By Jannie Matthysen
She smiled at me again. I found it increasingly difficult to focus on anything else. It seemed different to the smiles that the other guys got. I knew this time that it meant something. I could not let this opportunity pass. My cunning plan was put into action...
She was always the centre of attraction. Strikingly beautiful with a magnetic personality that attracted men like bees to a honey pot. That was the easy part. Anyone who tried to get any closer was met with a courteous aloofness that left you feeling frustratingly inadequate. I knew that my plan of action had to be perfect. It required carefully measured doses of wit, charm, brilliant timing, and lots of good luck. All these resources were unfortunately in woefully short supply. I had to face up to the reality that my personality had been a very effective contraceptive, and my lack of wit and charm meant that I'd spent more evenings with similarly "gifted" mates than with the girls of my fantasies. This one had to be different - I just had to win her over, and the key to this victory would have to be careful planning and detailed preparation.
As a self-proclaimed man of the world and bachelor of note, I thought that I was intimately familiar with all the usual procedures that would guarantee a positive strike rate. The roses, the cryptic messages, the flirtatious phone calls, and the dazzling charm would all set the scene for a romantic dinner. Flowers were sent, calls made, flirts flitted, and dinner booked. I went through my mental checklist over and over again, and finally had to pat myself on the back for the meticulous way in which the plot had been staged. I was confident that I had prepared adequately for any eventuality and that every detail was painstakingly planned. Surely, I could not fail...
How is this different to flying? Not that much, I say. Every successful flight starts with the correct planning. We often see pilots going huge with wine, women, and song, only to find themselves in a cockpit less than 24 hours later. We all know the latent effects of alcohol and lack of sleep, but unfortunately there are still too many pilots around who fail to grasp the potentially fatal result of their nights on the town.
The preparation for any flight does indeed start the day before. We have to ensure that we are adequately rested for the intended flight. Alcohol intake must be moderated not only to meet the legal requirements, but also to ensure that any decisions made are based on a clear and logical thought process. These decisions extend to the planning phase, long before you even walk out to the aircraft. Did I get the correct weather for the time of my intended flight? Did I remember to convert liters of Jet A1 to pounds? Does my flightplan reflect the correct flight levels? What are the "out of ground effect hover" limitations for my destination? Are my take-off speeds and thrust settings correctly calculated? The potential traps are endless.
The most dangerous habits that lack planning and preparation are unfortunately not so easy to identify or acknowledge. We stress about the mortgage, drive to the airport in a mess of road construction and traffic jams. We often arrive late with a temper on the ragged edge of rage. We rush to the aircraft and do a pre-flight while arguing with the plumber on the cellphone. While all this is going on, we fail to notice that the weather at our destination has taken a turn for the worse. Cockpit checks are then hurriedly skipped over and ATC clearances are adhered to in a trance that makes a zombie look positively hyped. We fly the aircraft in an automatic fashion that takes us through the mechanics of piloting our fragile craft, but without the mental attentiveness that should identify stupid mistakes. Have you ever driven to your destination and, after arriving, cannot remember exactly how you got there? How many of us have similar spells in aircraft? We often hear of pilots falling asleep at the controls, although I have to admit that I've never heard of a helicopter pilot who has had the privilege - no matter how severe the hangover!
A trend that I have become more aware of in recent months is the fact that very experienced pilots are making blatantly obvious errors. We are always reminded of the importance of experience and the value of hours in the logbook. Many experienced pilots don't always deserve the recognition that the aviation industry affords them based purely on having spent vast amounts of time in the cockpit. I include myself in this group although I have only accumulated a moderate amount of hours. The reason? Quite simply lack of planning and preparation. We somehow argue that flying becomes easier and fewer things could go wrong with more experience. How many experienced pilots really take the time for a detailed preflight inspection? Some components are just too difficult to reach, and "if it fails, I'll handle it" seems to be the popular mindset. We see custom designed, home brewed checklists and actions that bear no resemblance to the manufacturer's recommended procedures. What qualifies any pilot to rewrite a manufacturer's published procedure? We've seen many examples where this practice ended in tears.
It also seems that a few thousand hours of flying experience now qualifies a pilot never to do a mass and balance calculation ever again, or check performance graphs, for that matter. We are able to casually flip through the Pilot's Manual in a type that we have not flown in years. This evidently brings all the relevant numbers and procedures flooding back into the ageing and cluttered mind. No planning or preparation required. What about the increased levels of automation in the modern cockpit? I've sat in a cockpit of a twin-engine helicopter with a very experienced and revered pilot, only to be told "don't touch that button, I don't know what it does". Kudos for honesty - but what about preparing for the flight and actually reading the manual?
Being adequately prepared for the flight also means to be properly trained. To me the most striking example of this lack of training is where low-time PPL acquired a type rating on a Robinson R44. The big Robbie is notoriously sensitive to longitudinal centre of gravity changes. The instructor never bothered to include a MAUW (Maximum All Up Weight) session as part of the type rating. This left the newly type-rated pilot blissfully unaware of his own serious lack of preparedness for his first flight carrying a full load of passengers. This flight almost ended in disaster when the pilot lost control during the landing. By a stroke of blind luck rather than skill or thorough preparation, the pilot managed to eventually land the helicopter with minimal damage. Shocked passengers and a severely bruised ego were the only casualties. The instructor got off with less than a slap on the wrist, and they all live to fly another day.
Stupid mistakes, omissions, and bad decisions can all be addressed and the potential risks mitigated by proper planning. Experience should not be used as substitute for thorough preparation. I found myself spending more time preparing for a date with miss Perfect than I have for some flights. Preparation should include our mental state, physical condition, adequate training, planning, and more planning. And, oh yes, I did crash and burn on that infamous date. No amount of preparation could salvage that lost cause.