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It has been a long time since I took care of patients, but many lessons of my medical training and experience come back to me frequently in daily life. Physicians and surgeons make critical decisions and take actions with consideration of safety margins and tradeoffs. In a made-up example, would I recommend surgery that had a 70% success rate, but a 10% risk of death, when the underlying disease had a 30% chance of remission with medical treatment, and zero risk of death? Obviously, the calculation in such a case would be complicated, and the tradeoffs acceptable or not depending on the doctor’s confidence and experience, and the patient’s suffering, values, and understanding.

Similarly, every time we fire up the engine(s) and take flight, we enter a four-dimensional realm of risk-benefit tradeoffs and sometimes complex decision-making. My flight experience is pitiably limited compared to many of the best storytellers in this journal, and my days of risk far less dramatic than theirs. Nonetheless, I have done, or not done, things that put at risk the safety of my airplane and its fleshy contents. Lessons were learned, fortunately without bent aluminum or broken bones.

Oil dipstick

Checking the oil is good; but you must replace the dipstick.

The most dramatic incident I wrote up for Flying magazine’s “ILAFFT” column; Mac McClellan turned it down, saying that they got this story far too many times, and he wasn’t interested in beating that drum. The short of it is that I was distracted by early arrival of a passenger while adding a quart of oil, and closed the cowl without replacing the oil filler cap. That meant that a short while later, at 5000 ft on a thank-God CAVU day, I saw a trickle of oil on the cowl, and the oil pressure needle at the bottom of the green and headed down.

Fortunately, we were between two easily reachable airports, and I made perhaps the best landing of my life power off. The engine was saved, many paper towels were consumed wiping down the plane, and my confidence as a pilot was deeply shaken despite the attaboys of my pax. I seriously considered giving up flying, thinking if my judgment and thoroughness were that bad, how could I be trusted? What if that had been a night flight, or over rough terrain, or with no airport within reach? I had reduced the safety margin to razor thin. Lesson: if interrupted, restart the checklist.

During my student days, I took the old Musketeer to a paved duster strip for short-field work. I flared a bit high and thumped in, added power and lifted off. Almost immediately, a very loud banging noise started, and I panicked— had I damaged the airplane? Should I land straight ahead? Turn around and land on the short strip? Or try to make it back to my nearby home field? Heart pounding, I called Rochester Approach, declared an emergency, and received an “any runway” clearance to land. The banging was surely heard by the controller.

Once established homeward, I calmed down. The engine was smooth, all instruments in the green, controls normal. I decided the noise came from the right side — and saw the right seat lap belt sticking out under the door. From that, I learned a few lessons — the most important being to actually look at the exterior during a preflight inspection. I boarded from the left and paid no attention to the right door. The second was to forcefully control my emotions when something happened unexpectedly: first of all, fly the airplane. Panic could have led me to make an off-airport landing, lose control, or get hurt in a bad landing.


Don’t let ATC talk you into landing on a runway that doesn’t agree the wind.

On another low-time occasion, traveling cross-country, I landed at a Midwestern airport for fuel. The wind was very strong, I think around 25 knots with gusts. The tower offered me a runway with a near-direct crosswind, despite there being a runway more closely aligned with the wind. Dunce me, I accepted his offer and continued the approach, with the nose maybe 30 degrees to the left. The landing was a near disaster, bouncing, squealing tires, swerving all over the runway; from sheer luck, I suspect, I saved the plane but not my confidence. The possible consequences of my shaved safety margins are obvious. Also obvious is the need to think about all controller instructions to be sure compliance is the right course.

I could go on, but might balance these bad decisions with good ones — the day I was ready to pull out the airplane, and scrubbed the flight because of a headache. As a VFR cross-country pilot, making a 180 at the first sign of snowfall and reduced visibility. Having the engine checked for minor roughness, and finding a badly burned exhaust valve. Thankfully, as my hours increased — and I aged — the number of bad decisions dropped off.

