Read the Reports

You can start to feel pretty vulnerable as a pilot, if you spend a lot of your time reading aviation accident reports. Perhaps, for many aviators, avoiding such readings is a choice made to better protect a belief that one’s own abilities are of a higher order than the average. If so, it’s an unfortunate belief to hold. Learning from the mistakes of others, no matter how unpleasant the consequences of their errors, can sharpen the knowledge and attitudes of any pilot, no matter how richer or poorer the order of their skills.

As a general rule, aircraft accident investigators report their findings within a year of the incident having taken place. But, if you read some of the initial descriptions of the accidents themselves – and if you’ve read enough of them – one can learn to spot the flaw that lead to the incident long before an official explanation is revealed.

The reading can be light, for the minor incidents; it can be sobering for the fatal ones. But it’s good reference material. And it might imbue a pilot with a perspicacious sense for self-preservation so as not to fall into traps that others have previously stuck their lives and their airplanes.

If you read accident briefs – and you should – you may find yourself asking yourself a common question: why was the pilot doing what he/she was doing in the first place? It’s often a rhetorical question that even hindsight struggles to justify.

Take this brief, synopsised here, as an example: “The pilot was flying his first cross-country in his newly-acquired airplane. He was not monitoring fuel quantity in the left and right tanks because he thought that the fuel selector had a ‘Both’ setting. On final at his destination, his engine quit requiring him to make a forced landing that damaged his airplane.”

It’s not hard to see what went wrong in the above example. The official report is sure to describe the incident as “fuel starvation.” What it should better describe is that the pilot starved himself of the proper standards to prepare himself for his flight. Not knowing how the fuel system works on your aircraft is inexcusable. The lesson from this brief is obvious: know your aircraft.

Read this précis of an accident that resulted in two fatalities: “Witnesses described the take-off roll as slow and anaemic. The airplane used almost the entire 4,200-foot runway before getting airborne. Moments later, it disappeared into the trees beyond the airport runway.”

Given a few additional facts provided in the brief about the above accident, it’s hard to fathom why the pilot continued his take- off run when he clearly wasn’t accelerating at a rate he would have been familiar with for his aircraft. Had he initiated proper measures, he would likely have had a safe way out of his predicament: abort while there’s still sufficient runway length to stop. Instead, he appears to have coaxed his aircraft into the air using every inch of tarmac available to him, with tragic consequences. The lesson from this brief: if you know you’ve got a problem, recognize it, yield to it, and live to fly another day.

Here’s another example: “A pilot with a passenger on a sightseeing flight deviated from his well-known route to fly up a canyon that he’d never flown before. He couldn’t out climb rising terrain, necessitating a crash-landing which fractured his skull and damaged his airplane.” Should the pilot in the above accident have even tried to fly that canyon, without having planned and prepared to do so prior to his take-off? Flying canyons is an acquired and practiced expertise. This pilot may have had it; but he didn’t plan this particular diversion. Perhaps his passenger asked him to go there. If so, the pilot should have said “No.” The lesson: know your limitations, and the limitations of your aircraft. And plan where you’re going before you begin any flight.

It can be taken as an axiom that, in so far as it concerns most aviation accidents, “airplanes don’t crash, pilots do.” Poor pilot decisions are inevitably at the root of such incidents. If you want to avoid pitfalls in airmanship into which others have already stumbled, paying attention to accident reports should be part of your process for doing so.