“Black Swan” Events

March 28, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

There are days when it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed. This short video clip from the web shows a light sport aircraft that is chocked but not tied down. The surface winds are unknown but probably about 40 knots, which is when the pilotless craft becomes airborne and exits stage left. We don’t see the outcome but I suspect it’s discouraging. It would only have taken a few minutes more to tie down the machine.

Sometimes, however, even with tie-downs the wind is just too much. Here are some reminders of what high winds, or perhaps an F1 tornado, can do at an airshow. Remember Sun ’n Fun last year? I’ve been going for over 20 years and even with the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm it was nothing like this. These are known by some as “black swan” events and they are extremely difficult to manage and prepare for. A black swan is a very low probability, high consequence event that is almost the perfect definition of an aviation mishap.

Sun ’n Fun management is a bit more prepared this year, but I’ve often wondered how Oshkosh would manage with such a situation–there is not much in the way of tornado shelters to be able to house the throngs of enthusiasts, and it’s a much bigger venue. I’m quite certain they have a plan but it’s a huge logistical challenge. Remember when the stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair last August? How do we balance the impreciseness of weather forecasting with the certainty of serious injury or death if something materializes? Also remember hindsight bias–attorneys and safety analysts specialize in this!

A couple of thoughts come to mind. It’s a shared responsibility. Everyone can listen to weather and most pilots have smart phones or tablets to monitor the progress of weather systems in real time. In most cases (not always), there will be about half an hour where it’s starting to look really bad and it actually becomes so. Do you have a plan? Another point: tie downs and ropes should be the real deal, not glorified dog tie-down stakes. If your dog is capable of a thousand plus pound lifting force, then disregard the preceding.

The reality is that there is some risk to life and limb when attending any big event. Flying into Sun ’n Fun or Oshkosh entails exposure to a large number of other pilots, some of whom may actually have read and understood the notam. There are always a few clueless souls whose airmanship or knowledge may not be something you’d want to bet your life on. The weather is semi-predictable and we have to manage accordingly. May all the swans at fly-ins this year be white!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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