Monday, February 01, 2010

Responsibility Never Sleeps

As long-time readers know, I have kept my flight instructor rating current so as to have an additional source of income when I'm not off in the wild beyond. So here I am, the week before Christmas, back in a Cessna 150. I'm in the right seat, flying night circuits from a little strip next to a lake. The snow isn't very deep so the ice glistens through in strips where the wind has bared it. There's enough moonlight and other ambient light reflecting off the snow that I can see the shapes of the evergreen trees below us as we climb out from the touch and go. It's odd yet familiar to fly again in the tiny single engine airplane with the toylike controls. I'm not handling the controls, just supervising as the student practises night take-offs and landings.

I experience a moment of "how did I get here?" disconnection. Did I fall asleep? Instructors do a lot, but it's never happened to me. I make sleep a priority, and now more than ever I'm aware of the need to be alert at night with only one engine holding us above the trees. The windshield is fogged up and I reach to wipe it with my coat sleeve--the little Cessna defogger only clears a patch on the left pilot's side--but then I realize that it's not fog obscuring my view, the window has iced over on the outside. A warning flag goes up in my head. Ice? I still can't see forward. As I scan the instruments to ensure the airplane is maintaining altitude on downwind I wonder why the windscreen would ice in cold, clear weather. If there's ice on the window, where else is there ice? "Is the pitot heat on?" I ask.

Or rather start to ask. Before I've finished the question I'm facing a completely different direction and there are branches. Tree branches. The airplane is in a tree. The windshield remains opaque. I still don't have a complete picture of what has happened. Is the engine on? Another blank in memory. We must have secured it. I'm not sure how we got down, have no memory of anything we might have said to one another. There is no fire. I have a mental snapshot image of the end of a building, the peaked eaves of the roof damaged. We must have hit the tree, bent the tree to hit the building and then stayed in the tree as it bounced back. No memory of it. I can see a large clay pot knocked off a ledge of the building and broken in half, but not an image of the airplane.

For some reason the student is still holding the CFS as we walk, apparently unhurt, to where we know there is a payphone. I'm rehearsing in my head telling the aircraft owner what we've done to the plane. "Everyone's okay, but ..." My career, my confidence, my reputation, my ability to be insured as a pilot, my dreams ...

The student dials the payphone, then I take the handset away. "I'm pilot in command," I say. That's a little rude. A flight instructor did that to me years ago after I eagerly followed protocol on the ground after a radio failure. In my hand the phone is ringing and ringing, no answer. I look at the CFS in the student's hand in order to see the protocol, the correct order of everything to be reported in the event of an aviation accident. For some reason this is important to me at this moment. I want to get the last thing in my career right. Then I see from the page that he has looked up a number for the Transportation Safety Bureau, but it's a daytime number. I hang up in order to redial the Nav Canada twenty-four hour number at 1-888-WX-BRIEF but I never do.

The next thing I know I'm lying down. There's no pain. It's like I'm ... oh ... like I just woke up. I just did. I'm in my own bed. The whole thing was a dream. It probably took three seconds and my subconscious just filled in all the details so it seemed to make sense.

Now I admit that that was a freaking cruel way to tell a story to readers who I know feel for me in my ups and downs, but I hope you gasped in horror. I wanted to tell the story so you would feel what it was like. I didn't even have the dreams tag on the blog entry to tip me off that this wasn't really happening. I guess I should have remembered that I don't have any flight students right now, and don't live near a little airstrip next to a frozen lake, and that real life does not just start into the middle of the story, but I have the excuse that I was not paying really close attention on account of being fast asleep.

