Complacency is one of the many demons on an aviator’s shoulder. Unfortunately it’s the demon that kills most often. First, let’s start with the definition of complacency: “…the experience of satisfaction and being at ease in one’s situation.” (Wikipedia)
How many of you have “breathed easy” once the airplane was leveled off and trimmed for cruise flight? I know I sure have. My mind wanders and I’m not as apt to pay attention. Instead of spotting emergency landing sites I’m admiring the landscape 50 miles on the horizon. I’m bored and not focused on the flight.
Every flight is a lesson in itself. “Chair fly” once you’re on the ground and you’ll find there’s something you could’ve done differently (or better). No flight is, or ever will be, the same as the previous or the next, no matter how routine the trip. A great example of a flight that taught me how to recognize and fight complacency is my very first cross country in a C-152. I nailed it on the way over (it was my first time leaving the airport and heading to a neighboring field). I did more takeoffs and landings than I could count and I was happy. Nothing could yank me off of the “high” I was on.. I was growing up as a pilot.
The way back was a different story. Yes, the journey was only about 25 NM. But where I fly (mountainous areas of eastern NY/western New England) the weather can throw you a curve ball at any time. I took off and position the airplane on my desired heading and aimed for the mountain ridge that would bring me back home. After trimming and making sure everything was fine I put the sectional on my lap and stuck my nose to the left window. The air was smoother than silk and the snow-covered landscape sure was pretty. After about 10 minutes I grabbed the chart to figure out where I was. I looked for a town I should’ve been coming up on… wasn’t there. Looked left for the water tower… wasn’t there. Heck, I couldn’t even see the river I was following (the Hudson River, to be exact). I was on my first solo cross country and I was lost. Big time.
I was frantic in the beginning but glanced at my fuel gauge and realized I had enough for at least two hours of flight time. Surely I didn’t end up in Canada or something… but you never know. I climbed a few thousand feet and started looking for familiar territory not marked on my sectional. Once I resigned to the fact that the world is a whole lot different from this high I picked up the chart and started from square one.
There was a racetrack underneath my left wing. Great! There are three racetracks on the sectional which are fairly close together. Next….
A railroad track! My neck of the woods is littered with them. Bad idea.
I was getting mad. Not nervous or frustrated; mad. All that confidence I had in myself from a half hour prior to what was going on had diminished. I was lost in the landscape where I spent all of my life growing up and I couldn’t figure out where to go. Then it hit me like a sack of potatoes…
The wind turbine.
The Jiminy Peak Ski Resort had just built a wind turbine to help power their operations. It was the first and darn near only turbine in existence back then and it stuck out like a sore thumb. It was so new that it hadn’t been marked on the sectional yet. DUH!
The chart found a new home in the back of the airplane and I embarked on my new mission – find the turbine. Not five minutes later I spotted it spinning smoothly in the breeze. Except it was going fast. I then realized why my course was so messed up. But epiphanies aside. I had an airport to find.
I brought the airplane up and over the mountain with the turbine and saw the airport in all its glory. What a relief! I landed and while taxiing back I debated whether or not to tell my instructor what happened. I mentioned it in passing but he explained that I approached the airport from the northwest when I should’ve been coming in from the southwest. Those darn instructors ALWAYS know what’s going on.
What was the lesson I learned from a flight that happened about four years ago? Get comfortable and something will almost always go wrong. We’ve all had it happen… though most are probably embarrassed to talk about it. Remember that a story like this can do wonders for someone who is listening or reading. Perhaps a pilot did something of the like and got away with it. A quick glance at any NTSB reports where “the pilot was complacent” will drive the point home. I can’t explain how many pilots I’ve flown with who did what I did so many moons ago. Do your friend (and yourself) a favor and ask them a simple question – “What would you do if the engine failed right now?”
Or just yank the throttle back and call out a simulated engine failure. See what your buddy does THEN!
…All the more reason to never fly with your flight instructor on leisurely cross countries….