It had been a long and fruitful trip. I left Chicago on Monday and returned on Friday with stops in Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and Tampa – not counting pauses for fuel. The business meetings and dinners had gone splendidly.
The weather had cooperated almost the entire way with just the normal Florida afternoon thundershowers disrupting the flight to Orlando Executive (KORL). Even those clouds had the silver lining of delaying vectors directly over Disney World at 2000 feet in VFR conditions. I had always wanted to do that.
The last leg from my fuel stop in Tennessee went exceptionally well. Only a single 10 degree heading error as I neared Chicago Class B marred what was otherwise a perfect flight. I caught it long before the controller said anything. With all the recent experience I was flying as well as I ever had, and even though fatigue was at work I was happy.
Then the unexpected happened.
After fitting into a four-plane pattern at home base, on short final I realized the pilot was unconscious!
Relax. I was perfectly alert and awake. My loss of consciousness might even have been a good thing. Allow me to explain.
There are four stages to competence in anything, including piloting.
Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know what to do or how to do it. (What’s Angle of Attack?)
Conscious Incompetence: You kind of know what to do, but aren’t sure how to do it and you need help. (Isn’t Angle of Attack the angle of the relative wind to the chord line of the wing?)
Conscious Competence: You know what to do and how to do it, but it requires a lot of thought and effort and you are spring-loaded to watch for any mistakes. (Angle of Attack is everything! Angle of Attack controls airspeed, descent rate, glideslope! Trim for Angle of Attack! Never exceed the critical Angle of Attack! No More than 30 Degree Bank Base to Final, Keep Your Airspeed Up!)
Unconscious Competence: You know what to do and how to do it and sometimes do it without thinking about it. (Automatically release back pressure when close to the ground as you turn, constantly visualize Angle of Attack through the windscreen or the attitude indicator, estimate Angle of Attack through Turn Coordinator, Power Setting, Airspeed, and Vertical Speed Indicator and mentally see changes in Angle of Attack through the simultaneous position and relative change in each of the six primary instruments.)
As I approached the runway at 500 feet, I realized with a start that I had not completed my pre-landing checklist so I prepared for a go around.
Yet when I looked, the gas was on both, the landing gear was down and locked, the mixture and propeller were properly set, the cowl flaps were halfway, my seat belt tight and all my various switches were in the correct configuration. I was at 30 degrees of flaps, ready for the last 10. In other words, everything was perfect.
But for the life of me I could not remember doing any of these things. This bothered me greatly. I landed uneventfully with my stomach in my throat.
I’m the type of pilot who flies every flight at least three times, but only once in the plane. I visualize every flight the night before I leave, and review the flight in great detail the night I arrive. I make notes in my log book on what happened on that trip and enjoy picking a flight at random and reliving it.
Some of my flights have had learning moments and I refly those trips dozens of times in my mind. A few have had moments of such absolute beauty I try never to forget them.
The three that have been truly scary I have reflown hundreds of times. Like when I lost a cylinder on my first solo, let a thunderstorm sneak up on me as a student pilot, or talked myself into VFR into IMC after a radio failure.
I still think about those often, always with a chill up my spine.
After my loss of consciousness, I sat in the cockpit, and really gave myself a tongue lashing. I have often worried that I would someday land gear up and so have always been rigorous about the landing check. Never before have I even been on downwind without knowing for sure the wheels were down and locked. I chastised myself repeatedly.
To try to figure out where I had gone wrong I played back the eight transmissions that my cockpit voice recorder retains to see if I could hear the gear going down in any of them. I could not, but I did hear something else.
As I thought deeply about this flight, I realized that my preoccupation with the other four aircraft in the pattern, as well as being prepared for the tailwind and sun glare as I turned west on the base leg, had taken the conscious part of my brain and everything else I did automatically, unconsciously.
I was able to recall that I had dropped the gear and run the checklist as I did the tear drop to the 45 degree pattern entry after I had overflown the field, right when I always do. But it was only when I heard my voice calling the overflight that I remembered.
Naturally I walked into the FBO and found one of my flight instructors. I told him my tale. He laughed.
“Do you remember opening the fence gate when you came around the building?” he asked. My befuddled expression answered for me so he continued. “How about pressing the brake when you parked your rental car in Tampa?”
I got his point. There are all types of things we do every day without really thinking about them. The lack of conscious thought does not make us automatically unsafe. I just had never had that experience in an airplane before.
I had arrived at that fourth stage of learning in my piloting. I was unconsciously competent.
Still, I fretted: Would being an unconscious pilot come back to bite me some day?
My very next flight my home FBO was out of gas, so I flew six miles to a neighboring airport to fill up before heading out. The ceiling was 1,600 feet and I would normally get a clearance with that weather, but I reasoned I was good for six miles — I wouldn’t be going over 1,000 feet anyway and I could fly an approach procedure in reverse that had a MDA of 550 AGL. No sweat, perfectly safe.
The wind was out of the west at 14 gusting to 20, but the runway is 100 feet wide, so I decided to practice my crosswind technique. Even though it was a quick one, I had plenty to think about on this scud run.
In 575 hours of flying this airplane, I had seldom used the carb heat. Since it is turbo-normalized, the engine nearly always produces enough warmth to keep the gauge well out of the yellow. I hadn’t considered the risk carb icing could bring on a brief trip this chilly, damp morning and afterwards couldn’t remember the last time I needed heat or even being consciously aware that I kept that particular gauge in my scan.
As I descended to turn base, I glanced at the panel without a thought. Immediately I spotted the carb temperature was slightly in the yellow. On reflex I pulled out the knob, and applied strong throttle to clear the engine. The Lycoming never stuttered, the gauge popped out of the yellow and again the arrival was routine – even though the crosswind landing wasn’t the best.
This is when it hit me: Maybe being an unconscious pilot is not so bad. Maybe, in fact, as long as unconsciousness does not equal complacency, it can be a good thing.
Is unconscious competence another way to describe experience? Does it make us safer pilots or less safe?
What do you think?