How Pilot Weighing Risks

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Take two pilots who decide to fly under a railroad bridge over a river. The first hops in the plane, heads out to the bridge, and flies underneath it. The second takes a boat out to the bridge, inspects it for wires that may run below, measures its height and width, and observes the terrain around the area. The plane is then measured, winds checked, and the pilot develops a method of practicing skills required to fly under the bridge. Finally, when all is safe, the pilot flies under the bridge. Both pilots executed the same maneuver, but the second pilot planned carefully, and waited until it was safe to fly. The first demonstrated relatively poor judgment in flying under the bridge without all the facts.

How many pilots don’t have all the facts when they fly? Are they within weight and balance limits? How much fuel will they actually burn during the flight? What is the weather along the route of flight? The list of the factors that a pilot should understand is very large, but manageable. Whether the flight is a hop around the patch or a crosscountry from New York to Los Angeles, you need to examine all the factors involved and weigh the risks.

Use your checklist. We all forget things, and using a checklist will help us avoid making embarrassing, if not serious, errors in operating the airplane. Every retractable-gear airplane has a checklist with some reference to the gear being down before landing, yet every year pilots manage to land with the gear up. We become comfortable with a plane that we fly on a regular basis, and it is not uncommon for anyone to become somewhat complacent.

You should also know the airplane you are flying. General Chuck Yeager once stated that knowing the systems of the test aircraft he flew gave him the ability to recover from situations other pilots may not have been able to. Learn about the fuel system, how the emergency gear extension works, and everything else you can read about. Poke around the airplane to verify how systems work. This knowledge could be very useful in an emergency situation.

Finally, know your limitations. Many accidents are caused because pilots push the airplane or themselves beyond what they are capable of. If you are not comfortable with your proficiency in a certain area, get instruction from a qualified flight instructor to gain experience and confidence. Do you feel good about your crosswind landing techniques, or does the plane tend to stray across the runway as you land? How about stalls? Most of us fly in a routine manner, to a small number of airports that we become accustomed to. Are you comfortable flying into a runway that has a real obstacle at the end of it or is truly a short runway? These are the things that cause accidents.

Pilots get into situations that are not really dangerous but are beyond their level of experience. Realize that when you are tired, sick, or under stress, your mind may not be clearly focused on flying, and you are more prone to making mistakes under these conditions. If you don’t feel good about making a flight, for whatever reason, don’t make it. Wait until the conditions become satisfactory before you fly.

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