Redefining Pilot Error
The vast majority of aircraft accidents are blamed on pilot error. The term pilot error implies that a mistake was made.
All of us make mistakes. Therefore, we are all at risk of these accidents happening to us.
All of us make mistakes. Therefore, we are hesitant to cast too much blame on a pilot who makes a mistake.
Redefining pilot error will allow us to identify those accidents that were not caused by a mistake but rather by arrogance, ego and a defiance of regulations and safety standards. It will also reinforce the proper usage of checklists and encourage the implementation of good practices and procedures.
In fact, there are three basic levels of pilot error. The worst level would be redefined as willful misconduct. The middle level would be complacency, negligence or lack of knowledge and/or skill. The lowest level would be the honest mistakes. The FAA categorizes runway incursions and separation errors by their severity or likelihood of resulting in a collision. Perhaps we should redefine “pilot error” accidents and incidents by the precipitating factors and the level of the mistakes.
Categorizing these errors could help the industry better identify and address the real threats to safety. It could also help us as educators to relay to students the necessity of good attitudes, good practices and vigilance to identify and mitigate errors. The media has always sensationalized every aircraft accident. Categorizing accidents would give everyone a more realistic understanding of the actual risks involved in aviation.
The worst “pilot errors” should be reclassified as willful misconduct. Willful misconduct is not a mistake. You could certainly call that a mistake in judgment but it is not a mistake that a reasonable, prudent person would make. The rules are in place and the pilot chooses to violate those rules and exercise a blatant disregard for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. More regulation will not prevent the tragedies that occur when these pilots have an accident. These people already know that what they are doing is wrong and more regulations will not compel them to comply with the regulations and the basic tenets of safety.
A VFR pilot who knowingly and willfully files and flies an IFR flight plan isn’t making a mistake. They are knowingly and willfully violating the regulations. They are also arrogantly endangering their passengers. These pilots are a threat to general aviation because they feed the media bias that general aviation is unsafe. The uneducated public hears an accident was caused by pilot error and they don’t want to fly or don’t want to allow their family and friends to fly because of the perception of danger. These pilots can be compared to drivers who text and drive, drink and drive or excessively and blatantly disobey the traffic laws. Willful misconduct does not always result in an accident but it is the cause of many of our most deadly aircraft accidents.
Some other examples of pilot misconduct would include:
• Pilots who turn on the autopilot and climb or descend through a cloud deck – Without an IFR clearance and possibly without being instrument rated.
• Pilots who know their aircraft is not certified for night flight and fly off into the darkness.
• Individuals or student pilots who fly without an instructor’s authorization.
• Pilots who know that icing conditions exist and intentionally fly into those areas.
• Knowingly flying an aircraft that is not in airworthy condition.
• Individuals or student pilots who do not have a pilot certificate and fly passengers anyway.
• Pilots who know they are not medically fit to fly and yet carry passengers .
The middle level of pilot error would include those mistakes caused by complacency, negligence, or inadequate skill or knowledge. Virtually every pilot has been guilty of pilot errors that would fall into the middle level of the spectrum. The middle level of pilot error includes mistakes that can be prevented by better training, attention to detail, double checking our information and certainly the proper use of checklists. Some of these errors include negligence, complacency, lack of skill or knowledge or reliance on technology. Sometimes it is difficult if not impossible to identify whether a mistake was made due to complacency or inadequate skill. Establishing personal minimums and sharing those numbers with family and frequent passengers will also help minimize pressures to fly when the situation is beyond the plane or pilots capabilities.
Pilot negligence and complacency would include:
• The pilot who fails to perform a preflight inspection and takes off with inadequate fuel .
• The pilot who fails to check the weather and ends up in a bad situation.
• Not recognizing the effects of medications.
• Failure to set altimeters, heading indicators or other instruments prior to take off.
• Failing to consider the effect of high density altitude on aircraft performance.
• Allowing the pressures of passengers or the mission to continue a flight into deteriorating conditions.
Inadequate skill could include:
• Attempting a cross-wind landing beyond the limitations of the pilot but within the limits of the aircraft.
• Failure to recognize and correctly react to deteriorating airspeed (particularly close to the ground)
• Not understanding that the stall indications and characteristics of an aircraft with a high-performance wing will be dramatically different than the traditional training aircraft.
• Not being able to successfully make a 180 degree turn to escape an inadvertent flight into a cloud.
• Attempting to make the “impossible turn” when the engine fails.
The lowest level of pilot error would be an honest mistake such as transposing numbers or misreading a frequency. An honest mistake is easy to understand and forgive but can still have deadly consequences. These may also be the hardest to prevent and guard against. Vigilance is the best defense.
Some of the common honest mistakes include:
• Transposing the numbers when the pilot listens to the AWOS and making a downwind landing.
• Transposing the numbers on a frequency. This could be a minor event or tragic mistake depending on the situation.
• Transposing the identifier letters when programming the GPS.
• Climbing or descending through an assigned altitude.
• Reversing left and right.
• Reporting the direction you are going instead of the direction from the airport.
• Failing to readjust the heading indicator to the compass.
• Tuning in the VOR frequency instead of the ILS frequency and continuing the approach.
• Using the wrong Unicom frequency
Even the most innocent mistake can result in a tragedy and the most egregious violation may end with a safe landing. We will never eliminate all mistakes but we can always do better. Recognizing the root causes of the most common mistakes and the most deadly mistakes can better enable us to take the necessary actions to eliminate as much of the risk as possible.
Good attitudes can prevent the willful misconduct.
Good practices are our best protection against the middle level mistakes.
Vigilance is the best defense against the honest mistakes.
Tamara Griffith is the main writer of the blog Gift of Wing and all of Gift Academy's media, yet much of the lessons, and thoughts are from all experiences of Mary and Lawrence Latimer, Tamara Griffith, and everyone else and the aviation community we feel needs expressing.