Monday, February 25, 2008

I Sit Back and Think of England

The following blog comment, made this morning by Steve at the Pub, reveals passenger-think so stunningly bizarre that it deserves a whole blog entry.

Occasionally when asked by passengers what I thought about when flying (rotor wing), I stated (accurately) that am always running through in my mind where and how I would land if the engine quit. (This scenario updated mentally every few seconds).

The (puzzling but all too common) response: "Hmmpff, we CERTAINLY aren't flying with you then!"

I've said several times on this blog that as pilots it's our job to think about what could go wrong, and that that becomes a permanent mindset. I've described, for example, being laughed at for noting a feature of an SUV that could pose a hazard during an emergency evacuation. In a single-engine aircraft I am doing exactly what Steve does, surveying the countryside for an appropriate place to land if the engine failed. Once upon a time I had a job where I flew a small single-engine airplane at fairly low altitude over the same area every day. On my day off I took my car and I drove around the area to inspect the emergency landing sites I had chosen from the air, looking for wires and ditches and other hazards that I might not have noticed from above. I paced them off to see how long they were, and whether there were good things to crash into in the overrun. I learned their names so that I would be able to broadcast "Landing on the sports field of Sir John A. Macdonald school" as opposed to "Landing on some school field down here." I never had to use any of my chosen sites, but I was prepared.

I can understand why passengers would be taken aback to learn that the pilot is thinking about such a thing. They were thinking about how funny cows look from on top, or about how a lot more people have swimming pools than they expected. I can see them being frightened by the reminder that the engine could quit. I can see them being surprised that the pilot would have enough control to choose a landing site. But to have them reject the pilot for that? It makes no sense.

I wonder what answer they were expecting. "I admire the majesty of the scenery"? Surely not, "It takes all my concentration to remember what all these dials and levers do." Perhaps, "I think about my giant pilot paycheques," or "I daydream about going down to the pub for a few and then shagging my girlfriend," or "It depends how close to lunchtime it is." I mean honestly, if the safety-oriented answer isn't the safe one, what is? I suppose a more reassuring wording could be, "I'm always concentrating on what I can do to enhance the safety of the flight," but that's so insipid it doesn't sound believable, even though it's a variety of the truth.

If the safe answer is not a safe answer, then there's no safe answer. It makes you want to lock the passengers behind the cockpit door and not tell them anything that isn't on the list of approved PAs.


Astroprof said...

Personally, I'd rather the pilot be thinking about where to land if the engine(s) quit, or what to do if there is a fire on board, or what direction to turn to evade something suddenly in front of the aircraft, or how to avoid the unexpected storms ahead, etc.

Anonymous said...

My favorite was from a pilot flying a plane where you had to fold down the front seats to get into the rear seats. When asked, "What do you think about when you're flying" he replied. "I was just thinking how much it would suck to be in the back seat if this thing caught on fire"

Aviatrix said...

"I was just thinking how much it would suck to be in the back seat if this thing caught on fire."

That made me laugh out loud.

50N30W said...

"It makes you want to lock the passengers behind the cockpit door and not tell them anything that isn't on the list of approved PAs."

One of the secrets of a happy airline career.

Lord Hutton said...

Air travel might be safer than car travel, but not if you are in that plane. Perhaps some people dont like to be reminded of that

Wayfarer said...

There is also that nasty feeling you get when you look down and realise that you just don't have any good answers to that question.

My favourite is the emergency briefing given by a student pilot to his instructor during a simulated engine failure...."Banzai, prepare to die..."

GPS_Direct said...

There is also that nasty feeling you get when you look down and realise that you just don't have any good answers to that question.

Which is only slightly better than the (literally) sinking feeling you get when you realise you'd dropped the last notch of flaps without having the field made...

That drove home the point. And, it gave wonderful clarity to the idea that "I'd rather go off the far end, standing on the brakes and doing 20 knots, than drop in short at 65."

CYOW + CYVR said...

If you need to give an answer to this question, tell your inquirer that you're thinking about maintaining situational awareness of the aircraft (instrument scan etc) and of what's outside. The answer is accurate, gets the point across, but doesn't scare people with the idea that you're fixated on crashing.

I think what upsets non-aware SLF is the idea that (safe) pilots are fixated on looking for things that go could go fatally wrong. Most people do their best to trivialize or ignore risks. The concept of identifying risks as part of risk-management is completely alien to them.

For example, most people deal with the risk of driving by ignoring the very real accident rate. Most people will experience a bit of mental turbulence when thrown from from their everyday world of risk-denial to risk-management as practiced in aviation and elsewhere.

Other bits of SLF psychology that might be at work are the superstition that negative thoughts lead to negative outcomes and a fear that air travel is unsafe if pilots think about engine failure survival all the time.

Anonymous said...

As a former member of the military, and as a current police officer, my mind is constantly racing through the possible scenarios I might be faced with. These include, in addition to the mundane, what would happen if someone were to attack me with their hands or pull out a gun. So while I deal with people, I am constantly thinking of how I would counter the potential threats.

Start having an honest discussion with family members about this and you quickly realize that nobody wants to know the truth. They're only looking for the warm fuzzy answers.

Tim said...

