A Tale of Two Pilots – What Can We Learn?

I got the news that Warren Bruhl died in a plane accident last Wednesday, November 22nd. Warren learned to fly at Chicago Executive, he had been an officer and board member of CEPA, and most importantly to me, he was a good friend. Yes, we lost one of our own, that makes this hit home all the harder.

His passion for sharing flying and his nature to educate were likely the motivation to earn his CFI, CFII, and MEI. However, the training environment is not benign. We train for the cases that we hope never to happen. The training regimen puts us in an airplane where we simulate those bad things happening as we attempt to fix them before the airplane gets away from us. The goal is to simulate problems and let them develop enough for the learner to feel the intensity that ignites a memory of the moment that builds skills. Sometimes this puts us at the edge, and occasionally, just a bit over. Instructors must decide how far to let the exercise go to make the training meaningful but interrupt before an emergency training scenario turns into a real one.

It was only a few short weeks ago that Richard McSpadden was killed in a takeoff accident. Richard ran the US Air Force’s Thunderbird demonstration team and was a true luminary in the aviation world before signing on as the boss of the AOPA Air Safety Institute. This was a man who was at the center of flight safety. He oversaw the effort to drive down general aviation small aircraft accidents and fatalities.

Thankfully, through many decades of diligence, these numbers are small to begin with (see chart), where one or two, either way, moves the percentages. Nonetheless, they aren’t comparable to the Part 121 airlines world, where that number is essentially zero; that is the gold standard and the only number we should aspire to.

Can GA small aircraft stats ever reach the level of the airlines? Probably not for a few reasons. First, we don’t train in multi-million dollar Level D simulators where any catastrophe ends with a punch of the “stop” button, a cup of coffee, and a discussion with the instructor before a re-do. Second, we aren’t flying behind multiengine turbines where an engine failure is rare and rarely consequential. Third, we don’t have a professional staff of weather briefers, dispatchers, ground crew, and maintenance people, to coordinate all the details of a flight and make the go/no-go decision. Fourth, our planes don’t have the bevy of automation and safety equipment, though the good news there is that the gap is slowly being reduced, the bad news is that no amount of technology will keep a pilot safe if they don’t do the training to use it; again, the advantage to the airlines who dictate the level of proficiency of their pilots. And fifth, airlines, and charter operations, have a book of strict, prescriptive, standard operating procedures (SOPs) which must be followed without deviation; though GA small aircraft pilots could, few are willing. Despite all of these issues, we DO still have the ability to determine when a flight is safe if we’ve had a chance to discuss a similar scenario with other experienced aviators who may have been there or learned from someone else who has.

Aviation does carry some inherent risks. So what can we do to keep people like Warren and Richard alive? The FAA has put risk management at the center of our certifications and ongoing re-certifications (flight reviews and proficiency checks). It is up to us to use our best aeronautical decision-making to mitigate the intrinsic risk. Train. Show up at safety meetings whenever you can where we discuss a scenario each month and prep ourselves for a moment when split-second decision-making may be required. Be part of the 20-plus people discussing it from different points of view in a comfortable chair at 0 KIAS and 1G.

Luck favors the prepared pilot. Come to our safety meetings and make your flying safe, always.

Michael Baraz

President, Chicago Executive Pilots Association

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