7 ways to scare yourself in an airplane

And how to learn from them

Hang around the airport long enough and you’ll inevitably hear that familiar phrase: “so there I was…” What follows will probably involve mistakes, bad luck and close calls (often a healthy dose of embellishment, too). Such stories are a lot of fun, but there’s plenty to learn from such “I Can’t Believe I Did That” moments.

Most pilots aren’t dare devils, but sometimes the only way to learn an important lesson is to scare yourself just a little. That doesn’t mean we should seek out frightening experiences, only that we should try to learn from them when we inevitably stumble into one. This is really the way a lot of us learn to be safe pilots: we try to fill the experience bucket before the luck bucket gets to empty.

Here are seven common ways to scare yourself in an airplane, and I’m sad to say I’ve experienced all of them (but only once!). And before you say it could never happen to you, remember my favorite Dick Collins line: “Pilots don’t crash airplanes because they want to. That’s why we call them accidents.”

Fuel gauge low
How did that happen?

1. Run low on fuel. This one is so common that it’s almost a cliche, and yet fuel is one thing we have almost total control over. The typical scenario goes like this: poor planning combines with get-home-itis until the pilot runs low on both fuel and options. Too embarrassed to admit defeat, he presses on. Most of the time, the pilot lands before the engine quits, but usually not before a lasting impression is made. Watching 40-year old fuel gauges bounce off empty is not fun.

Lesson: Be pessimistic in your fuel burn and groundspeed calculations. Better yet, know from experience exactly how much fuel per hour your airplane burns. Have a personal minimum that you will always land with one hour of fuel in the tanks. Above all, land before your situation becomes critical.

2. VFR into IMC/scud running. This story shares many of the same mistakes, including insufficient pre-flight planning and self-induced pressure to continue the flight. But whereas “low fuel” is pretty easy to define and monitor, there is no instrument in the panel that measures “low weather.” Sure, there are FARs to define legal VFR, but how do you determine 5 miles vs. 3 miles when the nearest weather reporting stations are 50 miles apart? And where’s the line between safe and legal? The trap that many pilots fall into (including me) is to become overly optimistic. When faced with deteriorating conditions, many a pilot has taken false comfort from the fact that “the forecast says it shouldn’t be this bad.” The only weather report that matters is the one you see from the cockpit, with your own two eyes. Eventually, you find yourself either dangerously low or skimming in and out of clouds – scary indeed.

Lesson: When planning a flight, trust the actual reports (METARs) more than the forecasts (TAFs), and trust the trend in the weather (getting better or worse) more than forecasts. Also, think about your decision as a series of “go a little further/stop going” decisions instead of a single, binary “go/no go” decision that might subtly force you to stay committed to a bad plan when conditions change. Finally, always have a few en route diversion airports that are rock solid. If you have to go down or slow down more than once, it’s time to divert.

3. Close call in the traffic pattern. Mid-air collisions are thankfully rare, but most pilots can remember at least one close call. More often than not, these aerial encounters happen in the airport traffic pattern, when one pilot is flying a standard pattern and another decides to make up his own arrival. This is often exacerbated by poor radio calls and a lack of awareness about the big picture. Both airplanes bank to miss each other and tempers usually flare soon after.

Lesson: When in doubt, fly the standard pattern and make precise position reports (“over Bill’s house” doesn’t count). But don’t settle for that – assume other pilots won’t be so conscientious and fly defensively. Keep your outside visual scan going and don’t be afraid to raise or lower a wing to double check. Always have a sense of where each airplane is in the pattern; if you’re unsure where another airplane is, ask!

Runway incursion
“Clear left, clear right, cleared to cross.”

4. Runway incursion. “Cross runway 25, taxi to the ramp, good night,” the ground controller told me. With those words I began to relax ever so slightly, my mind turning to dinner and a good night’s sleep instead of flying. So it was quite a shock when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Falcon 900 barreling down the runway I was crossing. I had been cleared to cross the runway, but controllers are human and I was lazy. Turns out the Falcon was landing and he stopped far short of our position, but it was a clear reminder that airmanship doesn’t stop when the wheels touch.

Lesson: Trust but verify. I like to verbally say, “clear left, clear right, cleared to cross” when crossing a runway. It’s a good callout with another pilot in the right seat, and it’s a double-check when alone. It’s also smart to taxi with the airport diagram open (iPad apps make this ridiculously easy), and maybe even the taxi route marked on the chart.

