Dave Hirschman

Unusual Attitude

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Pilots are thoroughly illogical

Our own biases play a larger role in how, where and what we fly than we let on – and those considerations are as real as any amount of data, says Dave Hirschman

Pilots like to pretend we’re logical, fact-based people – but don’t be deceived. As a group, we’re much closer to Star Trek’s emotional Captain Kirk than the cool-headed Dr Spock. Each of us comes with certain predispositions that reveal themselves in the ways we fly, the aspects of aviation that draw us in, and especially the things that scare us.

Personally, I’m happy flying aerobatics and manoeuvring aggressively, even though I know from painful personal loss how cruel and unforgiving those pursuits can be.

I also like flying in the clouds and making instrument approaches to published minima, and I’ll confess to having done some long-distance flights over water in single-engine aeroplanes and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Before you pigeonhole me as a wild risk taker, however, consider this.

My risk tolerance falls to almost zero when my wife and/or kids, or other non-pilot passengers, get in an aeroplane with me. Then, I become the picture of caution.

Flying with family in potential icing conditions, at night in single-engine aeroplanes, or over mountains in less-than-perfect weather, is a non-starter.

I just won’t do it, even though, intellectually, I know that the odds of an engine failure or other catastrophic mechanical issue in these situations is far less than smacking the ground during one of my solo aerobatic flights.

My illogic is in keeping with the self-contradictions I find in other pilots. I recently flew with a highly experienced backcountry flier who abhors aerobatics (“Extremely nauseating, and not very interesting”).

Yet he happily flies his single-engine aeroplane long distances over remote, mountainous terrain, in winter, where the odds of surviving a forced landing and its aftermath seem, to me at least, incredibly slim.

Strangely, however, this supremely confident pilot’s sense of invincibility ends at the water’s edge. During a photo flight near the California coast, he refused to make the 26-mile jaunt to Catalina Island, even though the photography conditions there promised to be excellent.

“No way,” he said on our air-to-air radio frequency. “Going into the ocean takes you from the very top of the food chain to the very bottom. There are some big, hungry fish in that water, and I’m not going to be their dinner.”

Another casualty of too much Shark Week TV programming? Pointing out that the aeroplane doesn’t know or care whether it’s flying over land or water or comparing the relative benefits of ditching versus a forced landing in an urban area did no good.

To this pilot, any chance of being forced down at sea was too much – and he flatly refused to consider it. “I know it’s an infinitesimal chance,” he said. “But it’s still a chance.”

A chief pilot at a large corporate flight department recently justified his company’s purchase of a twin-engine King Air over a single-engine PC-12 in similarly stark terms.

Even though single-engine turboprops have an exemplary safety record, and the operating and maintenance costs of a multiengine airplane are demonstrably higher, he refused to consider buying any aeroplane with just one engine – even a highly reliable turbine engine.

“My risk tolerance falls to almost zero when my wife and/or kids, or other non-pilot passengers, get in an aeroplane with me”

“Our accountant made it very clear that the King Air costs more to fly and maintain – and no one in our group disputes that,” he said. “The bottom line for us is that a King Air will still climb after an engine failure, and no single-engine turboprop that I’m aware of can do that.” Case closed.

My brother Harry is a partner in a Russian aerobatic aeroplane, a Yak 50, which has retractable landing gear. It looks cool and distinctive and flies with power and grace.

But retractable gear adds weight, increases maintenance costs, raises insurance premiums, and frankly, doesn’t increase performance all that much considering his aeroplane was designed to spend its life in the tight confines of a 3,000-metre aerobatic box.

The rest of the competitive aerobatic world long ago went to fixed-gear aeroplanes. But Harry and his partners aren’t swayed.

“Yeah, I get all those points you’re bringing up and they’re well taken,” he said. “But I just like the sound of the landing gear clicking into the up locks. I like the way the aeroplane feels when it accelerates as the gear comes up. I even like moving the gear handle up and down after take-off and before landing. It just feels right.”

Aviation culture has long followed the lead of laconic military test pilots who strive to gather as much hard data as they can, and they rely on it to make informed aeronautical decisions. Nothing wrong with that.

But let’s also be honest and recognise that our own predispositions play a bigger role in how, what, and where we fly than we let on.

And those considerations are just as real, and at least as important, as any amount of data.

 

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