Paranoia, the saying goes, is only a disease if they’re not actually out to get you. And while very few people are actively seeking to “get” general aviation pilots, there are a plethora of mechanical, natural, or pilot-based causes just waiting to make you– The Pilot– into an accident statistic.
In my line of work, I have had the unique experience of caring for a number of GA plane crash victims. I’ve also spent a lot of time perusing the NTSB databases to see what I can learn from the mistakes of others, and so have developed an “accident report” voice in my head. Having seen the victims and read the reports, and being a fairly safety-conscious person anyway, I find that I begin to narrate my own accident report in my head a few days before I go flying.
I’ll be standing in the shower, thinking about my upcoming flight, when suddenly the NTSB voice pops into my head. “The 27 year old private pilot, with 88 hours total time and 75 time in type, was killed in the accident.”
“The accident was caused by the pilot’s failure to ________.” Makes you not want to miss anything.
Reading books designed to spark the safety mindset, such as The Killing Zone, has further enhanced my preflight paranoia. A few days before my flight, I begin obsessively checking the weather, watching for fronts pushing through or depressions forming out in the open water. I check and double-check my route planning: What airspace will I encounter? Any MOAs? Am I flying over water, urban areas, or empty spaces? I program the GPS ahead of time to avoid eyes-down time in the cockpit. I double and triple check my rental schedule to see if I’m being bookended by other renters, and if I am, I consider altering my flight to avoid feeling time pressure.
The day of the flight, I make sure I feel okay. I don’t drink caffeine before a flight to avoid being hyped up, and to avoid the inevitable caffeine low. I check the weather radar, get a briefing, and inventory all my items.
The trouble is, despite my paranoia, my obsessive gathering of pre-flight data and my determination to be a safe pilot first and foremost, I still manage to screw up. I’ve been climbing after takeoff and had the realization that I never sumped my fuel. I’ve gotten confused and flown incorrect headings. I’ve let my altitude wander up to 300 or 400 feet off target. I’ve lost situational awareness. In one particularly alarming instance, I was gazing out the window of the plane when I realized I was skirting Tampa’s Class B; another 30 seconds of watching the world go by and I could have flown through the shelf and been dealing with an airspace incursion. Whoops!
I suppose that part of the problem is that I’m still a very new pilot. I have less than 100 hours of airtime, and some of that airtime was back in the late 90′s. Practice makes perfect, and while I make a concerted effort to learn from my mistakes, I have had a limited amount of practice.
Another part of the problem could be that I still a child-like excitement when I get to the airport and see the airplanes. My CFI used to say that flying should be boring and routine, that if it was exciting you’re doing something wrong. On some level I can see the merit to that, but I hope not to get that blase about flying. I’m quite excited to be flying and participating in something so awesome (we conquered gravity for heaven’s sake!) that I sometimes wind up missing a step. The key, I suppose, is to be excited but disciplined.
Finally, while flying there are many tasks to juggle. I have yet to fully master the art of keeping everything in check while staying ahead of the airplane. Most of the time, I manage to keep everything in balance and have a good idea what to expect next. But there’s that small chunk of time where I am vulnerable, getting behind, or letting my mind wander.
So what do I do about this? The cure to all of these ills is twofold. First, I must maintain my focus on safety. I am not a perfect pilot, but I am much better than I would be if I didn’t pay any attention to safety. Reading books about flying well, attending local FAA safety meetings, and staying in touch with the training mindset all help me to focus on staying safe and avoiding complacency. Second, I must continue to practice, learn, and to be self-aware. It is one thing to make an error and learn from it; it’s another to make an error and shrug it off.
My Preflight Paranoia makes me a well-informed pilot. My determination to learn from my errors, no matter how trivial they may seem, makes me a cognizant pilot. And my constant thinking about my own mortality and how to prevent it from catching me early makes me a safer pilot. I’m not perfect, but I’m learning. And we all know that a good pilot is always learning.