FAMOUS LAST WORDS… OR THOUGHTS

Acknowledgements: AIR FACTS/Richard Collins

It wouldn’t take three guesses to come up with the one word most often heard just before a crash. But more important than that last word is the thought process that led to it. Some famous last thoughts have stood out over the years.

“I THINK I CAN MAKE IT”
This probably precedes serious trouble more than any other thought. The definition of pilot-in-command defines absolute responsibility and given that, a pilot should be able to know that what he is about to do is reasonable and proper. Let’s look at this in relation to weather. The relationship between the VFR pilot and marginal weather is one of the most complex relationships in flying. Not only are there no black and white answers, there are hundreds of shades of grey. If a VFR pilot starts flying out of VFR the only option might be a 180 and return to better weather, but a study of accidents suggests that a real hazard is flying into the ground during the 180, or if visual reference is lost, losing control of the airplane.

“I’LL SEE IF I CAN MAKE IT”
Maybe the IFR approach version of “I think I can make it” becomes “I’ll see if I can make it”. The IFR version can be even more deadly than the VFR version, especially if it is done in the dark or if repeat approaches are flown after a missed approach. The strong urge is to continue onward and downward, and the resultant accident history is pretty grim. When there is doubt, leave it alone or confirm the possibility of getting there VFR or of completing an instrument approach. Then never go below minimums unless you can really see. A PIC has to make good decisions all the way to the hangar or tie-down.

“I’LL PICK MY WAY THROUGH THOSE STORMS”
A clear example of the relationship between airplanes, pilots and thunderstorms comes when you compare the airline record with the private flying record in piston airplanes. In 50 years I know of only two jet airliners that crashed after a tussle with thunderstorms in the U.S. Listing the private piston airplanes lost over that period would take pages. We don’t lose airplanes in thunderstorms because they have weak wings. In fact, the G-tolerance of our airplanes is generally greater than that of most jetliners. Weight and size though count big time when an airplane is flown into a thunderstorm. Our lighter airplanes are more difficult to control in a storm, and once control is lost the airspeed goes off the chart and then the airframe fails.

“IT NEVER HURTS TO TAKE A LOOK”
When using private airplanes for transportation, pilots have almost absolute flexibility. If we take a look and don’t like it, there’s often an airport close by where a new plan can be made. I have written before about drawing lines in the sky and not crossing those lines unless it looks okay to continue. Piston airplanes don’t go that fast, so weather can vary greatly from a forecast in the time it takes to fly just a short distance. If that happens, you do want to be thinking “continue?” instead of “go”.

“IT’LL FLY WITH EVERYTHING YOU CAN CRAM INTO IT”
Overloading airplanes is not unheard of, but it is not a good idea. Every little bit above the maximum certified weight takes away a corresponding amount of margin. The stalling speed goes up and the G-tolerance goes down to say nothing of the soggy rate of climb and reduced cruising speed and range. Best just fly an airplane that meets your weight needs.

“IT LOOKS LONG ENOUGH TO ME”
The runway length POH numbers are for new airplanes flown by test pilots. Just using these provides absolutely no margin. There are several rules of thumb for a takeoff or landing on a runway that is shorter than usual. For a minimum runway length for take-off, use the distance required to take off and clear a 50-foot obstacle. Or add the required takeoff run to the required landing roll to give room for take-off and a safe stop if things don’t seem to be developing well. For landing, adding 60-percent to the distances shown in the POH is the way to go.

AND THEN THERE IS NO THOUGHT AT ALL
Reading the last words of a pilot or crew is unpleasant. What I have learned is that in most cases the pilot didn’t know what was wrong, so was unable to think through the situation and arrive at a solution, or even a reason for his plight. When instructing or flying with other pilots I would often ask: “What are you thinking about?” when they were getting farther and farther “behind the airplane”. The two common answers were “Nothing” and “I don’t know”. Bad thinking or simply no thinking? When a pilot flies an airplane into a low-speed loss of control accident, his thought process has failed. Nobody is going to stall an airplane at low altitude intentionally, so it is apparent that rational thinking ended and the pilot became a passenger. To combat this, talk to yourself about what you are doing, as describing actions and conditions keeps the mind active. Power problems often lead to low speed loss of control and if, as a pilot flies into such a situation, he is thinking that this is an excellent opportunity to bust the old butt if the airspeed and angle of attack are not managed properly, then the chances of survival go up.


FLY SAFE!
Tony Birth