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What Were We Thinking?

Article appeared in Flying Magazine April, 2014 by Martha King – Martha_04
Whenever you are in a gathering of pilots, you are surrounded by remarkable people—people just like you. In the U.S. less than two-tenths of one percent have made the substantial personal commitment of time, effort, and stress required to learn to fly. In order to learn to fly, you had to study a relatively complex body of knowledge, and be tested on it. You had to overcome setbacks and discouragement. Nearly everyone who learns to fly says to themselves somewhere along the line, “You know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this.”

Finally you had to present yourself to an examiner to be evaluated for your knowledge, your skills, and your risk management ability. The examiner passed judgment on you and declared you fit to carry passengers whose lives will depend on you. All of this is intimidating stuff.

These characteristics—readiness to study and learn, willingness to take on a challenging task, perseverance through adversity—all happen to correlate with achievement. So when you are in the company of pilots, you are in the company of achievers—people who are hard-wired to complete what they set out to do. They don’t give up on goals easily. These are the movers and shakers in the communities they are associated with—the people who make important things happen.

If we pilots are all that capable, why don’t we have a better accident record that reflects our extraordinary competence?

This can be explained in part, I believe, by the fact that achieving, goal-oriented people are particularly susceptible to succumbing to what I like to call the “external and internal pressures” of a flight. These are the pressures that make us want to start or continue a flight when we really shouldn’t. It is the one risk factor category that tends to make us ignore all the others.

External pressures refer to things that are external to the flight like having someone waiting for you at the airport, or an important meeting or event that you are supposed to attend—maybe even wanting to show up at your high school reunion in your fancy airplane.

The internal pressure part is how you respond to goals. Goals that can drive your behavior don’t even have to be ones you have actually expressed to yourself. It could be something as subtle as a desire to demonstrate that all the time and money you have put into flying is worthwhile and gives you utility.

Sometimes even arbitrary and unimportant goals can make you push on unreasonably. One time John and I while on a VFR trip set a goal of making a fuel stop at North Platte, Nebraska. There wasn’t any particular reason why we picked that airport. It was just in front of us on the map. But once we picked it as a stop, making it became a goal. As time went along, we realized the wind was stronger than we thought it would be. As we flew we got lower and lower on fuel. We determined that we could make it to North Platte with the slimmest of margins. So we continued.

We did make North Platte, but as we predicted, very low on fuel. After we got on the ground, we asked ourselves why we had continued to North Platte rather than diverting. We decided the reason was that we had set a goal, and being hard-wired goal-oriented pilots, didn’t want to give up on our goal.

We have all read about accidents in which the pilot continued beyond all reason with mounting risk factors, and we have asked ourselves, “What were they thinking?” I think I know what many of these pilots were thinking. They were thinking they didn’t want to give up on a goal.

Sometimes an unexpected change in circumstances can lead you into a desire to accept risks you know you shouldn’t. Recently we were flying into Wichita for what we considered an important afternoon meeting. The weather, which was forecast to be clear, was actually below minimums with low ceilings and fog. When we arrived the weather was still below minimums, and we diverted to our alternate—about 35 miles away and in the clear. We rented a car at our alternate and made the meeting in time. So far, so good.

When we returned to our airplane the next day right on schedule, we found scattered frozen water droplets on the right wing, but almost no ice on the left wing. We had made a commitment to stop in Albuquerque to pick up some friends on the way home, and they were already waiting for us. We asked the FBO about putting the airplane in a heated hangar to deice the airplane, and they quoted a price three times what we would have paid in Wichita for overnight. Plus, the deicing would take at least two hours.

Now obviously the only smart and legal thing to do was to put the airplane in the hangar. But it really grated on us to pay hundreds of dollars extra to put the airplane in a hangar for two hours. Plus, having our friends cool their heels for the additional time was pressuring us. John brought up for discussion that maybe there really wasn’t all that much ice on the wing, and we could just carry a little extra speed on take-off. After a very brief dialogue, John quickly retracted the suggestion. I arranged for the airplane to be put in the hangar, and John called our friends.

Afterwards John and I thought a lot about why, after all these years and experiences, we even considered the idea of not putting the airplane in the hangar. What were we thinking? We were thinking we did not want to give up on a goal.

When I look back at the cases through the years when we accepted risks we shouldn’t have, I realize that in nearly every case, reality was interfering with what we wanted to do with the airplane. Our goal-orientation was leading us to deny reality. In our early flying we wanted to prove to ourselves and others what we and the airplane could do. The idea of canceling a trip or not making it to our destination seemed like a failure. Later on, it was just more of a case of trying to make a schedule.

What is to be learned from this is that the pressures that make pilots accept unreasonable risks are very compelling and tenacious. So how do you manage this subtle, yet powerful, risk factor?

You can help yourself out in advance by using strategies to make it easier to give up on a goal. Even if you are going out for a $100 hamburger, you can take an overnight bag so that if you have a mechanical or weather problem, you can just check into a hotel and have a nice dinner and a pleasant night’s rest.

On longer trips you can make sure you know how to contact anyone you are planning to meet at your destination. Better yet, tell folks that you will be there an hour or so after you expect to. So if you have to make an unexpected stop, you can call to let them know you’ll be later before it inconveniences them.

If you do show up on time, you can always refuel the airplane, clean the windshield and generally set up for your next departure while waiting to meet your friends.

