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Why do bad things happen to good pilots?

You know the old saying: “What can go wrong usually will.” But in reality what can go wrong usually goes right.Why do bad things happen to good pilots? Creeping normalcy is one reason.

You know the old saying: “What can go wrong usually will.” But in reality what can go wrong usually goes right -- and this can actually be a much bigger problem. Our flight training is filled with safety inspections, procedures, and checklists that are designed to make sure that we do not forget something. Usually when we follow these procedures a safe flight results. But it is also true that a safe flight can result when we do not complete all the procedures. It is possible to miss a checklist item and still fly safely.

The Problem: When we get away with missing the item once without consequence, skipping that item can become a habit. Over time the double checks, safety items, and procedures that were so a part of our original training starts to slip. After a while these habits become routine or normal. What we consider normal shifts and we begin to accept a “new” normal.

Originally you would not have considered practicing maneuvers without performing at least two 90-degree clearing turns. But once, after finding no conflicts with the previous 20 turns (and in a rush to have fun) you forgot to check. On that flight nothing bad happened and -- as far as you know -- the airspace was clear. Soon, it was just a habit to breeze through maneuvers without a thorough check of the area. Perhaps this mentality spread to entering the pattern at non-tower fields.

Once it was normal to make clearing turns and call ahead at non-tower airports -- even when you were in the middle of nowhere or didn’t hear anyone on frequency -- but that normal eroded. Now it is accepted as normal to skip certain safety checks. Another 100 flights might come and go before this habit leads to a problem -- but someday...

The Solution: To prevent accidents in our future we must resist this “creeping normalcy.” When airline crews get together for a flight they most often are total strangers. How can people who have just met trust each other and perform as a team? They use Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that are supposed to define roles and delegate responsibilities. When all members operate with SOPs everything gets done. We have SOPs in General Aviation as well. We call them checklists, operating procedures, and practical tests standards.

BOTTOM LINE: To maintain those good habits that were first taught to us, we must resist creeping normalcy. Slow down. Complete the entire checklist. Protect and maintain SOPs.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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