Complacency can kill


Completing repetitive tasks is one of the most common places complacency pops up. We perform pre-flight inspections and checklists so often they become automatic and we give them little thought.

We tend to see what we want or expect to see. We also get complacent about the weather and flight planning and don’t put as much effort into them as we should.

A Cessna 172 pilot reported a loose cowling shortly after take-off. He returned for an immediate landing.

The baggage door on the aft right side of the Mooney M20K opened during takeoff. The door flapped against the side of the fuselage causing damage and tore off between 500 and 800 feet AGL. The horizontal stabilizer was also damaged. 

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot of a Pilatus PC-12 advised that he was returning due to a loose cowling. 

The pilot of a Piper PA31 reported a loose cowling and requested priority for a return to the airport. The cowling hatch had come loose. Witness strips are being repainted to show when the latches are properly locked.

During the take-off roll, a maintenance access panel dropped off a de Havilland DHC-82A Tiger Moth.

A Cirrus SR20 was cruising en route when the pilot observed a decrease in engine oil pressure. The oil pressure continued to decrease, and the pilot conducted a precautionary landing on a river sand bar. After landing, the pilot determined the engine oil filler cap was not secured and the engine oil quantity was four quarts. The engine oil was topped up to seven quarts, and, although the engine started and operated normally with normal oil pressure, the sand bar was too soft for take-off. The pilot and passenger were picked up by another aircraft and flown to a nearby airport.

A Cessna A185E amphibian aircraft was on a VFR flight on the west coast of B.C. While flying down a Channel at 700 feet, the pilot encountered a heavy snow shower. He began to descend, intending to land on the water and configured the aircraft for landing. Because of the low visibility and glassy water the pilot was not aware of how close the aircraft was to the surface. The aircraft's right wing tip and right float touched the surface prematurely and the aircraft swung to the right and overturned. The pilot and single passenger evacuated the aircraft uninjured.

A Beech A36 Bonanza was on a VRF cross-country flight over the prairies when the pilot became trapped and lost on top of cloud. The aircraft was eventually identified on radar by Edmonton ACC. The pilot subsequently encountered VFR conditions and continued to his destination. 

A Beech BE23 Musketeer pilot became trapped on top of cloud at 13,500 feet and unsure of his position. He declared an emergency with ATC and was provided with vectors to a clear area. He regained VMC and continued his flight. Shortly thereafter, the pilot lost his GPS and VHF radio. He decided to divert to the nearest airport where he discovered that his battery was not being charged.

The pilot of a Piper PA-28-181 Cherokee Archer was on a VFR flight in Ontario when he reported that he was in IFR conditions and requested assistance. The aircraft landed without incident.

A Cessna 172 was rented from a flying school for a flight of about 50 nm through mountainous terrain. The weather at the time of the flight was marginal VFR. Search and Rescue found the accident site in relatively high terrain. There were 3 survivors, 2 with serious injuries. The pilot sustained fatal injuries.

All of the pilots with loose cowlings, baggage doors and access panels could have exercised more care during their pre-flight inspections. The M20K pilot is going to pay dearly for his complacency.

The Cirrus SR 20 pilot may have been distracted during his check of the oil and forgot to secure the oil filler cap. Any distractions during such routine tasks are prone to cause errors. Complacency increases this risk.

The Beech A36 and BE23 pilots continued on over a low cloud layer thinking they would soon encounter VFR conditions again. Both became disoriented as to their position and required help. Fortunately for both, help was available and they were able to attain VMC once more. The BE23 pilot was very lucky that he regained VMC before he lost all of his electrics.

The C-185E pilot found himself in a position of having to descend and land when the snow shower hit. He had gone past the point of other options. Float pilots, particularly commercial float pilots, deal with bad weather regularly. This tends to make them complacent in their weather planning.

This past summer a B.C. airline lost two Goose aircraft with pilots and passengers due to experienced pilots pushing into deteriorating weather conditions.

An experienced C-172 pilot departed on a cross-country flight in B.C. into deteriorating conditions without filing a flight plan. He crashed. His wife eventually became concerned after he did not arrive by nightfall and called authorities. He didn’t survive.

It is interesting to note that usually experience makes us better, more knowledgeable pilots. Experience also makes us more prone to complacent behaviour as tasks become more automatic.

The signs of complacency are, boredom, the feeling that everything is going well, and the thought that “I’ve done this a hundred times before and I’ve never found anything wrong.” Add fatigue or distraction to this and things get missed or done improperly.

An attitude that today is the day we are going to plan carefully and miss nothing will lessen the effects of complacency. All of our experience and knowledge means nothing if we don’t pay attention to what we are doing. Complacency can kill.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.

Got an aviation safety story to tell? Dale Nielsen would like to hear from pilots who have educational aviation experiences to relate. Excerpts from these stories will be used in upcoming safety articles. Dale can be contacted via e-mail: