Friday, January 31, 2014


Maybe for the USAF, but Not for little Guys!

            Dancing at the edge of an active volcano or leaping from tall buildings with your feet tied to a string involves the same sense of self as a pilot who ventures over a populated suburb buzzing his girlfriend’s house. What makes them tick? I set about exploring this with a true pilot of pilots. A man named Johnny.

            Ten minutes into a flight with Johnny once, I heard the engine hesitate. That gets one’s attention, since there are no gas stations in the sky. I looked over at Johnny, whose eyes were skimming over the instruments acknowledging the responses as he tweaked and prodded the controls- quite the man in his domain. I found us climbing slowly and turning as he did and six minutes later we were back at the airport that we had left recently. After an uneventful landing, Johnny climbed out and proceeded to the mechanic asking him to check and replace a plug or a magneto.

            Now you could be sitting in your armchair reading this and think so what? There was nothing spectacular about that incident. My point exactly! In the company of such a great aviator an emergency was not made a spectacle, it was merely a successful outcome.

            Johnny is a practical man and having him mull over theories is asking the impossible. But I figured I’d get him when he came in for a flight physical.  

“Johnny don’t you see, it was your experience and aircraft knowledge that induced you to land when you lost the plug?”
“Yes but anyone would do the same, that is second nature,” he replied in a slightly tremulous 78 year old voice.
“It may be second nature to you but to most it could be a catastrophe and who knows how many pilots have died as a result of what we experienced because they panicked or did not take appropriate action.”
“So what is this Flying Delta stuff you keep talking about?” he asked. I had him cornered.

            The first time I had reflected upon this theoretical argument was when I was flying with another flight instructor in his Bonanza. A small blob of oil grew steadily to opacify half of the windshield. Even leaning to his left the pilot ignored the urgency of the oil leak. He kept pressing the ignore button in his brain. Geez man! I thought, CFI or not I was taking control. I asked him to put his gear down, cut the electrical load and find an airport nearby. He doggedly flew us to the home base and while we taxied to the hanger, a trail of oil stain followed. Only when he shut the engine down did the flood of dark oil cover the hanger floor. Later it was determined that the prop governor had failed. Here was a 2000-hour pilot ignoring reality.

             Johnny sat there shaking his head while the vein on his forehead visibly throbbed. He grumbled a disappointment as I pressed on with the commercial airline pilot story. With 12000 hours of flight time, this pilot whom I had the luxury of instructing in his newly acquired single engine Mooney should have been a no-brainer. This man flies left seat and his first officer finds all the charts, tunes the radios and communicates while he monitors the auto-pilot. But this was a safety seminar and there were no first officers on board. Under the “hood” and deprived of the outside visual cues he masterfully set the plane up for the initial approach fix and shifted in his seat- a sign of his clear dominance in the field of aviation. I allowed him the momentary self-indulgence. Then the ‘see if you can handle this,’ spirit of the flight instructor rose and swooped down to pull the circuit breaker for the radio tuned to the ILS. As expected the cross hairs of the localizer and the glide slope remained fixated and my efficient pilot kept flying the plane comfortable in his experience. We flew along at 2000 feet right over the airport. After a few minutes, I asked him how the flight was progressing. He looked at the instruments and nodded- pleased. Moments later he flung his “hood” off and a stream of mild invectives spewed. “Gosh darned it! How could I ever? Damned!” I looked at him as his face changed colors shades of red. Exiting the aircraft he complained of a headache and wished not to pursue the flight any further. A tarnished ego had come down with the ‘flu’.
 “And these tales relate to the ‘Delta theory of yours?” typical Johnny.
“Yes of course,” I said, “don’t you see the relationship?”
“Okay?” He muttered under his breath, more a question than an acknowledgement.
“Consider the Flying Delta,” I asserted, “As a triangle with the point facing side ways. Imagine a flight before it occurs. Place all the preflight actions on the left side or the base of the triangle. Any breakdown of this scenario can and should require abandonment of the flight. True?” I asked.

The Flying Delta

“Yes, but...”
“Johnny, the discussion is about the middle of the triangle, the self.”
“Okay.” He growled.

Many ways to Win

“The pointy side of the triangle is where, all the probabilities exist. If all those actions are undertaken, then all probabilities dissolve into one conclusive possibility – that of a well executed safe flight. However, the ‘self’ garners the entire inside of that triangle and can be the weakest link. As in the case of the first person, who denied the existence of oil leak and allowed us to continue towards a dangerous outcome. Although the probabilities were many, the outcome of landing safely was mostly an element of luck. And how many times can you bank on luck?  Now, place yourself in that situation?” I asked. Johnny’s frown deepened across his brow with that rhetorical question.

The many probabilities morph into one possibility

“And,” he paused with a hint of skepticism, “what about the second story?” I could see him grudgingly cross over the mental divide.

“The outcome in the pilot’s mind was predestined.” I replied.

“So you theorize that all flights begin with multiple probabilities and the outcome is one of the possible outcomes. If that were true wouldn't there be more incidents or accidents then there are?” Bingo!
“Johnny most times we walk away from the flight with a nagging feeling that something was not just right. This self-critical nature allows for successful outcomes. The eventual outcome remains the final arbiter of all probabilities. History teaches. This is how we learn. The problem is some of us are not self critical and learn to repeat mistakes.”

Pocketing his medical certificate with a smirk on his face, he walked out of the office with, “Keep it up doc.” The gold seal of approval had anointed my theory.

            I sit back and wonder at how one mandates common sense. As a pilot the rules of the game appear strangely different vs. as a doctor. Filtering out the medical risks according to the FAA guidelines is easy given the set of guidelines. As a pilot however you have to know who out there behind the flight controls could pose a threat in spite of a valid medical.

            I encourage pilots with their hanger stories to get a feeling for their risk taking habits. Pilots love to talk. Let them open their mouths and you will hear their minds. So I listen. Sometimes it is the catch phrase like “buzzing” “low level flight” “had a little” or a VFR pilot venturing, “I flew in the clouds for the first time” without instructions. I tell them about Johnny and use him as a benchmark, hoping they may learn. We educate pilots. FAR 61.53 encourages self monitoring. A pilot must desist from flying in case of ‘any change in the airman’s medical, mental, or emotional condition that would affect the validity of his/her medical certificate. Only the most egregious cases need be considered, others mostly need education. Above all, it is the self, the psychologically intact, self, the cognizant self, the aware of risks self, the in tune with ability and capability self – in other words a healthy self. So you see, the probabilities that once appear in magnitudes of plenty always boil down to the one possibility and that ultimately becomes the eventuality.

            So careful in your differential risks, weigh the odds,  and then weigh them some more, mitigate as many risks before you do anything critical. And remember there is always one that you may have not considered that might become the eventuality. Prepare for it.

           Its true in all walks of life, in every field of science and art. Go ahead check it out and make your day!

 The Flying Delta: “Computers as theater” by Brenda Laurel published by Addison Wesley Publishing Company 1993

Article previously published in the FAA Medical Bulletin 2004

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