5. High density altitude takeoff. Especially for a flatlander, the first takeoff at an airport elevation above 5,000 ft. is a real attention-getter. Combine that elevation with a high temperature and a non-turbocharged engine and you have a recipe for a long takeoff roll and a slow climbout – or worse. I can vividly remember trying to coax a Cessna 172 into the air on a hot day in New Mexico, with the mountains off the end of the runway getting uncomfortably close with each passing second. It’s hard to resist the urge to pull back even more, but resist we must.

Lesson: Don’t assume your airplane can do it – run the numbers, then build in some healthy margins. What you see is what you get; you can’t make the airplane fly if it doesn’t want to. Consider the time of day also. Mornings are a splendid time to fly when density altitude is a concern.

6. Falling asleep in flight. While not as common as the first five, this one may be the most terrifying situation of all. After fighting sleep for what seems like hours, you finally succumb and close your eyes for a moment while the autopilot trudges on. When you wake up, you bolt upright and instantly look to the fuel gauges and GPS. You might sheepishly call ATC to make sure you didn’t miss a radio call while you were “off frequency.” It may have only been seconds, but you’ll remember the panicked feeling forever.

Lesson: The old “eight hours bottle to throttle” is a bare minimum. If you’ve been working hard or playing hard, make an honest assessment of whether you’re safe to fly. When in doubt, delay the flight – especially if  you’re single pilot. Even a short nap can make a world of difference. Better yet, proactively schedule your flights to avoid this type of pressure.

Ice on wing of turboprop
Boots are nice, but should only be used to get out of icing conditions, not to linger in them.

7. In-flight icing. Much like mid-airs, icing doesn’t actually cause a lot of crashes, but it’s a uniquely frightening event for most pilots. Especially in airplanes with no deicing equipment, ice can seem to almost take control of the airplane away from the pilot. While we’re getting better at forecasting ice, it’s still a mystery to many pilots, so anytime the temperature is below 40 and you’re in clouds you should be alert.

Lesson: Go beyond the PIREPs and learn to read Mother Nature’s signs for when icing may be an issue: lows, temperature inversions, strong lifting forces and more. Aggressively search out reports of cloud tops so you know whether getting on top is an option. If the situation deteriorates, don’t hesitate to declare an emergency and exit the ice immediately. Do not linger in ice, even with deice equipment; it’s time to execute your backup plan immediately (you do have one, right?).

After considering all these lessons learned, I’ve started a new habit whenever I log a flight. In addition to the time and the number of landings, I do a quick mental debriefing session (what did I do well, not do so well, etc.) and I write down one or two lessons I learned on that flight. There’s almost always something to be learned from a flight, and the simple act of looking for that has a powerful way of bringing new insights to mind. An electronic logbook makes this really easy, and offers an enduring record to review occasionally.

What would you add to the list? Have you scared yourself in an airplane and learned a lesson from it? Scroll down and add a comment.

25 Comments

  • I think I would add No. 8: Taking a newly acquired used airplane in for the first annual.

    That has caused people to forget the other 7 lessons as they try to take the airplane out of the first shop to a second shop for a different opinion.

  • I would add #9: cross wind landings in high winds can end up bad if you push yourself and your airplane too hard. In my tail dragger days I got to the (stupid) conclusion that I can probably take on any cross wind, even the real windy ones. Only after you slam that rudder all the way to the floor and almost breaks the stick, and still the dam airplane keeps drifting towards the hangers, you realize, I am not the master of aviation (!), humbly apply power and go land somewhere else, I learned my lesson.

  • I suspect numerous other categories could be added. Here’s one: failure to conduct an adequate preflight inspection. This has led to many crashes of perfectly good aircraft with gust locks in place, fires from failure to notice fuel leaks, taking off with a garment bag hanging from the horizontal stabilizer, etc. In my case, as a student, I scared the coffee out of myself by missing a lap belt going under the right door to the wing of a Musketeer. On takeoff at a nearby duster strip after a rough landing, a loud banging began and persisted as I climbed out, shaking, sure I’d damaged the airplane. I headed for home and told the tower I need priority for landing (granted). Then I localized the sound to the right door, and saw the belt going under the door. It knocked off some paint but the school forgave me. Lesson learned: see as well as look.

  • To make it an even 10 – How about flying too close to, or into, a thunderstorm? The IFR equivalent to scud running is trying to pick your way through a front with 20 minute old weather on your iPad. You may be legal but you won’t try it a second time!

  • I’ll add number 11. Believing someone else that it is OK to fly even though that small voice is screaming at you to stay on the ground. A pilot with 100 hrs does not handle weather and other issues with the maturity as a 1000 hr. pilot. Sometimes the high-timer believes they are being helpful to the low-timer and wants them to spread their wings and get experience and grow.

