Aeronautics and Superstition

They don’t mix well.

Aviation is founded on science. Flight owes a lot to physicists, but nothing at all to gods, saints, demons or their prophets or flying horses. So I think it’s odd when someone expects pilots to pray before a flight, or thank gods after a safe landing.

To prepare for picking up a plane for which I didn’t have the operations handbook, I searched for that type’s checklists on the web and printed them out. I didn’t check the source, and later noticed they were from Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics. The emblem in the corner should have been a clue, but I noticed when I went through the checklist and found this:

Prayer? Check!
Prayer? Check!

Pray? To whom? And for what? Good weather? I’d prefer the pilot to call Flight Service for a proper weather briefing, or at least look up the forecasts at www.AviationWeather.gov.

There’s a similar entry in the checklist for shutting down and securing the aircraft. I suppose that one’s to thank Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, Jesus, Poseidon, Vishnu and Allah for a safe return to the airport. I’d prefer the pilot to rely on proper preparation, good training and diligent maintenance instead of believing there were factors beyond his or her control. You can see what that kind of belief leads to on the roads in many developing countries. The supernatural world (responsible for fate, destiny, divine providence) is believed to be a powerful force which always thwarts human effort. Why should a taxi driver be so arrogant to think he can outsmart the gods?

I think a good pilot should be exactly that arrogant. There’s no point in thanking gods, spirits or demons for good outcomes, or blaming them for bad situations. It’s all physics, brought under control with training, preparation and good judgment. Believing there is a mysterious, uncontrollable factor undermines your trust in the things you do know and undermines you when you are faced with things or situations you don’t know. Yes there is “luck” (e.g. the terrain available for an emergency landing), but it’s important to view it in the same way you’d view a hand of cards. Training and knowledge help to make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt. No reason to thank anyone but the people in your present and past who helped you succeed.

Now I don’t mind at all if those Christians (I looked it up: Liberty University is a Christian “university”) deploy their prayer in emergency situations, but only after all rational options have been exhausted. So why don’t they move that checklist item into the red sections? Not into a section with lots of activity, but into “Wing Fire” for example:

Not much you can do, really...
Not much you can do, really…

There’s not much you can do, except blow a bit of air over the wing and call 121.5. After you’ve done that, if you’re lucky there’s plenty of time for prayer while you descend. Until you start preparing for your emergency landing, if applicable. Good luck! Not literally of course, so don’t put it in the checklist.