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The difference between heroes and casualties

 

A colleague of mine recently wrote a book in which he frequently referenced an old aviation psychology text by Alex Varney. Being unfamiliar with Varney’s book, I was never-the-less intrigued enough to find and buy a copy for myself.

Varney’s Psychology of Flight reads more like a novel than a scholarly text, but I found it full of good ideas for safe piloting.

In particular, I found chapter 3, "Why we get off the beam," to be rather enlightening and it is the topic of that chapter that has inspired this month’s Pilot’s Primer.

Varney opens the chapter with a statement made by Hermann Goerring, when the Luftwaffe was dwindling due to losses, "We suffer these heavy losses because the German pilot has an incurable mania for wanting to sleep in his own bed."

What he was talking about was the tendency for pilots with damaged airplanes to pass up perfectly suitable airfields in a usually futile attempt to get back to their home bases. Worse yet, Goerring remarked that it was usually those pilots eager to do the best job they could who most frequently met with disaster.

The ones who made it were heroes for their daring fete of bravery. However, the difference between heroes and casualties has more to do with pilots who are lured away from their real goal (e.g. precautionary landing) toward an unimportant goal (e.g. making it home).

There’s a lot of truth in these observations about pilot behaviour. As such, it is worth discussing as there are direct parallels to how general aviation pilots behave in the face of emergency situations.

In this discussion we implicitly ask questions like: why pilots try to turn back to the airport after an engine failure; why pilots try to press on into deteriorating weather conditions; why pilots would pass up a perfectly good field in an attempt to stretch a glide to an airport landing strip?

In answering questions like these, Varney points out that too often we place too much emphasis on the wrong motivations. As a result, we must learn to recognize when we sacrifice our real goal for the unimportant one.

But what exactly is the difference between real goals and unimportant goals when dealing with an emergency situation. While I’m sure that the distinction is to some extent open to interpretation, the difference is between what needs to be done and what we want to do.

I can’t imagine any pilot not wanting to make it back to home base or their destination airport, but neither is necessarily needed. When the emergency occurs a diversion to a nearby airport, or even a precautionary off-airport landing may be the most important action.

The decision to set an aircraft down at other than an airport is not taken lightly, but a total disregard for self-desire must take precedence in some situations.

For example, imagine yourself flying over a densely populated metropolitan area and your engine fails! The lack of open areas means your choices for an off-airport landing are limited.

Its easier to stick with the "real goal" (getting safely to the ground) when the options are so clearly limited, but what if there is a choice between a large church parking lot just below or a golf course with nice straight fairways just 4 miles behind? Do you pick the better landing area (golf course) or the sure-thing landing area (parking lot)?

The bottom line is that if you make it to either and live to talk about it, you’ll be a hero for making a successful emergency landing. However, if you try to stretch the glide to get to that golf course and come up short, you may be a casualty; not to mention being chastised for not trying for the closer landing option.

In lieu of suitable alternatives for salvaging an emergency situation, your efforts may be deemed truly heroic regardless of the outcome. However, the brand of heroism is more often bestowed after-the-fact on those who, despite their valiant effort, were inevitable casualties of their situation.

But in the end it comes down to how we frame the decision process during an emergency situation. The question that a pilot asks him or herself should not be "what do I have to gain by continuing with my current course of action?" but rather, "what do I have to lose?"

Since most people are loss averse, the more pessimistic approach to piloting is likely to yield the most successful outcome in the long term.

Regardless of all the above, realize that the hero branding is often a matter of perspective. To the untrained or novice pilot, many deeds evoke "hero" worship. However, don’t be surprised if a seasoned pilot says, "Yes you made it back in one piece, but why didn’t you land at the first suitable airport?"

These pilots know the difference between skill and sheer luck. So next time something goes wrong during flight, focus on the real goal, not the unimportant one, and do what is in the interest of safety.

And remember that if it’s your time in life to be a hero, you’re not likely to realize it until after you’ve made it safely to the ground!

This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 160 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.