No pilot likes to talk about accidents. This is ironic because all through our training we study on how to avoid them. We take quizzes online and off. We memorize speeds and procedures. We recite CBGUMP (Carb Heat, Boost Pump, Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture and Prop) on the ground, and if we are smart we do it more importantly in the air. Yet accidents still happen. Why?
To Err Is Human…
The phrase to “err is human, to forgive divine” is an idiom which is widely used in the English language. To understand it better it is wise to split the idiom in two. The first part to err is human means that every single person is fallible and bound to make mistakes, including ourselves. As pilots we don’t like to hear this. We want to believe that we know enough not to error, or if there is a problem it was due to some other fault than our own humanity.
The second half of the phrase refers to the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a trait gifted to us from a higher power and is seen as being merciful. It is this divine mercy that is being called upon here. All people will error and when they do it is right to forgive them. To expect perfection from such an imperfect being defies common sense and is the most unfair thing we can do to each other, but more importantly to ourselves.
It’s called an Accident for a Reason
An accident is an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss. It’s one of the possible outcomes of our error. This weekend I was told about a flight, an accident that ended badly.
What started out as an enjoyable day of flying on a lake that was as smooth as glass eventually ended tragically. I knew the pilot who was involved through my former wife’s family. About five months before my wife and I married, the pilot involved in this accident married my wife’s cousin out in Santa Barbara. At the time I was really struggling to get my pilots license. I was saving money and flying as much as I could afford to. Once at a family gathering my wife mentioned to this couple that I was flying, then the classic question came out…Do you have your license yet? Argh!
It wasn’t until two years later that could say YES to that question. However, I was trying to also overcome the memory of an accident that happened four months early that took the life of the owner of the flying school that I was training at.
Accidents Happen to Everyone
Here is the report describing the accident that haunted me for sometime. This is how the owner of the flight school died. After this event I had to think twice about flying. Throwing in the towel and walking away from it all was a real possibility. So the story begins…
NARRATIVE: The airplane departed from a maintenance facility, after installation of the right engine, with an unknown quantity of fuel. Shortly after takeoff, the pilot reported that he had “lost” an engine. He requested vectors for the departure airport, and then amended his request to an alternate destination. From the original distress call to the last recorded radar target, approximately 2 ½ minutes, the airplane descended from 2,500 feet to 700 feet and slowed from 190 knots to about 87 knots. Several witnesses described the engine sound as “rough”, and “cutting in and out” before the airplane descended out of view and sounds of impact were heard. The left wing was consumed by post-crash fire. Forty gallons of fuel were drained from the right inboard and nacelle tanks. Only trace amounts of fuel were visible in the right outboard tank. Both fuel selectors were found in the outboard tank position.
Examination of flight times and ground-maintenance run times revealed that the engines were run for approximately 3 hours with the outboard tanks selected. The outboard tanks each held 40 gallons, for a total of 80 gallons. According to the pilot’s operating manual, the fuel consumption rate at the maximum endurance power setting was 28 gallons per hour.
CAUSE: The pilot’s mismanagement of the fuel by his failure to select the proper fuel tank which resulted in starvation and subsequent loss of engine power in both engines.
As a student this was shocking. How could a guy with decades of experience and thousands of hours of flight time crash his twin on a 30 mile hop from one airport to another? How could a divine god like instructor make such a mistake?
It was at this moment that I learned that ANYONE can screw up. I had my own fears as a student, mostly of the unknown, and they were very justified. However, the truth is that hours and years of experience don’t mean a thing once a flight is considered routine.
A Sad Loss
So this weekend when I was told about the accident that happened with the pilot that I knew, past memories came rushing back to me. What was the most tragic of all was that although the pilot survived, his six year old son who was flying with him did not. I won’t reveal names or post photos; this is a private matter for the family. However from the photos that I did see, in my heart…I know that this was an accident.
Having flown my kids in planes before, however sparingly, I can understand that shadow that is crossing his heart right now. I have thought about how I could make a mistake and cause harm to those I love the most by doing something I love. I have turned away family before when conditions were questionable and my confidence was not what it should be with either man or machine. Saddened by not taking family up to enjoy all that I enjoy, I was relieved that I probably made the right call.
The truth is that you never know what will happen, even on the best of days, which is why you never treat a flight as routine.