Aviation Safety: Courage and the Pragmatic Acceptance of Inalienable Power

By Scott Spangler on August 12th, 2015

Like pilots everywhere, I never surrender an opportunity to go flying. And then there are days like today. Thunder rumbles closer, rain beats on the windows, and online radar reveals the crawling approach of a large green blob with an enlarged blood red heart. Yes, today is a good day to be on the ground, and nothing would persuade me to think—or act—otherwise.

An inalienable fact of aviation safety is that decisions based on anything other than a pragmatic assessment of the risks and consequences involved too often have terminal conclusions. And yet, as a community, we pilots too often address such situations with the optimism of those who invest in Powerball tickets.

Courage is another essential aspect of aviation safety because too often our piloting peers encourage a sanguine assessment of the risks and recount their adventures in beating the odds against them in similar situations. I’ve never seen peer pressure as a contributing cause in an NTSB accident report, but from experience and observation it is certainly a factor.

In the early 1990s, the weather precluded the planned flight home from a Thanksgiving visit. Routes and strategies to overcome my no-go decision predominated the discussion with other pilots in the FBO’s flight planning room. Their tone of voice implied that a “real pilot” would go for it. When it became clear that I was not changing my decision, I was soon alone in the room.

My decision was not without its own consequences. I sent my wife and young son home on the airlines, and followed them several days later. Second-guessing my decision was agony accelerated by the FBO’s unhappiness that its rental Cessna 182 was gone for two weeks instead of the planned four days.

But this agony paled in comparison to the outcome that might have resulted had I surrendered to my peers’ sanguine optimism. And it was short lived. Mother Nature rewarded my resolve with crystalline skies—and a tailwind!—on the solo flight that returned the Cessna to its roost. It was a flight made memorable by the absence of lurking threats to safety and reality that I’d be able to relish many more like it in the future. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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