As nightmares go, it doesn't rival Kafka. No one was hurt. I'm sitting at my desk now laughing as I realize that I am relating a nightmare that was largely about paperwork. The bad part is that I didn't feel any better about it once I had woken up. As I lay awake in my bed, I knew with one hundred percent certainty that nothing had really happened. No real airplane or building had been damaged. No one was even scratched. There was no paperwork to be done. But it didn't matter. I still felt responsible. I was so overwhelmed with guilt to have been so inattentive as to have had an accident. I was pilot in command. I should have realized that there was a risk of pitot icing, should have known all the obstacle heights, should not have fallen asleep. I'm literally lying awake, unable to sleep, beating myself up for an unforgivable lapse in responsible behaviour which occurred while I was in my own bed asleep. I try to tell myself that it wasn't my fault, but that's no excuse. When you are pilot in command, it is always your fault.

As I lie there thinking it over, I gradually realize where the parts of the dream come from. Sitting in a stationary vehicle with the windshield iced over and the engine running is the story of Canada in the winter. You start the car up, turn on the heater and defroster and then wait a bit to loosen the ice a little before you start scraping. Just as first place someone lived fills the role of "house" in a dream, the first airplane I flew became "airplane." And suddenly I realize that in my life the "responsibility" is represented by airplanes.

What do the top of an evergreen tree and the edge of the roof of a house have in common? It's where you put Christmas lights. This is not a dream about airplanes. It's a plain old holiday stress dream about distributing gifts appropriately, doing my year-end paperwork, filing all those utility bills that I haven't even opened, because they are supposed to autopay through my bank account. So I'm not an irresponsible pilot. I'm someone who can't be bothered to do her Christmas shopping and write cheques to charity. That's much better. The relief is so great it takes away all the Christmas stress too.

I fall back asleep and dream I am staying in a hotel room that has a glass elevator and overlooks a hockey rink in which Steven Spielberg is directing a gangster movie. A gangster movie musical. A huge cast of flapper girls and zoot suited guys toting those old-fashioned guns with magazines the size of a medium pizza are high-stepping in unison towards the blue line while making dramatic arm movements. Life is back to normal.

This blog post brought to you courtesy of the NDB RWY 23T into Alert, NWT. The MSFS flight analysis looks bizarre because it maps it onto a grid with 15" squares and at that latitude the graticules are tall, tall rectangles.


Anoynmous said...

Very well told. You succeeded in making me virtually feel the events unfolding.

There's a middle ground between believing something to be true and believing it to be false. I wasn't quite to the point of phoning you and making sure everything was okay now, but I was ready to accept that it had indeed happened.

Anonymous said...

Holy Flying Flaming Firetrucks.

Verification word CLENSIN.
I think my shorts need clensin' after reading that.

Of course it helps that I just got done reading every last word of the AC646 Transport Canada report. Let's just say I was very suggestible.

sounddoc said...

how very odd - i just started reading your blog about a week ago. a pilot myself - a week or two away from my instrument checkride - i frequently have had flying stress dreams since getting my ticket and building cross country time for the inst. rating this last summer. they are always something along the lines of me ending up getting flats, or exploding a cylinder, departing without talking to the tower or ground, etc... because i've just completely lost control of the situation, or kept falling asleep in the cockpit. the eerie thing is that i had one of these dreams just last night that was very similar to your's over a flight i actually took today. it ended up with me trying to realize that i had crashed and was a ghost, and needed to come to terms with it. shudder...needless to say the actual flight was uneventful as always and i'm home safe, but it's nice to know i'm not alone in my weird piloting dreams.

sorry for the long comment, but you hit a nerve! all the best - love the blog!

Anonymous said...

"a nightmare that was largely about paperwork."

Funny how many of mine are too. Or about me staring at a checklist trying to make sense of the words on the page that I can't quite see, while there's a serious emergency going on.

Flying seems to be the easy part. It's all the ancilliary stuff that causes stress.

Chris Thompson said...

That was gripping. I felt like I was right there with you. Growing up in Northern Ontario I could completely imagine wiping the window with your sleeve. It is this stuff in your writing, the ability that makes it feel like I am there looking over your shoulder, that keeps me drawn back to your blog.

Wonderful stuff! Thank you.

(and yes, I frequently wake up thinking it is the day before exams in graduate school and I have skipped every class that semester. Of course, graduate school was 20 years ago....)

N6349C said...

