Playing Defense

Rationalizing away challenges to completing a trip is a classic defense mechanism, often bringing poor results.


Unless our flights purpose is training or flying for recreation, were usually trying to get somewhere for a reason. Were on a mission, so to speak, and have the goal of getting from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, we sometimes omit “as safely as possible” from that list.

Its human nature to have a goal for most of our activities, something pilots often express in the form or a flight plan. Events, conditions or fate can conspire against our ability to meet those goals, however. Examples include mechanical, physiological or meteorological obstacles.

Regardless, we always have choices. For example, we can press on in the face of adversity. Other choices might include eliminating the obstacle(s) by disabling equipment, choosing a different route or time, or retreating to a nearby FBO lounge for repairs, for fuel or to await changed conditions.

Too often, however, the nature of our mission convinces us to press on, even when the numbers dont add up. Maybe we just want to get home and sleep in our own bed. Maybe were already tasting that turkey dinner at Grandmas. Maybe someones depending on us and its literally a matter of life and death.

This phenomenon is described in many ways but perhaps the most popular is “get-there-itis,” a term incorporating two concepts: pressing on in the face of adverse conditions and unhealthiness. Indeed, much has been written about the “unhealthiness” of ignoring or minimizing various warning signs: minimal fuel, poor weather, mechanical difficulties or other challenges. Pilots are trained to evaluate the weather and the aircraft as well as themselves. But the need to “get somewhere” can force us to rationalize away various warning signs. Essentially, the relative urgency of a situation allows us to minimize warning signs and continue with our plan as if nothing can interfere.

Without performing amateur psychoanalysis, its relevant to note the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) notes rationalization occurs “when the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the elaboration of reassuring or self serving but incorrect explanations.” Rationalization is a classic defense mechanism, a human characteristic allowing us to explain away what otherwise would be unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner. In everyday life, its mostly harmless. In a cockpit, it can be lethal.


On November 7, 2008, at 0246 Eastern time, a Partenavia SPA P68C, operated as a Part 135 on-demand air taxi flight, crashed during approach to the Gainesville (Fla.) Regional Airport (GNV). Night instrument conditions prevailed and the airplane was operating on an IFR flight plan. The airline transport pilot and two passengers were killed; the airplane received substantial damage. The flight originated from the Key West (Fla.) International Airport (EYW) at 0037.

At 2223 that night, the pilot received a call from an individual who was on an organ recipient waiting list, stating an organ was available in Gainesville and hed have to get there quickly for surgery the following morning. The pilot filed an IFR flight plan and the airplane departed EYW at an unknown time.

The accident flight checked in with the Jacksonville Tracon at 0215, approximately 75 miles south of GNV. At 0216, the pilot advised ATC he wanted an ILS approach to Runway 29. Meanwhile, the flight contacted an FBO at GNV and was advised visibility was low due to fog and the terminal lights were not visible.

At 0242, six miles from the approachs initial approach fix, the flight was cleared for the approach. At 0243, ATC terminated radar services. The last recorded radar target with Mode C altitude was at 0246:30, at which time the airplane was at 600 feet and on glideslope. The last recorded radar target was at 0246:44, about 1.4 miles from the runway threshold.


When the pilot filed his IFR flight plan, the FSS specialist noted GNV was VFR with clear skies and 10 miles visibility. However, reported weather at 0253 included -mile visibility in fog and vertical visibility of 100 feet with a one-degree C temperature/dewpoint spread. The ILS Runway 29 approach at GNV included a decision height of 200 feet agl and a minimum visibility requirement of 2400 feet ( mile).

The wreckage was located at about 0700 in a wooded area approximately 3575 feet from the runway threshold. All major components of the airplane were accounted for at the scene. An approximate 575-foot debris path was observed on a course of approximately 290 degrees magnetic, terminating at the main wreckage. The cabin and cockpit area were consumed by fire. Both propellers exhibited s-bending and chordwise scratching.

The FAA performed a flight check of the ILS Runway 29 approach at GNV November 7, 2008. The test did not reveal any malfunctions. As the NTSB noted, FAR Part 135 prohibits initiating an instrument approach if the reported weather is below the procedures published minimums.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilots failure to maintain the proper glidepath during an instrument-landing-system (ILS) approach. Contributing to the accident were the pilots decision to initiate the ILS approach with weather below the published minimums, and the pilots self-induced pressure to expeditiously transport an organ recipient to a hospital.” Theres very little we can add to the NTSBs summation.

Theres nothing we can do to prevent challenges like low weather or minimal fuel from impacting our flying. There is much, however, we can do when these factors confront us: Land and get more fuel, for example, divert to an airport with better weather or refuse the trip in the first place.

The real challenge, though, is a mental one: refusing to succumb to rationalizing away the checks and balances built into our everyday flying. We can meet this challenge in various ways, including establishing hard and fast rules controlling our flying.

What we cant do, however, is allow commitments, expectations or the dirty tricks our mind can play to force us into things we wouldnt do otherwise. We need to establish additional defenses against our own defense mechanisms.


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