If one particular component of an aircraft was determined to be the root cause of 90% of all accidents, wouldn’t we have an Airworthiness Directive out on it? Wouldn’t it be replaced completely? Well we do have such a component: the pilot.
We’re at the point where this isn’t just an academic exercise. A pilot-free airliner or business aircraft is well within the realm of today’s technology. NASA has been researching single-pilot airline cockpits; that gets us halfway there. Corporate aircraft ranging from King Airs to Citations have been certified and operated by a single pilot for decades.
On the other hand, after the Germanwings disaster virtually every airline now has a policy ensuring there are never less than two people on the flight deck — the exact opposite. So which way should we be heading?
Your average pilot probably doesn’t think of him or herself as the weakest link. I certainly don’t. But those pesky statistics…
It brings to mind the illusory superiority bias, that statistically improbably belief of being above average. The most famous example concerns drivers:
According to a study published in a Swedish Psychology journal (Acta Psychologica) a whopping 93% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers. The sample consisted of students, and while the study was conducted in multiple countries, it because obvious that Americans saw themselves as even better drivers than their Swedish counterparts. The Swedish came in at a much lower 69%.
In another similar study by McCormick, Walkey and Green (1986) drivers rated them 80% above average.
Despite extensive training on hazardous attitudes and ADM, pilots aren’t immune to this phenomenon. We’re still human. In fact, the successful, driven type of personality our avocation attracts probably make it more common than in the automotive world. If 93% of drivers feel they’re above average, one wonders how high the needle swings on the pilot population. Who among us wants to admit that despite the massive investment of time, effort, and money we are still subpar?
That sort of acknowledgement can be pretty hard on a person’s self-image, but aviators should care about this phenomenon because nine out of 10 accidents are attributed to pilot error. In other words, we literally are the weakest link.
I certainly include myself in that statement. If I had a dime for every mistake I’ve made over the years! Sometimes I think I’ve made them all. In fact a friend of mine — a professional pilot who is known as an excellent aviator — once said that in reviewing the NASA-style safety reports made by line pilots at his company, “I find I’ve made every one of those mistakes myself. Every single one.”
To err may be human, but it’s grating to find myself making the same mistake multiple times; doing so runs a little too close to Einstein’s definition of insanity. For example, I’ve flown while suffering from active food poisoning on two occasions. The circumstances were not identical, but you’d think I’d have learned enough from one episode to have avoided the other.
The first case hit me during a picnic at the Santa Ynez Airport. I had two choices: stay in town or fly home. I chose the latter, and while I made it back without incident, it was a lousy decision to takeoff when feeling so bad.
The second incident occurred at an aerobatic contest in Delano, California. These contests take place in areas where it’s hot and windy. Pilots assist with contest operation when they’re not flying, meaning we’re busy and spend most of the day out in the sun. It’s common to end up dehydrated even while drinking plenty of water. I ate something which didn’t agree with me, and by the time I realized how bad the poisoning was, I’d already flown a hard aerobatic sequence.
This is why I’ve come to be a big believer in the IMSAFE checklist. Amy Laboda just wrote about the importance of this checklist a few days ago. If we can ensure the biological component of our flying is in airworthy shape, the odds of a safe flight rise considerably. IMSAFE isn’t even a complete checklist. It doesn’t mention nutrituion, for example — something my wife will tell you I sometimes ignore.
Pilots may be the cause of most accidents, but in my experience they’re also the cause of many “saves”. Quantas 32, Apollo 13, United 232, Air Canada 143, and USAir 1549 are just a few famous examples of human ingenuity keeping what should have been an unrecoverable mechanical failure at bay. I know of several general aviation incidents which turned out well due to the creative efforts of the pilots. These typically don’t make the evening news, and I imagine there are countless more we’ll never hear about, because when a flight lands without incident it doesn’t generate much attention or publicity. Accident statistics do us a disservice in that regard.
This is why I feel removing humans from the cockpit is not the answer. Commercial flying already holds claim as the safest form of transportation. Light general aviation is a different story, but that’s the price we pay for the incredible freedom and diversity offered by Part 91. No, we would be better served by focusing on improved aeronautical decision making, self-assessment, and training. As I’ve found through bitter experience, it’s a constant battle. Just because you’ve made a thousand flights without incident doesn’t mean your next one will be safe. It’s up to each of us to maintain vigilance throughout every single one of our airborne days.
Statistically speaking, we are the weakest link. But we don’t have to be.