We are human, ergo we make mistakes


There are 12 human factors that make us more likely to make mistakes. The four human factors that most often get us into trouble are complacency, distractions, fatigue and stress.

We are all susceptible to complacency. The more experienced we are, the more likely we are to becoming complacent A Beech A36 Bonanza was on a VRF cross-country flight on 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.

The Beech A36 pilot continued on over a low cloud layer thinking he would soon encounter VFR conditions again. He became disoriented as to his position and required help. Fortunately, help was available and he was able to attain VMC once more.

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. 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 and doing so successfully for a long time tends to make them complacent in their weather planning.

My weak point is the pre-flight inspection. I have done so many in 43 years that I have found myself half way through a pre-flight and thought “What have I been looking at?” The answer of course is very little. I have been on autopilot and my mind has been elsewhere.

Distraction is the number one reason for forgetting things.

A pilot was performing a pre-flight inspection on a C-172 he was renting for a sightseeing flight when the three friends he was taking arrived at the airfield fence.

The young pilot stopped what he was doing and let his friends in through the FBO. He then completed his inspection, loaded his passengers and began taxiing the  aircraft. The FBO owner saw the aircraft taxiing with the tow bar still attached to the nose wheel and called the FSS specialist to request that the aircraft be stopped and shut down so the tow bar could be removed.

A young pilot in a C-172 heard a loud bang during his take-off roll. While trying to decide what the cause was he veered left off the runway at near take-off speed.

The aircraft nosed over and came to a stop in the grass about 200 feet off the runway.

If a pre-flight check or a checklist is interrupted, it is best to start it over. At least go back three steps from where you thought you were.

Our minds tend to think about three steps ahead of where we are in a task.

Always fly the airplane. As long as you are still flying you have some time. Climb to a safe altitude and trouble shoot the problem. Identifying a problem doesn’t do any good if you lose control of the aircraft.

Fatigue affects all of us at one time or another. The effects of fatigue include poor judgment, degraded problem solving, slowed reactions and forgetfulness.

A Mooney C pilot had flown to another town for a long day of business meetings. He was fast on his final approach on the return trip home. He saw that he was eating up runway quickly, so he forced the aircraft onto the ground. He landed nose wheel first and his prop contacted the runway.

A military pilot returning home after a long night at an Officers’ Club in the US of A, allowed himself to get low on final approach in low light conditions. He landed short of the runway, tore off the landing gear and skidded to a stop on the runway, upside down.

The trouble is most, if not all, of us tend to underestimate how tired we really are and overestimate our ability to cope with it. One study showed that simply being awake for 17 hours degraded the subjects’ performance to the level they would perform at if they had a blood alcohol level of .05. Another study showed that for every hour of sleep debt we accumulate, we lose one point of our IQ. Some of us can’t afford to lose many.

We all have stress in our lives. Some of us need some stress, such as deadlines, to motivate us. Some of us can handle very little stress. The only absence of stress is death.

A commercial pilot in the Vancouver area had been undergoing a lot of stress at home. He thought he was handling it until he was informed by his chief pilot that there were reports from first officers that his performance had significantly deteriorated.

A private pilot was just informed his wife was leaving him and was taking the children to live half way across the country. He thought he could try to forget his problems and relax a little by going flying and doing some sightseeing. He entered a spiral dive at low level – too low to recover.

Like fatigue, we tend to underestimate how stressed we really are and we overestimate our ability to cope with it. Others will see our stress, or at least our performance deterioration, lapses of judgment or worsening mood, before we recognize it in ourselves.

If we can acknowledge to ourselves how prone we are to making mistakes when we are affected by the human factors described, we will more likely pay attention to the signs that we are being affected by them We should all pre-flight ourselves and determine if we are airworthy. We try to learn from them and avoid making the same mistakes twice.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently manages a small airline and teaches part-time for a local aviation/university program. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.