  • How about flying CAVU out west and being lazy on maintaining VFR cruise altitude? Then crossing/opposing traffic zings by and nobody even burbles. She didn’t see you, and you might not have seen her. It could have happened the same way on other flights. ADS-B may reduce this, but it will never be guaranteed that everybody is equipped and vigilant.

  • Great article as always – can particularly relate to runway incursions and being overly optimistic, even annoyed when the actual weather doesn’t match the TAF!

    My scariest moment in the pattern relates to becoming too reliant on the Controller to keep you out of trouble. We were departing the pattern on the crosswind leg with a Hawker jet a few thousand feet to our side and climbing on a parallel course. We advised traffic in sight and the Controller advised the jet to maintain visual separation. About 5 seconds after that, the jet made a sudden climbing turn across our nose – always hard to estimate distance but it was well inside 500 feet – scared the living daylights out of myself and my instructor (a regional jet Captain).

    • Great point, David. I think many times we hear that “radar contact” and subconsciously relax, as if we have delegated some decision-making to ATC.

  • How many of you can say “Been there, done that?” I can say yes to low fuel, after which I took Richard Collins personal minimum to never land a plane with less than 1 hour’s fuel, and made it my own personal minimum. Yes to flying VFR in IFR conditions. That’s when I promised to always check the area forecast before any cross country flight. We learn from our mistakes. If we live…

  • Not just high-altitude airports, but high DENSITY ALTITUDE runways.

    I remember the uneasy feeling, first day on my newly minted PPL, taking off from a nice long runway on Long Island, NY. It was very hot. It took quite a while to get airborne, and I was confused about why the plane was performing so poorly on the takeoff run. I was even considering an abort! Shortly after lifting off and getting away from the hot ground, everything quickly went back to normal, to my great relief, and the lightbulb went on. “Oh! Density Altitude is like THAT.” It had been highly academic until that moment.

    On the other hand, when learning to canyon fly in Albuquerque a couple years later, I hardly noticed the runways. They were long enough that landing and takeoff distances just seemed to scale naturally to the environment.

  • Years ago, when I first learned to fly, AOPA had a campaign “The 180 turn”. i.e. If you were VFR, and starting running into weather, do the “180 turn”!
    Jim

  • I am here today because it was drilled into my head to believe the instruments, not bodily sensations when in the clouds. I had good basic attitude instrument training even as a student pilot, and that saved my life when one day I flew into a bank of unforecasted sea fog as a student pilot. I immediately went to the instruments, made sure I did a standard rate turn, and determined what heading I needed to get back to the airport. I let the tower know I was returning once I got myself established on the gauges. I would estimate that I was in the clouds for around five minutes before seeing the airport and being able to land normally. Someone told me not long afterward that it takes only seconds for a student pilot with no instrument training to lose control. I am alive because I focused on the instruments, and believed the instruments. I disregarded any sensations I might have felt. Unforecasted weather can happen to any pilot. Yes, I was scared, but I used those instruments as my lifeline. Get solid basic instrument flying skills and practice regularly, even if you are a VFR pilot. This could save your life!

  • Be very aware of winds on the ground! I was taxying a Pushpak (Indian built Aeronca Chief) in very high surface winds which I did not cotton on too as I was shielded by the airport buildings. No sooner we left the shelter, I found the aircraft turning violently into the wind and then the wing actually lifted off the tarmac. My wife, fortunately caught on to what was happening and got out of the aircraft and hung on to the strut which lifted her a few inches! We waited like this till someone in the tower realised what was happening and sent across a jeep with a few hefty guys to help us. Now I study the winds on the surface as part of my pre flight.

  • Climbing ability to get through a supposedly large enough hole on top gets really scary when you realize that tops are well above 13000 feet instead of the promised 11000. To get, with an aspirated engine, in a C182, for several minutes into IMC, with the stall warning chirping occasionally while you hope to push through into the blue sky really can make you worry. On that particular flight I went up from sea level back to Mexico City ( MMJC @ 8120″) and absolutey needed to get on top because of some really high mountains on my last leg of a 7h international VFR flight, without auto pilot. On top turned out to be really high!. Get home-itis for sure was a factor, and the scare was solid enough to avoid any repetition… The story of finding the hole for descent in the complex airspace around MMMX is another story, and a highly efficient and professional ATC was key to get safely back below in a ” heavy iron” dominated environment.

    Thanks god I was able to focus on the instruments because “seat of the pants” would not have gotten me very far. A lesson for a lifetime!

  • In icing conditions with a normal prop A/C and no deice equipmt you have to move the controls often to avoid they be locked by ice;also the same with the propeller!!
    Don’t forget to work with the carburator heater also !!

