Clearing the Bar
How a Little Professionalism Goes a Long Way
By James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Associate Editor
Seventy-five percent of life is showing up. That realization is not original to me, but at some stage I discovered for myself that simply getting to the right point in time and space for the task resulted in having much of the job already done. You could still fail at the task, but simply applying the most basic level of professionalism — for instance, being at the right place at the right time — puts you in an advantageous position.
This idea certainly applies to aviation. Maintaining basic standards of performance and professionalism in your flying can avoid many accidents. That’s not to say you shouldn’t aspire to the highest possible standard — of course you should! — but clearing the bar for minimum professional standards goes a long way.
Given the professionalism focus for this issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, I decided to take a closer look at some of the ways an aviator’s decision to be rash could lead to a crash.
To investigate this question, I dove into the accident database. Specifically, I looked at general aviation aircraft accidents in the 2017–2019 timeframe involving certain key factors: inappropriately low altitude, aerobatic flight, lack of preparation/poor preflight, and improper certificate or operation issues. I took care to exclude any accident where mechanical issues or simple bad luck played a significant role. Also, I excluded operations like banner towing and agricultural dispensing activities, where operating close to the surface is necessary for the job. A key consideration was whether a single action would have prevented these accidents in accordance with normal operating standards. Things like obtaining a preflight briefing; following the approved aircraft preflight checklist for things like visually verifying fuel levels and sumping fuel tanks and sumps to check for water in the fuel; and, of course, not operating at an unnecessarily low altitude. These are not “Swiss cheese” accidents in which multiple actions or lack of actions happened, which led to the accident despite safeguards; they were easily preventable.
I did specifically look for incidents in which it appeared that the pilot was — no other words for it — showing off. Not surprisingly, the “show off” accidents generally involved some combination of low altitude and aerobatic flight. More on that shortly.
Overall, my search turned up 228 accidents. With 249 fatalities, about 62% of those onboard during the events were killed. Here’s the breakdown. (Note: the percentages exceed 100 since more than one factor was often involved. This is the percentage of total accidents that included the cited factor.)
Respect the Limits
Improper certificate or privileges and improper preflight or planning fall into the “duh” category. It’s really simple: if you aren’t rated for the aircraft or the flight conditions, don’t do it. Even if the weather forecast isn’t saying what you’d like to hear, don’t ignore it. If, for example, you encounter inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) on a visual flight rules flight, ask for help. Don’t try to fly through it to get on top or below, and assume it will be fine. It won’t. Hope is not a good strategy, so turn around at the first sign of deteriorating weather conditions and return to the takeoff airport to fly another day. If it is not possible to return to your takeoff airport, land at the nearest suitable airport. It is much better to be safely on the ground worrying about how you will get back home rather than being in the air wondering if you are going to make it back at all.
Always perform a thorough preflight, and never forget what your ground school training and flight instructors taught you about putting your trust in fuel gauges that are designed to be accurate only when reading empty. The number of accidents involving pilots who checked fuel on board simply by looking at fuel gauges is surprisingly high. It may be a pain in some aircraft to visually verify fuel quantity, but taking the trouble to do it right is much better than having your engine stop at the worst possible time.
The bottom line is to know your limits, know the aircraft’s limits, and respect both. Be ready (properly planned and preflighted) before you fly. In far too many cases, the pilot’s intentional flight into challenging or deteriorating weather conditions ended with a controlled flight into terrain/object (CFIT). If you don’t have an instrument rating, consider acquiring one. It will make you a better all-around aviator, and it will also help you obtain the knowledge and the skills to be a pilot in control as well as the pilot-in-command. If you already have an instrument rating, stay current and proficient (not the same thing).
Altitude is your friend. If you are considering a flight that requires low-altitude operations, start by making an honest assessment of your ability to conduct that flight safely.
Putting on a Show
Most of us are rightfully proud of our abilities to pilot an aircraft. But that doesn’t mean showing off is a good idea. Nearly 20% of the accidents I reviewed involved an element of showing off — either to people on the ground, or to people who were on board the aircraft. In fact, 10% of the accidents in my search involved improper aerobatic flight. In most cases, it was as simple as buzzing a friend’s house or the pilot’s own home. Buzzing is never — ever — appropriate. ‘Nuff said.
Please don’t misunderstand or think I believe that aerobatic flight is inherently dangerous. On the contrary, attending aerobatic flight training is an excellent way to enhance your knowledge and skills to recognize unusual flight attitudes and to apply the proper recovery technique. But these skills must be properly acquired and safely practiced. If you want to learn how to conduct aerobatic flight, seek an authorized flight instructor who is well-qualified to provide this type of training, and make sure your aircraft is certificated for the maneuvers you want to learn and practice. Check with friends, fellow pilots, and even social media to get recommendations. Although the aerobatic performers you see at airshows make it look easy, remember that they didn’t start their aerobatic careers 25 feet off the deck. Neither should you.
The bottom line is to know your limits, know the aircraft’s limits, and respect both.
Don’t Do the Limbo
Low altitude operations limit a pilot’s recovery options, and this factor contributed to 44% of all the accidents I reviewed. It’s easy to understand why. When operating close to the surface, there’s rarely room to recover from an error.
Low-altitude maneuvering is necessary at certain points during any flight, but we tend not to give it the respect it deserves. While skimming around at 100 feet off the surface may be legal — assuming you maintain a safe distance from people and property and aren’t in a densely populated area — it doesn’t leave you much margin for safety. As you zip over hills and dales, all that stands between you and disaster is one tiny mistake — or even a sneeze that forces your eyes to close and possibly triggers involuntary hand movement. The professional and military crews who regularly conduct nap-of-the-earth flights are highly trained and highly competent. In addition, such pilots are constantly engaged in risk evaluation and mitigation, and they generally have sophisticated equipment and redundant systems to minimize the inherent risks.
Altitude is your friend. If you are considering a flight that requires low-altitude operations (e.g., aerial photography), start by making an honest assessment of your ability to conduct that flight safely. If you conclude that you have the training, experience, and proficiency, you must still develop a solid plan. How low will you go (personal minimums)? What are the terrain and obstacle considerations you need to accommodate? Will you be tempted — by “mission requirements” or by a passenger — to go lower? If you can’t resist the pressure or the temptation to fly below your comfort level or regulatory requirements, say no and don’t go.
The bottom line: know your limits, know the airplane’s limits, get proper training, and don’t put yourself into “no way out” situations. Most of all, remember that if you shun attitudes and behavior that could be called unprofessional or foolish, you are very likely to avoid finding yourself in a “what-was-that-pilot-thinking” kind of accident. Clearing even the lowest bar of professionalism — being fully present and fully prepared — can keep you from making a mistake that could prove fatal.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.