Article appeared in Flying Magazine November, 2014 by John King
It was a lousy day for a VFR trip. Not unusual in coastal Southern California in the spring. We get stratus clouds that come in from the ocean and create low ceilings that last for days. On this particular day we needed to get a package up to Corona airport, and I did not feel like driving the more than 3-hour round trip—especially when we had a perfectly good helicopter in the hangar, just waiting for us to fly it.
It was a trip made for a helicopter. Both airports were VFR, however in between we’d be following a road up a valley capped with clouds with the ridge tops on each side obscured. No problem with a helicopter. We could land virtually anywhere. But for an airplane there wouldn’t be many outs. As we were discussing this while en route, to our amazement a high-wing airplane appeared out of the murk and flew a few hundred feet over the top of us in the opposite direction.
We delivered our package at Corona, had a relaxing lunch, and a comfortable return to San Diego. When we got back to the airport, there were a lot of helicopters in the air, including news, police and rescue helicopters. Clearly, something was going on. That evening we learned that a Cherokee had taken off VFR from nearby Gillespie Field and slammed into Iron Mountain. That mountain had been there for millions of years, and this guy flew into it. We were profoundly saddened by it.
On another occasion we were returning at night to San Diego from Palm Springs in our old Citation and the weather made us very thankful we were in a jet. Over Julian VORTAC, which is at the top of a mountain, the strong updrafts and downdrafts made control challenging even in the Citation at 16,000 feet. Also, the coastal clouds were in again, from as far out over the ocean as we could see right up to the slopes of the mountains.
As we switched over to approach control we heard a pilot flying VFR in a Cessna 172 asking for directions from the controller to where he could get on top of the clouds VFR so he could fly over the same mountains we had just crossed and go to Palm Springs. He also said that he would be a slow climber because he had four people on board.
There were numerous problems with his plan. First, there were no holes in the clouds. Plus, if he did manage to get on top of the clouds, the risk of spatial disorientation was very high at night over the clouds and the mountains. Moreover, the minimum IFR altitude over the mountains is 9,000 feet. That would also be the minimum safe altitude VFR at night. It is very likely that the heavy 172 could not have made that altitude under the conditions. Finally, if the pilot did make it to over the mountains, the updrafts and downdrafts very likely could have resulted in loss of control.
It was clear the pilot urgently wanted to continue his trip. He tied up the controller with questions about where there might be a hole in the clouds he could climb through. Very concerned, I did something I had never done before. I took over the frequency. I told the pilot that there was no hole in the clouds, and I told him about the turbulence in the mountains. Finally, I told him that this was not his night to go to Palm Springs. Even though I clearly had no authority to do so, I told him to go back to his departure airport and land.
Much to my surprise and relief, the pilot then asked the controller for assistance in getting back to his departure airport. To this day I believe that had the pilot somehow gotten on top of the clouds and headed towards Palm Springs, the result would have been four fatalities.
Both of these incidents happened before weather information during preflight and in the cockpit became so readily available. But would that have made a difference? The overcast and visibility limitations would have been obvious in each case. To the pilot wanting to fly to Palms Springs, attempting to fly through a hole in the clouds VFR at night should have been obviously risky, even if the hazard of the updrafts and downdrafts over the mountains might have been less apparent.
So what is going on here? Do pilots deliberately take off and fly in weather they know will kill them? I don’t think so. Even though the hazards are obvious, pilots think they can get away with risking it. That’s what we thought, when as beginning pilots we continued flying in lowering ceilings and visibilities, and wound up circling at low altitude over a town in Tennessee. We did get away with it. So do other pilots in most cases. And the more times we get away with it the more comfortable we become with taking that same risk. If we get away with it enough times, it is easy to become convinced that it isn’t risky at all.
The idea that we can get away with it is often called “optimism bias.” Why do so many pilots have an optimism bias? Well, we are inclined to be positive thinkers, especially about flying. The very idea of flying puts us in a good mood, and we are more optimistic when we are in a good mood. Those of us who are true believers in the power of positive thinking can even convince ourselves that wishing for a good outcome will make it happen.
Also, most pilots are hard-wired achievers and blessed with fine self-images. We are prone to deny or minimize any hindering fact, and to believe that when we are in control, we can control the outcome. We ignore the fact that pilots who have crashed also felt they could control the outcome. Although we know a lot about ourselves we don’t know as much about the ones who have crashed. Many of us assume that those who have crashed are not as skilled or smart as we are. We think maybe they crashed because they were simply bad pilots.
Optimism is a good thing. It puts us in a good mood, and makes life more fun. However, it is not such a good thing when it causes us to underestimate the risks in aviation and come to grief. One way to solve over-optimism is to do what pilots have been doing for years—learn from the mistakes of others. Pilots seem to be fascinated with aircraft accidents. We read about them with keen interest. We talk about them when we are with other pilots. But our great delusion is to feel that we are exempt from making the mistakes that caused the accident because, “That guy was an idiot, and I’m no idiot.” The reality is it is not just idiots who have accidents. It is very often pilots just like you and me who simply had an optimism bias.
One time when we had the Citation there was a memorial service/party for the friends and family of some folks who had been killed in an airplane accident. We had agreed to take the partiers home at the appointed time, which was midnight. When the time came, we loaded the airplane and taxied out to the departure runway. The visibility was extremely low and when we lined up for takeoff, we could only see one or two runway centerline stripes ahead of us. Martha, who was captain for that trip, said to me, “I don’t like this.”
Much to Martha’s surprise, I said, “I don’t either.” We taxied back to the hangar and our passengers happily resumed partying. Forty-five minutes later, the fog moved off the airport, and it became clear and 10. We loaded up again and safely delivered our passengers to their destinations.
When we got back home, Martha wanted to know why I so readily agreed with her, when previously I would have pressed her to take off. I told her that when we lined up on the runway, I visualized attempting to take off, running of the side of the runway, and ending up in a very vivid fireball.
I don’t know for sure why—maybe it is because I have lost so many people I know and care about in aviation—but it is clear that I have gradually come to lose my own optimism bias.