Editor's Log

August 1999 Issue




Contrived Salvation

Luck has no place in flight planning

In ancient Greek theater, playwrights used a mechanism called deus ex machina – god from the machine – to lower an actor to the stage like a god descending from the heavens to right whatever wrong was happening onstage and return order to the universe.

Divine intervention may have worked on theatergoers thousands of years ago in Greece, but it doesn’t do diddly in aviation. Unfortunately, too many pilots rely on blind luck to save their skin.

Reading the NTSB accident reports month after month shows that boneheaded pilots are not in short supply. Their ill-conceived maneuvers generally fall into predictable patterns, with the occasional creative individual who finds some new way to harm someone with an airplane. The worst part is the innocent people they take with them.

Tops on my list of loathing are pilots who try to impress someone with aerial maneuvers – usually aerobatics – when they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. The pilot can take his poor judgment to the grave if he wants, but why take an unwitting passenger along for the ride?

Buzzing and low-altitude aerobatics are reckless driving. Experienced pilots and very lucky rookies live through it. Others do not. There are many cases in which middle-aged student pilots decide to take a spouse or child for a ride. Once airborne they get the urge to show off like an adolescent in a sports car.

Also high on the list are pilots who forget that airplanes are driven by internal combustion. Time and again we hear of people who fly five-hour legs and declare an emergency when the engine quits two miles from the destination. If time is so precious that you can’t afford a half-hour fuel stop, why are you flying a light plane?

Next are VFR pilots who take off into bad weather. I can make some allowance for those who encounter unforecast bad weather, but those who knowingly charge into the abyss deserve what they get.

Of course, accidents do happen. But for a little luck there are a few times when I might have found my own actions regurgitated in an NTSB report. But there’s a fundamental difference between pilots who have accidents because of true misfortune and those who are simply irresponsible.

What does their unconscionable behavior cost the aviation community? Plenty. A large percentage of small plane crashes make the evening news or the morning paper. Non-fliers who see the reports cast a suspicious eye at small planes and doubt the sanity of those who fly them. The perception of danger is out of sync with the actual risk, which, although high, can be acceptably managed.

Admittedly, the targets of my anguish are not likely to read Aviation Safety, because they demonstrate by their actions that they have no interest in the topic. But as a community, aviators need to spread the word that safe flying is like safe sex – ignore it once and it may be too late for some Greek god to come to your rescue.


-Ken Ibold