  • 1 more comment about icing
    If U are IMC,if possible with the terrain,ask control to descend to a lower altitude,of course not Below the MCA(minimum crossing alt)

    Lower when no inversion U will be in warmer air which would help deicing !!

  • Great article as usual John. Here are a couple of more ways:

    1. Sucker Holes. Those tempting blue sky patches that suddenly appear in an otherwise overcast sky that you’ve been staring at for the last several hours as you wait for the improving weather that the forecast promised. “Ah, there it is. Look at the blue sky. Just like the forecast promised,” you say. You’ve already preflighted your airplane twice while waiting for the weather to improve, and you’re already past the time you wanted to arrive at your destination. So you hop in, crank up, and blast off. Then you look for the hole, but it is gone or it’s way too high for you to climb VFR to it and get on top. And beware: Even if you climbed through it and got on top you may find that you’re stuck on top of a solid overcast and the hole has closed behind you. Fortunately, my primary instructor gave me a thorough schooling on sucker holes, and I haven’t fallen prey to the temptation. But I have read too many accident reports of pilot who have. Lesson: If a patch of blue sky appears, wait and continue to watch the METARS for improvement along you route of flight. Wait to see if the blue patch is indeed the forecast improvement , or whether it is a sucker hole. Don’t be a dead sucker.

    2. T Storms and Line Gaps. One of the comments focused on T storms, and I say amen to those comments. To say that T storms and T storm lines are unpredictable is putting it mildly. My “Night from Hell” is testimony to that. But that’s another story. Suffice to say, T storms and the forces working on them possess tremendous energy. They can easily build faster than your airplane could hope to climb on its best day. A narrow gap in a line can close at the blink of an eye (never mind the lightning hazard of flying close to a cell). It has been said many times and in many ways (as the Christmas song goes), but it can’t be said too many times: treat T storms and lines with the utmost respect. They can chew you up and spit you out (dead) without skipping a beat.

  • Dave I would love to read about your night from hell… Write it up and send it to the good people at air facts, they can publish it and we can all learn from your experience.

    Liad.

  • I made the mistake of taking off with a head cold. My head felt like it was going to explode after landing. I should have brought the plane down at a more gradual decent. The pain and pressure were incredible and it lasted for a day or more.

  • About 28 years ago this September I was the brilliant 80 hr pilot who left Hutchison KS enroute to Bowling Green KY. Both were VFR, but almost nothing in between was. Solid overcast with 4000 foot tops. I trundled on unconcerned. Bowling Green airport was in the very center of a 1/2 mile hole. Good luck is the reason I did not commit a murder suicide that day with my passengers and me. Still gives me the chills.

  • Sitting in a line of planes waiting to take off, and the engine dies. One fuel tank was dry and I forgot to switch to the full tank. A few spaces ahead in the line and I would have died just after take off.

  • Been there done that plus several more unsettling experiences, 4000fpm up/down drafts, violent wind shear, hail, birds, hang gliders at 12,000ft etc. but closest call to disaster was from bad assumptions! Flying over Vernon BC Canada I saw a black spec approaching which I assumed was a jet heading for YLW Kelowna, OK so far but all further assumptions were wrong, that they would see me, were descending and would pass a couple of thousand feet below me, ATC or tower would see us on radar and they would be warned, that when I called them on 3 radio channels that I could expect them to be on they would hear me, the worst assumption that if I did nothing all would be good and we would miss colliding. It turned out that I would have broadsided that 737 just behind the cockpit if I had not climbed ~30′ at the last moment and had the tail pass ~15 under my puckered ass, no one on that plane saw me, pilots or passengers as I went over looking in their windows! I should have avoided this long before this near miss! Don’t assume, it can kill. ps. A couple of weeks later I got over run by 737 after tower told me it was OK to land in front of it and just got missed as I bolted off the runway and a week later aborted an approach at YVR after being cleared to land in front of a 737 there. Fortunately all my experiences have been just learning ones.

  • About 50 years ago, while returning from a weekend trip in our flying club’s Taylorcraft BC-12D, I attempted to transfer the 6 gallons in each wing tank into the main cowl tank where it could be accessed by the engine. I tried a number of flight attitudes to get the fuel to transfer all the while continuing on route. Finally decided to explore the problem on the ground. After a challenging landing at a small mountain forest service strip, we ‘transferred the fuel using the ‘condensation dumps’ into an open top 5 gallon can. After we moved all we could, we continued our flight home and landed with less than a gallon left in the cowl tank. Should have checked the transfer on the way to our destination field. Failing that, an immediate 180 back to the fiel we left as soon as a problem came up would have given us a comfortable airport with fuel and services to deal with the problem with plenty of margins on fuel and runway length. Fuel on board equals time aloft equals life.

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