I had to do the emergency landing bit with a C185 on amphibs. Scenario - last week of July, t/o @ #:00 pm on Friday, OAT 89d f, 6900' msl ground elevation, 15mph breeze.

The 185 (dragging around non-aerodynamic big amphib floats) is 20lbs under the EXTENDED gross weight (3725lbs). On t/o just out of ground effect at =/- 100' agl, don't want to turn crosswind yet but had to because of rising terrain. Bad time to lose a cylinder, can't climb, can't gain airspeed, this is going to be fun.

Long story short, ended up landing 2 miles from the arpt on the freeway AGAINST traffic as I couldn't maintain energy to get over to land with traffic.

Aircraft float landing gear absorbed (most) of the harder than normal landing with some damage but all the passengers walked of without a scratch.

Sure makes you THINK even more about the emerg landing scenario.... Second (and last?) time I've had to do this in 30years of flying.

BTW, I sure enjoy your blog - thx for making the effort.

QHI said...

While flying a very heavily loaded helicopter, I was once asked by the troop commander how well the aircraft flew if one of the engines failed. When assured that he could rely completely on the remaining engine to take us to the scene of the accident, he smiled weakly, tightened his straps, and just stared into the distance.

o said...

I work as a technical director in business news TV and get about the same reaction when I give a similar response to that question. Also they tease me when I ask: "Well, and what happens when THAT redundant system fails."

By the way, I'm introducing checklists in TV production as well. It's a fantastic tool for us too.

steve said...

I am constantly awed by your sheer professionalism....that you should actually bother to foot-recce. the terrain, is literally "going the extra mile"!

I hope the boss acknowledges it in that "huge pilot paycheck" ;-)

the comment about the pub, made me LOL, but now wondering wether "shagging my girlfriend was just your way of "coming out" or a slip of the Feudian kind.
Thanks for a bright start to the day. * continues mopping coffee from k/board.*

Mike said...

There's nothing wrong with me...just because the last thing I do before commencing my takeoff run I do an EFATO brief. Just because when everyone else is looking out and admiring the scenery I'm looking at the places I could do a forced landing and working out which direction I would land. Nothing wrong with me at all.

Just because I fly the circuit thinking what I would do if the engine failed NOW.

Just because my daughter and I talk about forced landing scenarios: what do you do if you're still doing 30 knots when the irrigation ditch at the far end of the chosen paddock looms up? Ground loop of course!

The only people who understand that there's nothing wrong with me....are other pilots.

Just as well.

Good stuff.


Steve at the Pub said...

I suppose my answer is a bit inclined to scare the horses.

The puzzling aspect of the response is not that it prevents them from flying, just not with a pilot who says he is ready if the engine fails.

In a comment above cyow+cyvr has probably provided the answer, removing their comfort zone of risk-denial is too confronting for some.

Tim: Amazing tale, thank you for posting it here.

Aviatrix: I am honoured to have triggered a blogpost on the other side of the world!

janra said...

mike - about your "ground loop of course!" comment, I'm curious about that.

I don't have my PPL yet so I'm very short on experience. Is that really an appropriate and safe reaction to a situation like that? I've never experienced or seen a ground loop, only heard of them as things to avoid.

Aviatrix said...

Janra, it's a bit like the way motorcycle riders are trained to drop the bike to avoid hitting something they can't stop in time to avoid.

Mike said...

Hi Janra,

it's just as Avi says - it's dropping the bike and losing a bit of skin but nothing more.

The conversation we had about that scenario is interesting though.

Ground loops are something I usually don't want to know about. But imagine that you landed long in the paddock, you're still doing a fairly good speed and there close in front of you is an irrigation ditch. If you go into it the nosewheel will drop into the ditch and a few hundredths of a second later the nose of the aircraft will hit the far wall of the ditch and you will stop very abruptly. Human bodies don't like stopping very abruptly and neither do a/c.

The alternative is to do a ground loop. You might do some damage to the aircraft, you might do some damage to yourself, but it will be a slower decceleration than the other way and therefore likely to do less damage.

I'm sure there are other solutions to that problem but that's one solution.

Obviously you'd like to not be there in the first place.


QHI said...

Pardon my being a little off-topic, but the motorcycle analogy used by Aviatrix and Mike doesn't really work. If American/Canadian riders really are “trained to drop the bike to avoid hitting something they can't stop in time to avoid”, I wish them the best of luck, because they're going to need it. Tell me, do they have to practice?

Naturally, this would be a somewhat compromised position to be in, but having ridden bikes since the 70's, I can guarantee that when it happens, losing all the speed you can is REALLY important. That's best done by staying hard on the brakes, rather than sliding around on your arse (note: none of this namby-pamby ass stuff in the UK). Besides, how do you steer to miss the obstacle anyway? Let's face it, off the bike, you have no control over events at all, though while the laws of motion are being played out, you can spend the time experiencing some very personal effects of friction and the discomfort of limbs being broken.

The ground loop advice is sound, of course, it’s just nothing akin to riding bikes.

janra said...

mike and Aviatrix - thanks for your replies. Good information to know, and I hope I never have to apply it!

Anonymous said...

We had a saying in the Navy,
"Plan for the worst, hope for the best" That fits perfectly with the thought processes of the pilots I know.