Now, the highly experienced authors for Air Facts probably haven’t made it this far (“Borrring!”), so I’ll address the students and low-time PPLs. You will have to forgive yourseves for mistakes; if you haven’t made any, you will. But pay attention to the margins: ask yourself before every decision, what are the tradeoffs, what are the margins? There are thousands of sad stories about flight into IFR, get-home-itis, inattention to maintenance, and so on. In most cases, there were flawed decisions, failure to recognize thin margins of safety, and poor response to unexpected circumstances. Those problems are within the pilot’s power to avoid. Look, think, plan ahead, and fly the airplane!

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]

Hunter Heath
Latest posts by Hunter Heath (see all)
15 replies
  1. Chris Mayer
    Chris Mayer says:

    These are all events that have either happened to most pilots, or that every pilot can relate to as could have happened to them. Sharing stories like this, perhaps in an EAA VMC club or here in AirFacts, is a great way for pilots to be reminded of how important it is to manage risk and be observant each and every time they strap on an airplane.

    In pilot proficiency clinics for the CAP I relate such vignettes and conclude with, “I am sure none of you would ever do anything like that. I would certainly never do that…again.”

  2. Vert Impact
    Vert Impact says:

    There are still, and will continue to be, unfortunately, those of you out there that treat the aircraft you’re about to “pilot” as ground transportation.

    Too many people that I’ve spoken to after accidents, that involve death of the pilot and/or passengers, state that occasionally the now dead pilot would get an attitude of “kick the tires and light the fires” (plagiarized from the movie “Independence Day”)…and this attitude is part of the problem that you reading this want to avoid. I believe these people don’t get queasy.

    I had my flight instructor tell me something one day which surprised me, but led me to believe “now I know why he has flown and is current in more aircraft than God, and why he has over 25,000 hours in the air”.

    He told me that he’s slightly queasy before each flight. He clarified that it isn’t the vomiting “queasy”…but just a little “fluttering” that eventually goes away after all procedures have been met and we’re airborne for a few minutes. He said that he is then sure that he has met all criteria for a successful flight that a human can do prior to and during the flight. It’s up to the machine, then.

    I told him I’m the same way. He said: “Good…it keeps you thinking about what you’re getting ready to do and you’re not on the ground yelling “Road trip !” blowing off the seriousness of being in the air.

    I thought there was something wrong with me or that I shouldn’t be flying. Nope, he said. You’d be surprised at the known “people of aviation” that get queasy before flight. It’s a closely held secret as to not “scare” the public that their pilot heroes are ready to puke………………….

    I now know I’m normal. But I’m still tired of feeling queasy getting ready to do something I live for. Oh well, maybe it’s my body telling me “I’m ready to get you to respond if things go north.” ( I’m a southerner… there !).

    • Robert Thomas
      Robert Thomas says:

      Wow, thanks for posting that! I feel exactly the same way. Nervous butterfly feeling, almost upset stomach before each flight. I’m also exceedingly cautious in my flying. I’m just flying for fun, so if something isn’t right, I go home. Glad to hear it’s not just me.

    • Hunter Heath
      Hunter Heath says:

      Thanks for all the fine comments. Like “Vert,” I also get that slight queasy feeling before a flight. It has seemed to me a sign of recognition for the real and potential risks I am about to take. Perhaps that feeling made me a careful pre-flighter. And I have found things on preflight inspection that kept me on the ground, some appropriately, some not. But as the saying goes, it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were airborne than to be airborne and wishing you were on the ground.

  3. Adam
    Adam says:

    Great article, thank you for sharing! Some of those I have done, some of those I hope NOT to do. Understanding you WILL make mistakes is a thing all new pilots need to understand, learn from them, forgive yourself, then move on a better pilot. Mitigating the size of the risk is a very large favor you can do yourself and your paxs. The mistakes you make that only cause embarrassment are the ones every pilot should strive for because, mistakes will come, hopefully they’ll be the small mistakes, not the ones that injure people or bend parts that shouldn’t be bent!

