This Isn’t About Safety

You know that thing you hear all the time about the most dangerous part of flying being the drive to and from the airport?   Well, it’s true if the flying you are doing is on a commercial airline.   There simply isn’t a safer way to get from one place to a much farther away place than on a commercial airliner.   But if the flying you are doing is in a general aviation airplane– the kind with a propeller or two in the front of it, well then, you’d be safer driving. Small airplanes typically crash somewhere between sea and shining sea at the alarming rate of several a day.   Not that that is very much as a percentage of miles flown, but it is greater than the percentage of cars that crash to the whole of miles driven.

While it takes some statistical gymnastics to get there, the research on aviation safety concludes that flying in a small, general aviation airplane is just about as safe as riding a motorcycle.   If you ride motorcycles, you know all about that.   And if you don’t ride motorcycles, that’s probably the reason why. Riding motorcycles is more dangerous than driving a car not just because there is little to separate you from the environment, but also because they slip, slide, bump into things and are harder to see.

In spite of their danger, many people in the United States ride motorcycles, and many more people throughout the world ride motorbikes, sometimes, as one often sees in Southeast Asia, with whole families, infants, pets, laundry, and lumber precariously balanced over two wheels traversing pothole-ridden, detritus-laden roads. They do so primarily because it is a cheaper form of travel, and gives you greater access to places than cars.   But some, I imagine, do so because riding a motorcycle is thrilling, not unlike flying in an airplane with an open cockpit.   My cousin Peter flies an open cockpit Raven, and I can assure you it is much like riding a motorcycle in which you not only own the lateral dimension, but the vertical as well. His only speed gauge, he told me as we were flying, is the feel of the wind on his face.

But what you’re reading right now isn’t really about safety, because I am superstitious and a friend of mine died in a horrific aircraft accident not long after his safety-oriented article appeared in a magazine.   He was—I believe, a safe pilot, but sometimes the forces of nature are just too powerful compared to the meagerness of the best human ingenuity. Yet, glancing over at the other hand, perhaps most everything—to some extent, is about safety. It is just a matter of how far one can stretch a metaphor.   I suppose if you carry fear around with you at all times– and if you aren’t I’m not sure you’re worthy of being released on your own recognizance, all things are, more or less, about safety. Once ejected from the relative safety of the womb, we each land on a planet with wild winds, earthquakes, tsunamis, guns and white bread. That is why some really sensitive people don’t ever venture outside of their apartments, but still manage to get electrocuted in their bathtubs.

Nevertheless, some who do venture out inevitably crash and manage to simply dust themselves off, walk away and collect insurance.  What makes one person see danger as a mere inconvenience and another see the same danger as a tragedy is certainly a combination of genetically determined temperament and early experiences. It is, I imagine, a parent’s ability to sensitively manage an infant’s fear and provide a safe environment that goes a long way to equip innately fearful children to steel themselves against life’s inevitable challenges.

Most pilots with whom I speak don’t admit that they feel the least bit frightened when they fly.   They also think that being fearless is a good thing.   And apparently, according to a poster I saw hanging on the wall of a yoga studio, fearlessness is the number one characteristic of a yogi. I don’t think that would be hanging on the wall of the yoga studio unless someone else also thought that was a good thing.   I don’t think it’s a good thing; in fact, I think it’s a really stupid thing.   To me, fear is the friend who accompanies me everywhere and teaches me how to calculate that risk-reward ratio that defines life outside the uterus.   Without it, I suspect I wouldn’t be here, nor would you.   In all fairness, I don’t think that what a yogi or yogini says when he or she refers to fearlessness is exactly the same thing as what I mean.   There’s only so much you can explain on a poster, or only so much people who read posters want to know as they are doing warrior two.   Fearlessness to a yogi likely has more to do with a certain amount of comfort or acceptance of fear rather than the absence of it, and if I’m wrong about that you should probably switch lamas.

I take my friend Fear with me every time I fly, from the moment I get into my hangar and eye that beautiful beast of mine to the moment I leave the hangar and feel grateful the big hangar doors didn’t land on my head and crush me. It is also why, safely on the ground, I feel a sense of mastery and exhilaration when it is over.   And it is also why, if I want to be as close to absolutely certain that I will make my friend’s daughter’s wedding in Paducah in one piece, I will fly commercially, and hope the ceremony isn’t too far from the airport.



The Annual

imagesI returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed.   A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.

Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections.   The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.

On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious.   The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.

When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously.    The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.

I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane.   I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines.   Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.

Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight.   They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection.  I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection.   I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.

I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections.  But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea.   Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival.   We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs.   Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.

I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist.   The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane.   A good physical examination does the same thing.   The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.

Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years.   While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us.    But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.

Driven to Distraction

Distractibility has always been a sore spot for me. It is one of the three cardinal symptoms of attention deficit disorder (along with inattention and impulsivity), which I have been convinced is an apt description for one set of my struggles ever since I first learned about it in grad school.


Over the years I have developed a series of “procedures” designed to manage my distractibility, little games such as “touch next,” in which I touch a random object and pursue its completion, then touch another random object and do the same. Or a game I call “subvocal lists,” in which I silently repeat a small list of tasks until each one is finished. These little things and others are designed to facilitate forward movement rather than linger too long in the stultifying effects of distraction.

Distraction can be deadly, as recent experience with cell phones have demonstrated. The horrendous train crashes in Spain and Burbank were likely cell phone related, and in an issue of Flying magazine Jay Hopkins mentioned that the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, the crash of American Flight 965 in Cali, Columbia and many other incidents and accidents were very likely also distraction-related. The Cali crash and other incidents led to the development of the “sterile cockpit” rule, which unfortunately isn’t always used. But for those of you who may not be familiar with this rule, it is designed to limit all conversations in the cockpit to only that which is essential during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. That typically translates to the first (and last) 10,000 feet above the ground. So for those of you on commercial flights, when they tell you to keep all your electronic equipment off during the takeoff and landing phases, they are doing that not because they are worried about the equipment interfering with their sensitive flight instruments, but because they want the passengers attentive in the event of an emergency during takeoff and landing. And they too, in the “front office,” are keeping things as sterile as they can.

The trio of symptoms that comprise ADD are interesting bedfellows. (The fourth symptom—hyperactivity, goes in and out of fashion as a cardinal symptom.) While the syndrome is named “attention deficit,” when you think about it, distractibility is not an attention deficit at all. In fact, it is an attention excess. Why the folks who dreamed up the name for this constellation called it what they did is a mystery to me; clearly it should have been named “attention regulation disorder,” because that is what it actually is. In fact, it is likely that the inattention found in ADD is actually a result of the underfunctioning of those parts of the brain responsible for filtering information (the reticular activating system: RAS). With a poorly functioning filter, the normal bombardment of sensations is experienced as distractibility. Impulsivity is the result of the inability to select just which information warrants acting upon and which is best filtered out.

By the way, the reason that stimulants, such as Ritalin and caffeine, appear to work so well for those with ADD is because stimulants enhance (stimulate) the RAS’ ability to filter information, resulting in an increased ability to focus on what is relevant.

I think I hear the phone ringing. I’ll be right back.