As pilots we often rely on our technical knowledge, flight training, and experience to make critical decisions in the air and on the ground. We use this knowledge to decide if we will continue a flight when something fails, to determine if weather will affect us, how our aircraft will perform given the maintenance it has received and what our course of action will be when making go/no-go decisions.
I believe we have another decision-making tool available to us as pilots—our intuition. Call it what you will: gut instinct, a hunch, your sixth sense. Psychology Today refers to intuition as the brain on autopilot—I think of it as an inner voice that always has our back. Regretfully, no training program I’m aware of has ever told us to rely on our intuition, and yet, it offers information that could save our lives in critical decision-making moments.
Case in point: As my departure date for my polar circumnavigation looms ever closer, my airplane, Citizen of the World, has started throwing me some major curves and fits. It has been sending me some very clear messages that leave me feeling a bit uneasy in my stomach. The messages I’m receiving are clear: The airplane is not ready for departure. In fact, it’s like it won’t let me go even though my get-there-itis is pushing me to keep moving.
A lot of technology and new equipment have come together in Citizen of the World in a very short period of time including a new Avidyne Avionics panel, Max Viz infrared sensor, refurbished Honeywell turbine engines, MT propellers, and a Peter Schiff environmental system to name a few. Being an optimist and thinking that this is not my first rodeo (see my equatorial circumnavigation), I assumed the trip would roll out on time and smoothly like back in 2015. Nothing could be further from the truth. This trip is an entirely different animal than an equatorial circumnavigation and much more complex: vastly greater distances, the worst weather on the planet, extreme cold, lack of places to land, pilot fatigue issues, challenging navigation, and a more complicated/modified airplane.
To add insult to injury, for some reason the human factor is also coming into play like it never has before. It’s making my earlier trip complete with engine out at 14,000 feet over the Strait of Malacca feel like a cakewalk (see my book Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within). Disagreements between contractors, health issues of key players, family issues for supporters, and my own physical challenge of dislocating a shoulder have had me on high alert. Not a great way to start a long-distance solo flight.
As my initial departure date neared, I was starting to lose sleep over these issues and my intuition kept waking me in the middle of the night saying, “Not yet! The plane needs to stabilize and needs more testing.”
The problem is, of course, that all these things result in delays for every scheduled installation or inspection, since the modifications must happen sequentially. For example, the environmental system must be installed and working reliably before the six ferry tanks are installed, which limit access to the environmental system once the tanks are installed. All of these delays add stress to meeting my departure date.
These issues I have listed do not even account for the random events that plague aviation and life. The things we cannot predict or plan for can have a tremendous impact on us, and even greater consequences when we aren’t paying attention to our intuition or worse, choosing to ignore it. By listening to our intuition and acting on it immediately we clear the air for better solutions to rise up and ease the growing stress that is clogging our mental and emotional engines.
While flying the airplane from Tennessee to New Mexico en route to Gemini Air Group for a third look at the airplane by some very talented mechanics, I noticed the entire right side of the pilot window had cracked and delaminated. This was slightly unnerving given that I was flying 30,000 feet above ground, and that the airplane was pressurized to 6.4 psi cabin differential. I couldn’t help but think that the windshield could collapse in on me at just over 302 knots or 347.3 mph, the speed at which I was currently flying. As I watched the cracking spread to the top of the window, it was as if the Universe was talking to me and stopping me in my tracks. Coincidentally I was close to my next fuel stop and Gemini Air Group. My intuition was again telling me, “Not ready, you have more work to do on this plane.”
Looking into replacing the window, I was told by one mechanic, “You can fly with it ‘as is,’ it just won’t look pretty.” Aesthetics and get-there-itis aside, my gut was telling me this wasn’t just a delay issue, it was also a financial, and even more important, a safety issue. Heated aircraft windows are made in small quantities and are enormously expensive, slow to manufacture and install, as well as critical for flying at the flight levels I will be flying.
In addition to the windshield delaminating, we became aware that the right engine had been refurbished using bearings for the torque sensor transducer that were potentially defective and needed to be replaced, requiring the prop to be removed and the intake disassembled. Testing the engine would require inflight investigation and shutting the airplane down in flight. Everything continued to point to a delay—but would I listen?
My intuition continued to nudge me. As the clock ticks, we have scrambled to get help from our sponsors/angels. Even more critical is that I’m losing valuable time as the temperatures at the South Pole drops 30 degrees in the month of January alone.
Despite being told countless times that turbine engines are 100 times more reliable than piston engines (I have two turbines on Citizen of the World), it has become clear to me that everything around the turbines is like any other airplane part and subject to failure regardless of what is happening with the turbine engines.
Recognizing what was happening, listening to my intuition, talking with my team, and staying focused on safety, I decided to delay the trip by about 30 days, and then six months, to give the airplane and me more time to prepare. The good news is that the uneasiness I had been feeling subsided, and things began to unfold more easily and gracefully once again—the trip fell back into alignment. Sponsors have come forward to help with some of the costs of the windshield, the mechanics are making repairs, and my shoulder is almost pain free again.
While we can’t qualify our intuition like we can other more technical facts related to flying like our personal minimums, we can still use our intuition to guide us when it comes to our safety and that of our cherished passengers. Developing your sense of intuition is time well spent and is worth consulting before flying. Two simple questions can get you started: “How do I feel about this flight?” and “If there was no stress what would I do?” Learning how to feel your feelings and listen to what your stress is telling you will lead you to the best co-pilot you will ever have. Trust your intuition.