Acknowledgements: Sabrina Woods (FAA Safety Briefing)

“Well, here you are, sitting in the back of an ambulance as it carefully picks its way through the rutted, muddy cow pasture from which you were retrieved. You watch as a medical technician dutifully takes your vitals and assesses your overall status. You are somewhat lucky, considering. You escaped with a bumped head, and some minor cuts and bruises; the largest being an ugly purple thing above your left knee where it hit the instrument panel during your rather abrupt “landing.” Your beautiful Beechcraft Bonanza, however, has not fared so well. It lies in a heap, having been knocked from the sky only an hour earlier. How did you get here? Let us rewind the clock a bit and go back to before the “dénouement” -  a literary term for the outcome of a dramatic sequence of events. In this case it was the moment when things went sour.

Mental Conversations
  •          “If that other guy made it, then so can I!”
  •          “I’m almost there, let’s just do it and get it over with.”
  •          “I don’t want to divert — too much work.”
  •          “I’ve done this before, I can do it again.”
  •          “I can handle this. I’ve got 20 years of experience on my side.”
  •          “I’m so tired, I just want to get home!”

Have you ever found yourself uttering these phrases in the back of your head while flying? Likely it was at the onset of a particularly harrowing situation that gave you enough pause to start a cycle of rationalisation. It could have been anything from flying VFR into IMC, to trying to execute an unstable approach.

Regardless of what got you into the hairy situation, you had some decisions to make. Decision-making is a pretty complicated process broken into many stages in order to effect change. First you have to figure out that something is amiss and then determine if you need to act or if you would rather adapt to it. Once you choose the most desirable outcome, you then identify which actions will successfully put things back to right. Lastly, once you do whatever it is you decided to do, you then evaluate whether or not it worked. Sometimes this requires beginning the cycle all over again if it didn’t end up the way you wanted it to. This might seem really drawn out, but in reality, decision-making can happen in a split second, or it can take a more systemic, deliberate path. Aeronautical decision-making tends to be a hybrid of both.

Many Aliases, Same Danger
The study of human factors in aviation has grown exponentially since its World War II days. As a result, accident and mishap analysts have realised that most incidents occur as a result of human error, rather than mechanical failure or external hazards. Some of the better known human factor categories are fatigue, poor communication/CRM, compartmentalization, and disorientation.

In this article, we will focus on “GET ME HOME-ITIS; a funny sounding colloquialism, but the danger behind it is very real. It is when the desire to get to a destination overrides logic, sound decision-making, and basic instinct. This urge to push on regardless of the data telling you that it might not be the best decision can often result in mishap, and it’s a prevalent issue for the GA community.
  •  Get-home-itis struck the pilot who, after filing IFR with a controller, was notified that inclement weather was on the way. He acknowledged, pointed his plane down the runway, and initiated take-off. In all his haste to get home, he never made it.
  • Then there were the football fans who, in their quest to make it to the big game, deserted their aircraft in a field after a mechanical issue forced them to crash-land, leaving local officials scratching their heads when they finally arrived at the vacated scene. Abandoning the scene of an accident notwithstanding, one must also wonder if the rush to get to the event might have trumped a sound pre-flight airworthiness check. This is an example of “get-there-itis”. 
The phenomenon takes on many other aliases: “press-on-itis”, “hurry-home syndrome”, and “goal fixation”, to name a few. They all result in the same wilful determination to push through regardless of the results.

Anatomy of an “Itis”
In addition to defining human factor errors, researchers have also tried to understand why it is we do the things we do.
  • What motivates experienced, safety-conscious pilots to make poor decisions or invite unnecessary risk?
  • Why does it seem to happen often, despite the educational materials out there warning us about the peril? It is important for us to understand the “why” if we are to avoid falling prey to it.

Get-home-itis can be self-generated or externally imposed:
  • We will ignore data contrary to our own plans
  • We will disregard warnings from outside resources such as air traffic control and weather applications
  •  We will dismiss that feeling we get when we know something is wrong, or that danger is near

The “why” is because we simply want to get there, and a host of reasons act as validation for this:         
  • We may feel that we have already invested too much to turn back or change plans.
  • We may argue that our experience and flight prowess will surely prevail.
  •  We may just wish and hope for the best, and feel that that serves as enough reason to keep going.

What we don’t realise is that in doing this we have passed up 
much safer opportunities.

Lower Risk ≠ Less Desirable?
The best way to combat the “itis” is to recognise that it exists and that you might be susceptible to it! The point is to get you thinking about it.

Awareness goes a long way in preventing a mishap, and so does data collection:
  • Make sure that all essential information for your flight is available at your fingertips and that your charts are up to date
  •  Ensure that your destination is ready to receive you
  •  Evaluate your aircraft to make sure you have the fuel required should diverting be necessary, and review anti-icing procedures germane to your aircraf.
  • And if there is a weather report, NOTAMs, or pilot cross-tell to be had, heed it!
  • Always have a contingency plan before you go out to fly, because let’s face it, just because you intend for something to go a certain way doesn’t mean it’s going to happen
  • Before you take off, identify potential hazards en-route to your destination
  • Know and accept your personal threshold — the point where your skill and experience meet their no-go limit.

Then once in the air, if plans change, take the necessary time to set up for a new approach and proceed already having an idea as to what it is you need to do.

Lower risk does not necessarily equal less desirable. Yes, it might equal:
  •  more work
  •  an unexpected overnight stay
  •   a more serpentine route
  •   an aborted landing or a go-around

But the fact of the matter is that these lower risk options are not less desirable, especially if the result can be the difference in arriving safe and sound. Patience is essential to survival.

So now, as the ambulance makes its way down the highway in the direction of town, you realise two things, the first of which is that you are very lucky to be alive. The second is that you have just learned the hard way what succumbing to get-home-itis can do".

Tony BirthComment