Boring is the new black

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The more I fly, the less space for ego I see in flying. Yet, if there is one killer in this business, it is precisely that. We see it in the statistics, we see it on some colleagues, and we see it within ourselves.

The other day I was listening to the always interesting Flight Safety Detectives podcast, and they were talking about a recent crash where a Bonanza overflew a helicopter on final, knowing the helicopter was there, just because the fixed wing pilot was in a rush. Notwithstanding the complete ignorance of the most basic traffic rules, such a reckless attitude suggests a rather strong ego component: the famous “macho” thing we learned from the CRM classes. “I can do it.”

In Brazil the local investigation bureau, CENIPA, states that around a third of general aviation accidents are directly linked to exhibitionism: pilots simply trying to show off and killing themselves and others in the process. What is wrong with you people?

The memorable Richard Collins wrote it in this very Air Facts Journal many moons ago: for some pilots, the daring attitude when flying is part of the pleasure they feel in aviation. This is, by definition, hard or even impossible to correct in them. And we are going to come back to that soon.

It’s hard not to have an ego when this is your office.

It is no secret that the risk is inherent to the activity itself. Maybe because I started flying late enough in life to be scared of losing it, or maybe because it is my nature, it always motivated me to do it in a safe and efficient manner. Does that mean I am not vulnerable to my own ego? Absolutely not. One has always to fight it back, especially during prolonged flares.

And if you ask me what memorable moments I have had while flying, probably eleven out of ten will be situations where I was taken to my limit. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, we often surprise ourselves with our performance in challenging moments of our life and career, finding out we were more capable than we might have anticipated. What is this all about if not ego? We like to push and be pushed. We like to see the runway lights at minimums, we like to get the job done.

And that is exactly when regulations come into play: to protect us from ourselves. Many are the examples, from minimum safe altitudes to landing recency requirements. But probably no excerpt is better than 91.151: minimum fuel requirements. For VFR, 30 minutes reserve during the day, 45 minutes at night. Let’s be honest: if regulations didn’t enforce that, how much closer—or how often–would we get to an empty fuel tank when flying? And this applies, naturally, to all the other fuel requirements, to all kinds of parts and operations. Which brings us to the Collins observation.

It’s human to have an ego, and it’s human to push limits or cross boundaries. If it weren’t like that, we wouldn’t have built the technological society we live in. We do things once impossible and that, for an occasional time traveler from centuries ago, would look like pure magic. And we do not need to go that far: imagine those great pioneers of aviation entering a modern airliner or business jet flight deck, seeing first hand what they are capable of, the distances and speeds we effortless fly nowadays. They would be in shock.

So, it is not uncommon for the bolder among us to climb the ranks in the aviation career ladder. It is actually almost a norm. The thing is: how much are they willing to adapt to a more concise flight envelope? Well, in the first decades of commercial aviation, they found very little resistance to stretch SOPs. Add to that the novelty of the jet age, the stiffness of old hierarchy systems, and you will have poor safety numbers, common to the early years of air transport.

But we have learned from our mistakes, and after two or three generations of cockpit—crew, corporate, etc.—resource management, things have improved greatly. Sometimes, too much: some first officers and cabin crew lost the idea of chain of command altogether, which is not healthy either. But on average, the good captain would listen to his or her subordinates, and the mere difference of opinion would remind the four striped pilot that yes, he might be wrong after all. But this is still a human behavior tool, what makes it very imprecise and heavily customized—common senses are, after all, individual concepts.

FOQA has become a standard safety tool for airlines.

So, something known as FOQA showed up. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, it means “flight operations quality assurance.” And if neither the letters or the words gave it up yet, an essential part of this program that every serious airline in the world runs, is software that records pretty much every flight parameter. The idea of the FOQA is to be non-punitive, and little individually driven as well: the concept is to spot tendencies in operations to anticipate potential areas of improvement in safety and efficiency.

Let’s say every now and then, at a particular approach, crews are deploying the landing gear sooner than normal procedures suggest. There must be a reason for that to be happening. And this is the kind of thing FOQA would mainly focus on. If you fly within the company’s parameters—an airline policy is often a refinement of manufacturer and regulator norms—you will never get called. As the flight data is downloaded and processed, some deviations will serve as triggers, and some pilots are very worried about those triggers. Well, as a United Airlines old slogan used to say, “work hard, fly right,” and you will not need to memorize any trigger. That wouldn’t be the correct way of flying anyway.

Nevertheless, the simple existence of software that records non-compliances with a company policy certainly was a game changer for people who otherwise would be committing small violations here and there. And don’t get me wrong: some violations are well intentioned. Who wouldn’t walk the extra mile to get a flight on time? But maybe the right thing to ask is: does the operator want me to do that at any cost? Certainly not. There is no point of an accident on time; a delayed flight is much cheaper.

As we slowly but surely fly out of this dark pandemic cloud, the concept of flying well within the limits is more than welcome. A great example is low drag approaches. As much as risk assessment, energy management is a key skill for every pilot. No one likes to burn extra pounds for nothing, and with all the CO2 fuzz around, there is even less reason to do so. Yet, fly too close to the low drag limit and the chances of getting an unstable approach quickly rise. And obviously, if you need to go around, all the fuel savings are gone. So, the song I’ve been listening to lately is: do your magic, but don’t push it too hard. Give yourself room for that shortcut from ATC or a low layer of tailwind.

Or, as a captain I flew with recently said at the end of his approach briefing: “I intend to keep it boring.”

“Good,” I agreed. “Boring is the new black.” This last year has been too exciting already.

Categories: Get Your Pilots License

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