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At the end of 2015, the FAA counted 590,039 active certificated pilots. Divide that by the over-18 population of about 248 million people in July, 2015 and we discover that pilots make up just 0.24 percent of the population. If that doesn’t mark us as nonconformists, what does? There is a place for out-of-the-box thinking in aviation, even in that most rigid domain of airline aviation. I would rather fly with someone possessing something like Sully’s creativity than fly with a living automaton who would have gone right to the FMS looking for a solution while the airplane descended inexorably toward earth. I’m certain there are creative cockpit thinkers taking creative and appropriate actions every day. They just don’t make the front page.
To assume that an aircraft automation system has a will of its own and will try to kill us would be anthropomorphic. Autopilots and other automation systems have not reached that stage of sophistication. Not yet. What can—and too often does—happen, however, is that flight crews turn the flying duties over to the autopilot and relax. With frightening repetition, this ends in disaster.
We spend most of our IFR lives wrapped in the warm cocoon of radar coverage, vectored from point to point by the all-seeing presence of ATC. And while controllers are human and occasionally make mistakes, the checks and safety nets in place rarely result in close calls, let alone bent metal. It’s also true that when clearances get tight in the final descent to the airport, responsibility is handed over to the pilot.
Investigators also found that there was an absence of radar returns for the aircraft as it moved over the airfield, suggesting that it was below radar, which is only 500 feet AGL here. The wreckage imprint on the trees suggested a shallow descent angle. This suggested the pilot was hunting close to the ground trying to acquire the runway visually. Unfortunately, he was already past the airport.
Everyone trains for that circle-to-land maneuver from an instrument approach, but there’s also an occasional need to fly circling departures. These can put you in the most marginal visual conditions waiting for the official IFR clearance. The usual suspects—weather, obstacles and flying the airplane—all come into play when you’re in that murky transition between VFR and IFR.
Weather and NOTAMs are a huge percentage of the mountains of data controllers process daily, and a significant chunk of that comes from pilot reports. Some pilots wonder how the information they share gets processed by ATC. As one IFR reader expressed: “It appears that most reports of icing/tops/bases that are reported to ATC never make it into the PIREP system.”