When I get into an aircraft like a Harvard, Extra 300 or a Pitts Special, I switch on big time! All my lights go on, warning me not to fuck around or I’ll get hurt.
A Harvard is big and heavy, old and complicated. Just sitting in one is intimidating; you know that if you mess with or disrespect her, she will hurt you.
Extras, Pitts Specials and other similar types are the same high-performance aerobatic aircraft. You’ve seen them hurt people: your friends, colleagues and other pilots, skilled pilots who’ve been around the block, great pilots!
These aircraft are generally flown with purpose; nine times out of ten you’ll be flying them with a clear task. It’s seldom that you’ll take an aircraft like this up for a Sunday afternoon sightseeing jolly.
There ‘s always a lot at stake
The point I’m trying to make is that you are generally switched on when operating these aircraft. Airline flying or any other commercial operation is the same. There is always a lot at stake, and for that reason your levels of awareness and alertness are elevated.
I’ve noticed recently that when I get into a light aircraft like a J3 Cub or a Cessna 140, I’ve been a little less switched on. I don’t feel that there’s the same level of danger when operating these aircraft on a Sunday morning flight to the general flying area. Herein lies the problem.
Being in a seemingly less dangerous, less arduous environment after operating at such a high level can somehow leave you feeling like you have licence to relax and switch off a bit. The reality of flying is that it is an inherently dangerous activity and that no flight is routine. You need to remind yourself of this all the time.
Every pilot, or anyone involved in dangerous or extreme occupations for that matter, should guard against their skewed perception of what is dangerous and what is not. Complacency is your enemy. The fact that you aren’t dogfighting over the Mediterranean doesn’t mean that flying a Cessna 140 does not carry its own dangers.
I have always been fascinated by extreme sports and sportspeople − certain aviation disciplines and pilots among them. Every now and again you hear of one such person who has done some really crazy shit in their day having sadly killed themselves doing something simple and easy, and seemingly less dangerous than feats they’ve pulled off in the past.
You think: how the hell did someone with such a finely tuned skills set get caught out? I honestly don’t know the answer. I can, however, venture a guess based on my own personal experiences as an airshow display and stunt pilot.
No such thing as a routine flight
After running 80km, a standard marathon seems like a doddle! But a marathon is still a marathon, and regardless of how much further you have run before, 42,2 kilometres is still a long way. The same goes for flying aeroplanes.
Just because you’ve flown through a hangar in formation, tumbled an aircraft at 1000 feet or shot down the runway inverted at 6 feet, that doesn’t diminish the inherent dangers of flight. We all need to guard against that falsely diminished sense of danger after performing at our threshold or even beyond it at times.
Stay switched on
Being a pilot requires a great deal of discipline. One of the disciplines is being relaxed and switched on at the same time. Easier said than done. Being relaxed in a cockpit comes with time and experience. Switching on and staying switched requires effort and discipline.
It’s easy to be switched on when somebody is trying to shoot your ass off in a dogfight or looping in formation low level. It’s not that easy to stay switched on at 3am when you’re crossing the Atlantic or after flying 100 hours of basic instruction in a month. I know! It’s hard not to become complacent.
We need to guard against complacency however difficult it may be. When our guards are down, whether it be a routine flight to the general flying area or an attempt to break the sound barrier for the first time, we put ourselves at risk. Try to stay switched on regardless.
HAVE YOU READ: Bose Aviation Headsets: Why TSO Certification Matters