Okay, Lieutenant, what are you forgetting?

As pilots, I suspect each of us hear voices every now and then, or at least one in particular: the voice of that one special flight instructor whose words or wisdom will never evaporate into the mists of time separating then and now.  

Sometimes, as with my Dad flying B-25’s in 1944, the voice is harsh, angry, demanding and judgmental, exhorting his less-than-stellar student to “kick the damn rudder!” or “Airspeed, idiot!” or a hundred other cautions spewed out as emergency orders – a voice that would ring through his head years later during the darkest, scariest of approaches, reminding him of critically important things. 

And sometimes it’s the calm voice of an IP of different temperament seeking the same goal of immediate improvement in flight dynamics or flight techniques, but without the inherent assumption that the student is “170 pounds of dumb!” (as we Air Force UPT students were referred to more than a few times).

In my case, it was a gentleman by the name of Rich Castle, a mere captain at the time down at Willie (Williams AFB in Arizona), sitting in the front of a supersonic T-38 as I boldly approached competency in wheeling through the practice ride for an instrument check.  Audibly welded to my ears with a hotmike system, Captain Castle had discerned that I actually had the beast under control for the moment and was, for want of a better word, chilling in the aft cockpit.

“Hey, Nance,” he began after nearly a minute of silence, “there’s one thing I probably should tell you now, seeing as how you’ve refrained from killing me and for some reason aren’t hyperventilating into your O2 mask anymore.”

“Yes sir?” was my respectful response, unburdened by any doubt I was going to pass the ride with flying colors and an “Excellent.”

“Through your whole career, remember this.  If you have time to relax, you’re forgetting something.”

Frankly, just under a half century, 16-thousand flight hours, two airlines and an Air Force career later, I still don’t know whether to thank him or damn him for that admonition repeating endlessly in my head.

I spend a lot of time these days (actually for the last 25 years) teaching doctors and hospitals and nurses about the amazing things aviation has accomplished in safety with teamwork and communication and understanding human mistakes, and how to meld those lessons with the complexity of medicine.  But if I had to distill one key element common to both professions, it’s this: We messy carbon-based human beings can achieve perfection for periods of time, but we can never guarantee perpetual perfection.  Therefore, we must build systems and protocols and checklists to prevent the screw-ups we can’t completely eliminate from metastasizing into catastrophes – whether in the hospital or in the cockpit (or in any human endeavor involving a high-risk industry).  Among all the dangerous types of human failure lessons we’ve identified in these safety systems, the most vexatious is precisely what my instructor was trying to warn me about: Complacency kills!

Yeah, I know, all I’m piloting these days is a Mooney M20K (which is a great aircraft but a bit slower and smaller than a 737 or 747), and we all know guys and gals who consider single-engine bug smashers to be so incredibly docile under their control that checklist utilization would seem beneath their dignity. “(For Pete’s sake, why do I need a checklist?  I only have a dozen switches in here to begin with!”)  But there is never a moment in operating my Mooney in which I’m not aware that there are no real guarantees other than those I create for myself by adhering to procedures and caution, and running my checklist religiously even when the FAA isn’t watching.  Not doing so equals complacency, and yes, complacency has been thinning our ranks since Orville and Wilber returned to Ohio.  

Complacency is also the failure to anticipate problems.  In fact, expecting trouble is the key to being able to safely handle a galaxy of emergencies, which is the very reason we practice engine-out landings and bold face emergency procedures and why we keep reading the gauges even though they keep reporting that all is well. 

Like you, I imagine, some of my early flight hours were earned somewhere between the states of “apprehensive” and “scared-to-death”, but as the years went by, I grew more confidence and felt more and more in control – felt one with the aircraft, whatever model it was.  Yet, through those years I never lost that background feeling that with each flight I’m fiddling on the roof, performing a balancing act and proud of it, but equally aware that it could all come to grief in a heartbeat if I stop paying attention.

I don’t kiss the ground after each flight, nor do you, but I’m always looking back at my bird as I walk away thinking appreciatively that once again, all the training and procedures – and the respect for both the privilege and the responsibility of flying – have won me another successful passage and safe return.  

I know the price of that continued success.  The price is Vigilance.  

As Captain Castle said: “If you have time to relax, you’re forgetting something.”