Aircraft Accident Prevention: Getting Uncomfortable

Photo © Phil Ostroff/Flickr

As pilots, we do a number of things to prepare for a safe flight: Pre-flights, checklists, flight planning and a proper weather review. But are we too comfortable with our safety measures?

For those of us in the aviation industry, safety is the number one priority. It's instilled in us (hopefully) from the first time we step foot into the airplane. I don't know of a single pilot who would categorize himself as anything but safe, but even pilots with the utmost regard for operational safety can find themselves in an emergency situation without recognizing it.

There's an old theory that a person is better off flying with a brand new pilot than one with thousands of hours. There is both absurdity and truthfulness in this single statement. With experience comes knowledge and of course, the right knowledge can keep us from danger. But that same knowledge also brings a certain level of ease into our every-day flying habits, and this comfort can lead to a casual disregard for safety.

Instead of simply following the safety protocols we find in checklists and ops manuals, we need to be on the lookout for an accident-worthy chain of events. We need to change our mindset from "I follow the rules, so that means I'm safe" to "what decisions do I face that present a risk?" Pilots need to remain uncomfortable.

The moment we get comfortable is the moment we begin to ignore the warning signs of an impending emergency.

Aircraft emergencies aren't usually the result of a single wrong decision. Instead, accidents tend to occur after a series of ill-fated events, so it's important that we weigh the risk and value of each and every decision we make - even the small ones. If the decision doesn't bring us toward a safer flying environment, is it leading us toward risk? How far will we allow ourselves to venture from accuracy and perfection in flight? Are we comfortable with a certain decision because it's a habit or because we thoroughly weighed the risk? How many red flags do we come across before we change our course?

Take Air Florida Flight 90, for example. Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River during takeoff as a result of icing conditions, but the investigation provided insight into a long chain of events that occurred before the accident: corporate culture problems, departure delays, taking off with icing, failure to use anti-ice, failure to reject takeoff, failure of the first officer to speak up and limited crew member experience, to name a few. Had one of the pilots interrupted that chain of events somewhere, the accident may have been prevented.

We won't fly perfectly every flight. But if we keep ourselves from getting too comfortable in our flying operations, we can work to remove as many unsafe decisions as possible in an effort to prevent the downward spiral of events that could lead to an accident.

Remember, removing a single link from a chain of unfortunate events can prevent an accident.