There is a really easy way to tell when you are falling prey to these pressures. It is when you are feeling you will be late or are in a hurry. As soon as you begin to feel in a hurry, it’s time to figure out a way to take the pressure off yourself. Maybe arrange to delay the trip or schedule it for another day.

Whatever you do, just don’t let yourself get into the frame of mind that you have to make the trip. Remind yourself that the airlines cancel trips too—maybe even more frequently than we do. Your mindset should be that you can only make the trip if all the pieces fall into place.

So the next time someone tells you that you are a competent goal-oriented achiever, you should smile and accept the compliment gratefully, but at the same time remind yourself that these wonderful attributes can be the most significant risk factor you can face in an airplane.

8 Comments

  1. Steven E Drew Sr

    Martha,

    First, thank you and John for your honesty.

    Talking about external pressures, what about being on a naval aviation mission tracking down a soviet submarine? This was in the 1970’s can you remember the cold war?

    Our base was the island of Bermuda, 500 miles east of the NC outer-banks. We were on a 10 hour mission in a P3 Orion sub hunter aircraft. Our on station was 3 hours plus from Bermuda, over a thousand miles. On station search time 4 hours. We were doing our search and had almost located the soviet submarine.

    I was the Flight Engineer. I was in charge of keeping the aircraft operating. Fuel management was critical. We needed 20,000 lbs of fuel overhead of Bermuda to go to an alternate in the U.S. Any alternate was 500+ miles away!

    So with this mind, I was a young 23 year old enlisted E-6 telling the Plane/Mission Commander and the Admiral on the top secret red phone that we had to leave on station with out locating the soviet submarine.

    My thought has always been “your reward for a safe flight today is your tomorrow”.

    I have been in aviation since I was 17. Almost 50 years now. Started as an aircraft mechanic in Naval Aviation, then a pilot ATP, CFII SEL/MEL, Seaplane, ATC Specialist, Remote Drone Pilot. I have had the pleasure to have flown 80+ aircraft including some burner time in a Hot Air Balloon.

    I here seen aviation from being an A&P Mechanic, Pilot, Instructor, ATC Specialist and I can tell you that John and Martha have been a great benefit to aviation.

  2. Gary ATP CFII MEI B737 Captain

    This article by Martha is so honest and forthright. I know it has helped a lot of aviators make the right decision: Err on the side of caution.

    As a Major Airline Captain, that is my mantra.

    However, when flying my Piper Warrior around, I, too, am prone to External Pressures and have to stupid slap myself haha.

    “The superior pilot uses their superior judgment to avoid situations where they must demonstrate their superior ability.”

    As a former Air Force Pilot, current Flight Instructor and Major Airline Captain, I can thankfully say I have only had to demonstrate my abilities 10 times in my 31 years flying and every one of these were caused by External Pressures:

    1. Inverted spin (Air Force), kicked in rudder in a Clover Leaf Loop because my entry speed was a tad low.

    2. Boxed Canyon: barely made the 180 turn back, PA28 Norcal transitioning to low power can be as hazardous as transitioning to high power.

    3/4. High, hot and heavy with a tailwind takeoff PA28 KGCN and KP52, again, low power transition.

    5. Backside of the power curve at 1,500′ AGL 8,000 MSL in the Rocky Mountains flying from KOAK to KBOS PA28, low power transition. Must descend to get airspeed to climb.

    6. Down to ILS minimums with the approach lights in sight (100′ ATZE) going to work in KMOD, regional airlines, PA28, look down! The runway is right underneath you :).

    7. First night flight into Nome, AK with 40 kt crosswind and moderate turbulence all way to the snow-over-ice 6000′ runway, B737, welcome to the career.

    8. Unforecast snow storm in Los Angeles flying back from work at KLAX PA28, no known ice, how high are the power lines? Grrr.

    9. Couple’s getaway to KAVX 3 missed approaches and no fuel at the airport. I found a VFR hole, PA28. non refundable Airbnb and unforecasted weather.

    10. B737 After 3 months off (covid) weaving through thunderstorms and landing at ILS 10 minimums in MMGL in moderate rain, I should have landed runway 28. Safe enough, but did I really need the workout?

    Aviation tests you first then gives the lesson afterwards. So true.

    I thank you for your honesty and recommend your CFI Refresher to everyone!

  3. robert kearbey

    The real life stories are so much more impactful than the platitudes we use on a daily basis
    maybe we just want to move on to the next flight or something.
    They are so very important.

  4. Reo

    “Goal orientation leads us to deny reality” is a statement loaded with import. Had I accepted the “reality” that I came from the wrong side of town and had no hope being able to afford flying lessons, I would never have learned fly. Hope got me through. Conversely, “hoping” to make it the next stop when running low on fuel is denying reality. Determining what is “real” is the key.

  5. LOU

    Martha,

    You are a real asset to our aviation industry, you and John have opened our eyes and ears to so much that involves us as pilots. Your article….”What were we thinking”, proves that we really need to sit back, analyse and think through the scenario before we venture on. Your article can really be applied to everyday living as well.

    I am a CFI of 4 years now and I love every minute of it, every flight has been a learning experience for me and my students.

    Keep up the great work.

    Sincerely,

    Lou DiVentura CFI
    http://www.CFILOU.info

  6. Peter S

    “After a very brief dialogue, John quickly retracted the suggestion.” Hah! Yes, he retracted it just as the dope-slap delivered by Martha started to really sting!

    This is a great article — I really like the real-world and personal examples. Without them, these discussions of get-there-itis are too theoretical and don’t appeal to people’s emotional side which is where the problem originates.

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