Owing to their common depiction in popular media as roguish rule-breakers, the culture of safety that pervades the pilot community often comes as a surprise to non-aviators. A portion of that culture is the frequent review of aviation accidents. We do this not because it is fun reading (no rubbernecking or schadenfreude going on here), but to gain insight into what went wrong in an ongoing effort to learn and become safer pilots.
I confess that I have had these dismissive thoughts when reading accident reports, particularly when I was a less experienced pilot still in my first year of aircraft ownership. Then this happened:
14 CFR Part 91: General AviationAccident occurred Thursday, June 16, 2005 in Marcelles [sic], MIProbable Cause Approval Date: 09/13/2005Aircraft: Cessna 150M, registration: N9327UInjuries: 1 Serious, 1 Uninjured.
The airplane sustained substantial damage during a forced landing to a field after a loss of engine power. The certified flight instructor (CFI) reported that they had been flying for about one hour. The airplane was in cruise flight at 3,000 feet above mean sea level with the student pilot at the controls when the engine sputtered and quit. The CFI reported that he took control of the airplane and determined that the airplane was out of fuel. He executed a forced landing to a field. The inspection of the airplane revealed that the left fuel tank had about one gallon of fuel and the right tank was empty. The student pilot reported that he had conducted the preflight and walk-around of the airplane. The student pilot noticed that the airplane was low on fuel but failed to inform the CFI that the airplane needed fuel before takeoff.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
- The total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion as a result of the CFI's inadequate supervision and inadequate planning/decision. The student pilot's inadequate preflight planning was a contributing factor.
Friends and long time readers might recognize the registration number of the accident aircraft. It was Two Seven Uniform, the 1976 Cessna 150-M in which I trained, soloed, and flew during my private pilot check ride.
|Photo by Scott, June 29, 2003|
They ran her out of gas over a field in Marcellus, MI and broke her back in the ensuing hard landing. Most important to this discussion, however, is that this happened to Bill, the instructor who taught me to fly. The airplane was the only true casualty of the accident, though it is my understanding that Bill never instructed again.
I was utterly baffled and unnerved by the accident. Bill drilled into me that I must always visually verify the fuel level in the tanks before launching. How could this happen to him? The answer is a simple one: complacency is insidious. It was a valuable realization to make as a young aviator.
|Bill, Two Seven Uniform, and Me, September 23, 2002. Photo by John.|
Since then, when I read accident reports and my inner smart ass pipes up with a disparaging opinion about the accident pilot's aeronautical prowess, I realize that I know better. Was the pilot inadequately trained or stupid? Not usually. If a fuel exhaustion accident could happen to Bill, who so successfully ingrained in me the pre-flight habit of visually checking the tanks every time, then it could happen to anyone under the right circumstances. Complacency creeps in through many vectors. Was Bill running late that day? Hurrying? Was he hungry or tired? Did the routine of so many instructional flights in the same aircraft, perhaps in the same day, lead to a loosening of standards?
An important part of aviation safety is learning from the mistakes of others. But no learning happens when we fail to take the lessons seriously. There is no room for a "this could never happen to me" attitude. Bill taught me many things as he molded me into a certificated private pilot. This lesson, imparted two years after I completed my training with him, was by far his most important. Even with that valuable lesson well-taken, I still had a bout with complacency that grabbed my attention in 2009.
Complacency is insidious, particularly for those who believe that it can't happen to them.