The Ides of March

“Beware the ides of March,” sayeth the soothsayer in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. There were a lotta reasons why Caesar died: ambition, the pursuit of absolute power, and, perhaps, hubris, his excessive pride.

We pilots enjoy the pride of our accomplishments: achieving that first certificate; growing in skill and experience; gaining an instrument rating. Sometimes, however, we can convince ourselves that our skills are greater than what they really are, or that our experiences will keep us safe from harm. Pride goeth before a fall; and a fall from the sky can be a tragic thing.

People who are drawn to the sky are unusual, unique. When told he was “not normal” John King would say, “Thank you. You’re right. I’m not normal. I’m a pilot.” Those of us who fly take pride in the fact that the sky calls very few to share its joys … or its heartbreaks. And pride, or excessive pride, is the topic of this rant. Let me relate a couple of personal stories.

When I had flown my 1000th hour, I felt that I had experienced an awful lot in a very short period of time. I began my flying career in 1975, but I only accumulated 175 hours over the first  22 years. I started working on my instrument rating in July 1997. I got the rating in November of that year, the commercial certificate the following March, my CFI rating in September of 1998, my CFII in October of 1999, and I cracked 1000 hours on New Year’s Eve of that year. That was a lotta flying in a short amount of time and I thought I knew it all. Oops. Can you see where this is headed?

What smacked me upside the head was pride. I began to feel that I knew the airplane checklist so well that I didn’t need to bother with it. Flight instruments, flight controls, run-up, etc was all pretty mundane. After a no-checklist run-up, I was cleared onto 28L at Montgomery, added full power and started my takeoff roll. The engine began to pop and backfire and scared the living whoopee out of me. I looked down and saw the culprit: the mixture was leaned way back. I shoved it forward, the engine responded with full power and I went on my way. But I remembered the incident and vowed to always use a checklist on every flight. I tell my students: “Every item on that list is there because someone had died putting it there. Honor the dead. Use your checklist.”

A few years later I got whacked by pride again. My good friend, Dave Eby, and I were the instructors in the flying club with the most tailwheel experience. When someone asked me who he should fly with, I’d relate a story. “Dave and I have about the same number of tailwheel hours,” I’d say. (We both had about 1000 at the time.) “The difference between us is that Dave has had 3 ground loops to his credit (snicker) … and I’ve had none. So if you want to learn how to ground loop, Dave is your boy. And if you want to learn how not, I’m your man.” It was worth a chuckle, but the gods of flight frown on hubris and I was quick to pay the lesson.

Returning from a sunset flight with two passengers in the Travel Air, I was cleared to land on 28L, the narrowest of the three landing strips at Montgomery. There was a slight quartering tailwind from the southeast and I felt it kick up a bit on short final but didn’t think it significant. I touched down a tad long and felt the airplane try to come left. I increased right rudder pressure and the airplane continued to come left. By the time I was ready to hit the right brake, the airplane came around, tail chasing nose in a classic ground loop. Becoming a passenger in an airplane you had only moments before been the pilot of is not a pleasant feeling.

The airplane left the runway, did a slow 360 in the dirt and grass separating the runway and taxiway, kicked up a cloud of dust and came to a stop. It happened in a flash. The passengers were whooping and hollering like they thought it was part of the show. Air Traffic Control inquired if we needed assistance and I replied in the negative. When asked what my intentions were, I replied, “Taxi to the ramp.” With a chuckle, the controller cleared me to taxi to the ramp.

We landed the Travel Airs so slowly that the wingtip never dragged and, had it not been for a taxiway sign south of the runway, there would have been no damage whatever. It took a day and a half to re-cover the fabric that had been torn by the sign. There was no other damage to the airplane, and the only hurt caused by the incident was to my pride. Sigh.

Without getting into specifics, I’ve learned an awful lot about pride as a member of the board of directors of the flying club. Some stories are so amazing that they defy belief. John King used to say that really bright people can do really dumb things in the sky. He always speaks of pilots as a special breed; the movers and shakers, usually successful in their business lives, the people drawn to the sky are unique, competent, motivated, mission-oriented individuals and sometimes those very traits make pilots vulnerable to bad decisions in the sky – and just might infuse those individuals with a belief in their abilities that defy their skills or levels of experience.

Trying to stretch the amount of fuel in the tanks is one particularly bad decision. We had a 152 return from a flight with 2 gallons measured in the tanks. Who would do such a thing? We had an instructor give another instructor a checkout in an airplane the other instructor had never flown – and the checkout involved a walk-around inspection and no flight. Why? A pilot chooses to leave a distant city to commence a long cross country flight at the end of a long day, late at night. He wanted to get started back because he had an appointment the following day. After four hours of flying, he tried to land at an unfamiliar airport, misjudged the approach, the runway and the winds and ended up off the runway against a fence. Why would anyone make such a decision?

What makes someone believe that he can complete a flight when all prudence demands a fuel stop before the return leg? What makes an instructor believe that another instructor can teach in an airplane that he has never flown? Why would someone start a long cross country, after a long day, late at night?

Pride?

It could be. It could be that we have so much belief in our skills that we can fly ourselves out of any danger. It could be that the pride of our accomplishments clouds our abilities to reason, our abilities to make good decisions. And, oftentimes, once we make a bad decision, it’s pride that keeps us pressing on until the only possible result of our actions is catastrophe.

We’ve heard the arrogant boasts before: “It won’t run out of fuel on me, I’ve flown it this trip dozens of times.” “An airplane is just an airplane. They all fly the same.” “I’m young, I’m in great shape, I can handle anything the sky brings my way.”

Beware the Ides of March. Beware that evil demon, pride. It nearly always goeth before a fall.

Posted in Rants