-view mirror of life. So, the trick becomes how to recognize something out the windshield that, when we get to look at it in the rear-view mirror, we might conclude was a bad idea.

I’ve got a lot of flight hours and I’m at that age where wisdom and good judgment are supposed to replace testosterone and bravado. As a career professional pilot, when considering something that my wisdom suggests might not look too good in the rear-view mirror, while my bravado is telling me to go for it, I often stop to ask myself how the accident report might read.

A friend of mine flies big jets across the Pacific Ocean. He also has a Cub. The other day he and another airline pilot friend took the Cub into the coastal mountains looking for deer to buzz. We joked later about how the accident report might go: “Two ATP-rated pilots in a Cub were buzzing deer in a mountain clearing. One rather large buck snagged the Cub with his antlers. The plane crashed 10 feet from the deer, instantly killing both pilots. The deer walked away with a headache, proud of his accomplishment.” Yup, stupid pilot trick.

They say you can’t fix stupid. In this context, I disagree. Since we don’t deliberately do stuff that we know will kill us, it only becomes bad judgment because of the results. So, the next time you’re flying when anything—and I mean anything at all—out of the boring routine pops up, ask yourself how that might look in the rear-view mirror. If you don’t like the answer, do something different.

If more of us do that, some of us just might live a little longer. Let’s make the FAA happy on this one. Oh, and while you’re at it, consider getting a little help with your crosswind landings.
— Frank Bowlin

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