  4. Mcd
    Mcd says:

    I’m a pilot that was taught by my father a retired pilot from United Airlines.

    He told me that if that pit in your stomach before adding power on takeoff goes away, consider yourself in danger from overconfidence.

  5. Steve Mosier
    Steve Mosier says:

    Good stuff. I have posted before the comment in a driving safety course that “you are a different person every day you get in a car (or airpland). Tired, angry, elated, hung over, distracted etc. Evaluate your attitude before you turn the key or before you taxi. Know what you and other folks are getting ready to face.

  6. Bob Woodward
    Bob Woodward says:

    Vert, thanks for posting. Same feeling here. That nervousness of wanting to make sure that no checklist item is passed over, nothing observable is missed. While still a student pilot now, I hope I never lose that feeling as I think it keeps me on my toes.

  7. Steve
    Steve says:

    Love all the comments. Regarding the seat belt banging, my CFI preached “unless you are on fire, or pointing to brown, when trouble rears, first wind your watch…”. My own aphorism that came from getting behind the airplane “if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t do it fast”


    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I’ve heard the watch one before, but I love that last one: “if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t do it fast.” I’ll use that!

  8. Mark Sletten
    Mark Sletten says:

    > The tower offered me a runway with a near-direct crosswind, despite there being a runway more closely aligned with the wind.

    I sometimes wonder if these clearances are offered just to see if they are accepted.

    “Hey Bill, watch this. I’m going to offer this guy a 25-knot-crosswind landing. Think he’ll take it?”

    “Holy cow, he took it!”

    • Robert Gordon
      Robert Gordon says:

      I got a 20 kt crosswind direction from tower. I was in a Cherokee 140.. 20kt is max in the book, and there were gusts to 30kts. request runway 27, wind was about 200 degrees so ??? Long pause ” your Cherokee 469? yes. 27 approved cleared to land.

  9. M. Pact
    M. Pact says:

    There are too many people learning to fly, just beginning to fly, and flying now with 2 hours or more (lol…hey…(they say)…it’s just like my Porsche !) that somehow equate this process – procedure – experience – as driving a unique car. I call them “lawn darts” and hold them in contempt as they kill their passengers.

  10. Lloyd
    Lloyd says:

    I read, enjoy, and learn from everyone’s experiences. I got my ppl with barely 40 hrs back in 1973 and probably the only reason I survived my first hundred hours is dumb luck. Looking back, I really question some of the choices made then. I flew into IMC, overloaded baggage, flew with insufficient sleep, and a hundred other things I wouldn’t even consider now. Today, I view every flight through the eyes of a student pilot.

  11. Robert Gordon
    Robert Gordon says:

    After having flight instruction from my Dad, fighter pilot January 20 1942 South Pacific, he taught me so many things. I was in college and flying was not affordable, until 1975. After I had a real job, I started my required instruction from the best CFI I have ever been exposed to including me. I had 39.1 hrs when John sent me to Dalhart Tx in the Cherokee 140 for my private check ride.. I had 40.2 hrs when I arrived. I passed. John said now you have a license to learn. I had about 60 hrs so of course I thought.. hey.. I’ll take my girlfriend to Madill Oklahoma for Thanksgiving with our family, my Grandma lived there, fly back that afternoon. We arrived at the airport, after checking weather, Lubbock Tx was 800 ft overcast, my airport had an overcast but it “looked’ flyable VFR. After 100 ft on climb out raindrops started then immediately I was solid IFR. I had only the required hood time of maybe 5 hrs. I could hear John always saying fly your instruments!!! Luckily I had made this pattern a bunch of times so I guessed when to turn and start a downwind back to the active..then it happened, my body screamed at me , “your in a left hard bank and decending.. fast!! iNTRUMENTS!!! OK NOW . decend slowly until you break out of IFR.. ground!!! base final and a not bad landing..

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