Wow. You had me worried for a minute there.

I don't have dreams like that, at least that I can remember. Although I did have a stressful time yesterday when the gear wouldn't come down.

Sarah said...

Oh, well played Aviatrix. I totally ... well, believed isn't the right word... I like 1st anonymous' comment

There's a middle ground between believing something to be true and believing it to be false.

That's it exactly. I read it with a growing sense of horror and suspended disbelief. It is well written fiction, written by Aviatrix' anxious subconscious and shared with us with her conscious writing ability. The feeling a dream leaves you is so personally adapted at getting to you because it comes from exactly your vulnerabilities. And a lot of pilots share these worries about responsibility, irrevokable errors ... and paperwork. Thanks!

k1mgy said...


Keep that dream... a dream.

Sarah said...

Incidentally, how in the world are you supposed to fly an NDB approach without a functional mag. compass? GPS reference required? The only way I could do it was start off on the ground and set the DG to 230 first.

(Alert is the northmost permanent airfield, at 82 degrees N.)

pixelante said...

Reassuring to read that other people have these types of nightmares.

The nightmares I remember most vividly involve failing to obtain clearances in general. Never had a "crashing" dream that I can recall.

After reading the post I asked a couple pilot friends about their dreams and they all reported having similar types of dreams. Always a failure in responsibility.

Blaine Beaven said...

I have done a lot of training for new line-pilots in single pilot multi engine aircraft. Usually it is their first job flying, or their first job flying twins.

I remember one time having a dream that I was riding in the back of one of the company planes with a bunch of passengers, and all of a sudden I just know the pilots are doing something wrong. I try to yell at them and tell them what to do, but as I move to the pilot seats the plane goes into a flat spin, I get pinned against the side of the cabin, and we crash.

That was one of the most intense dreams I have ever had, so I know exactly what it felt like... it feels great to wake up and know it is all a dream, doesn't it?

Aviatrix said...

it feels great to wake up and know it is all a dream, doesn't it?

No, Blaine, that was the point. Realizing it was a dream did not ameliorate the horror even the tiniest bit. I still felt fully responsible.

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viennatech said...

Every so often I'll wake up next to my wife and she will be there GLARING at me. Apparently in her dream I did something to make her mad and now in real life she IS mad!

I say "hey honey, it was just a dream, I did not drive over your dog, I swear!" but the anger is as real as it gets.

Well played Aviatrix.

Syrad said...

I don't often have flying dreams, but I vividly remember one where we landed way too long, touched down in the last third of the runway and went off the end. Everyone was okay in my accident nightmare, too, but I had the same "my career's over" feeling in my gut. I remember sitting in a cockpit with bent metal around me reaching for the evacuation checklist and suddenly realizing that I hadn't properly added the tailwind and contaminated runway penalty to the required landing distance. At the same time I realize this in horror I'm thinking about how we're going to be on the news and my family is going to have to hear about this for the rest of their lives. This was in the months after the Colgan accident when every airline incident or misstep was covered scathingly in the media, so I think that's what triggered the dream - the fear that some stupid mistake of mine would land me and my crew on the front page of the USA Today.

So yeah, you're not alone with the weird "my career's over!" dreams.

Oh, and when I was a student pilot I dreamed once that the right wing fell off and the airplane started to spiral toward the ground. My CFI was sitting calmly beside me repeating his favorite saying as bits and pieces ripped off the plane. "Just fly the airplane. Just fly the airplane." That one was much more amusing and less disturbing than my runway overrun dream.

Michael5000 said...

Far out.

Anonymous said...

yep. lingering guilt. i had one where i cancelled ifr at a major canadian airport then lost sight of everything, managed to land (without a clearance), even though the boeings were going missed and then ignored ground control because i didn't want them to CADOR me for being on the ground and trying to get to base!
the guilt when i woke was huge. in the dream the decisions were clear and intentional, which led me to believe that i may have, in real life, weak character and a very small brain.
coffee and a CADOR free flight the next day only marginally quelled those doubts..