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.

Haze can be treacherous

I returned from my first involuntary flight into a soup kitchen today. The formal term is “inclement meteorological conditions”. To make things worse, this occurred while still within controlled airspace of a major city airport. If I had asked the tower to turn around, I could have done so–but for a better chance at keeping my license I would have had to lie about the nature of the emergency.

What disturbs me is that I didn’t do anything wrong before taking off. I called flight service to get a weather briefing, and the briefer advised me of lowering cloud base at the airport, but nothing worse than haze to the South. The lower base failed to materialize, and the automated weather stations at surrounding airports all reported high cloud bases and acceptable visibility, so I made a decision to proceed. It was between airports that I hit a wall of haze. Not thick enough for precipitation, so it didn’t show up on weather radar, but more than thick enough to make the windscreen look like it was painted white.

My mistake, if this had ended badly, was not immediately telling ATC I was in trouble and initiating a standard turn to get out into the open. Instead, I proceeded until the controller had cleared me from C airspace before thinking about how to get back safely. Now I know that there is a difference between basic instrument flight training, where all you’re doing is holding course and altitude by systematically scanning instruments, and real-world instrument flight when you need to do all kinds of stuff besides simply keeping the airplane flying. Stuff like finding out exactly where you are, dialing in frequencies, talking to controllers and trying hard not to let them notice that you’re flying blind.

I think they caught on, though. I was pretty close before I could truthfully answer that I had the field in sight. All’s well that ends well, and again the conditions at the airport itself were no worse than sunshine over a light haze. I was happy with my landing, but also happy to have landed. About half an hour later the fog had reached the airport and they’d switched to full-on instrument landing operations.

What will I do next time?

  • Solve the unanticipated situation as soon as it begins to develop, regardless of potential Tower/FAA reports or other consequences.
  • Treat haze with suspicion. It might not show up as a cloud base reading or VFR ceiling forecast, but if all the airports in an area report haze, I will take into account that this light haze may form into thicker banks in the space in between. Airports tend to be in built-up areas where the haze burns away sooner than over woodland.
  • Keep using 1-800-WXBRIEF, even when I can formally log an automated briefing over DUATS or whatever. Now I value the live weather briefers more than before: they might have been slightly off this time, but I most certainly didn’t learn about that bank of haze by looking at individual weather stations. The briefers would have notified me if there had been pilot reports in the vicinity.
  • Use modern technology. Always. Because this was only supposed to be a short hop using the plane’s own “steam gauges”, I left my GLONASS and tablet in the bag. I had to get the stuff off the back seat and boot it up before being able to tell the tower exactly where I was before re-entering their airspace. It was worth it. Today’s consumer-grade navigation equipment is excellent. I should have had it turned on from the beginning.
  • Submit a pilot report next time. I only thought about it much later today. I suppose it was iffy this time because of the way I had skirted the rules, but that’s all the more reason to bite the bullet and “go official” as soon as a situation begins to develop.

The experience has also strengthened my resolve to obtain my instrument rating. While I’m sure I won’t be able to fulfil the IFR currency requirements for very long, I think it will help me feel much more comfortable in those nasty “inclement meteorological conditions”.