Small Mistakes

Small Mistakes

Small Mistakes

Pilots are an odd group of people. They tend to be perfectionists who have an element of obsessive-compulsive behavior, and hate making mistakes, even very small ones. No matter how hard they try, most pilots rarely achieve a “perfect” flight where everything mechanically and performance-wise is flawless. 

I suffer from this malady. So much so that even after a year goes by, I can often remember every little thing that went wrong on any given flight and mentally chastise myself, vowing never to let it happen again. From a purely psychological perspective, that may be a bit pathological, but if so, at least it is a constructive use of pathology because it makes for better pilots and safer flights. 

Here are a few of the flights for which I am still chastising myself.

We are at FL410 over Klamath Falls, Oregon on a moonless night northwest bound under Oakland Center’s watchful eye. The Lear is on autopilot with the altitude set and shown in magenta at the right upper corner of the pilot’s PFD (primary flight display). I am the pilot flying (PF) sitting in the left seat messing around with my iPad to look up the TIMBR2 arrival we expect to get into Portland. My search is interrupted when the pilot monitoring (PM) in the right seat says, “You are gaining altitude.” I look up, and sure enough, we are at 41,100 feet and slowly climbing. 

My first thought is to see what happened with the autopilot and FMS control system, so I direct my attention to the set of tiny switches partially hidden in the dark under the glare shield. As I am focusing on those switches, the next thing I hear from the PM is, “We are still climbing…watch it, or we are going to get violated.” The word “violated” finally wakes me from my autopilot reverie at which time I turn the thing off and manually take control of the airplane. That was the right move, although a bit late, as we are now 200 feet above assigned altitude and that is likely to catch the attention of the controller.

With jets in the high flight levels, the distance between a stall and cruise airspeed is quite small (the so-called “coffin corner”) so pilots must be careful and gentle about control inputs when turning off the autopilot hand flying the airplane. I am aware of this fact and am now fully focused on the PFD, gradually reducing altitude hoping not to hear from the controller but confused as to what caused the altitude deviation.

So, I ask the PM, “Do you know what happened there, Mike?” To which he replies somewhat defensively, “No, but I didn’t touch a thing.” I then say, “Tell you what – I will hand fly the airplane and you re-set the autopilot on NAV and ALT and let’s see what it does.” 

He does as instructed while I firmly hold the control wheel, only to find the airplane has completely forgotten about the whole episode and now flies precisely at the selected altitude with no problem at all.

Several quiet and anxious minutes pass as we listen for the unpleasant inquiry from Oakland Center Controller about our altitude changes. But luckily our brief deviation must have occurred between radar sweeps because the
frequency remains silent and we, now both fully alert, fly on into the night with the autopilot on and my left hand guarding the control wheel. Though the controller might not have noticed, and the PM is an understanding guy, I made more than one mistake in this scenario. My response to whatever caused the altitude change took too long. Plus, I should have spent less time looking at the FMS/AP switches, or maybe had the PM do that while I just flew the airplane by hand. I won’t let that happen again.

A couple of months later, we are returning to our base airport at night in marginal IFR weather. We are set up for the RNAV/GPS approach on radar vectors to intercept the approach path and holding 4,100 feet as assigned by the controller. He says we are cleared for the approach, hold heading 030 and 4,100 feet until over SOCLO (the IAF) and established on the final approach course. With that, I push the APP (approach) button on the Lear’s autopilot and am looking at the approach plate on my iPad when I hear the PM politely say, “I think we are supposed to be at 4,100 feet.” I look up to see we are down to 3,900 feet which happens to be the appropriate altitude for that position on the approach, but not the one assigned by the controller. Not sure what caused this to happen (and remembering the prior altitude event), I quickly switch off the autopilot and climb back to 4,100 feet hoping the approach controller did not notice. But this was not the case this time. He shortly says, NXX, “Say altitude” to which the PM truthfully replies, “4,100 feet and uh, we just had a slight autopilot malfunction which we have corrected.” The controller kindly replies, “Not a problem.” My mistake, of course, is that I know autopilots can do unexpected things sometimes, particularly down low, and I should have caught the 200-foot altitude change earlier.

Fast forward to another night flight. 

I am making the same RNAV/GPS approach in marginal VFR conditions in the Lear. The airplane is coupled to the autopilot with everything going along just fine. A mile or so before we reach the missed approach point, the runway lights and VASI are clearly visible, and I click off the autopilot. I am about four knots fast and reduce power to slow down, but in doing so fail to trim pitch up slightly. 

As a result, the VASI lights which had previously shown a perfect two white and two red, now change to one white and three red. From my right, I hear the PM say, “Glide path…never want to see four red VASI lights at night.” He is exactly right, and I promptly pitch up slightly to get back to two reds and two whites. At night on an instrument approach, that descent below the correct glide path is something I should have caught and stopped earlier – another small mistake.

Sometimes, less than perfect performance also happens when I am not even flying the airplane. 

We depart VFR in the Lear 35 out of Valdez, Alaska to the northwest and out over the water, planning on getting our IFR clearance in the air from Anchorage Center. In the clear air, the airplane is climbing at nearly 5,000 fpm. The PF is paying attention to lateral navigation in order to stay clear of the snow-covered mountainous terrain on either side of us. As we had briefed, my job as the PM is to run the after-takeoff checklist, contact the center controller, get the clearance, watch for traffic and monitor the airplane’s altitude. I am working my way through this list of things when we zip right through 18,000 feet without the required IFR clearance. When I catch it, I say, “Over 18,000
and still VFR” to which the PF mutters a four-letter word, promptly reduces power and pitches down. By the time I actually have Anchorage Center on the frequency and in radar contact, we are at 17,990 feet and perfectly legal. The controller says nothing and our passengers in the back do not complain about their slight sense of weightlessness. But both of the guys in the front seat remember. We made a mistake.

I also occasionally make mistakes on the ground. 

I am pre-flighting a Robinson R44 helicopter. As I check the oil via the 4-inch by 6-inch hinged hatch on the left side, secured by two dzus fasteners, the wind cranks up and starts moving the main rotor blades in a fashion that catches my eye. I watch this for a minute or two wondering if I should get out the tie-down straps. But then the wind calms down and the motion stops. So, I continue my preflight around the helicopter and soon start the engine and fly away. 

I land a half-hour later at the FBO for fuel, only to notice that the oil access door on the left side is still open. When the main rotor blade movement had diverted my attention, I forgot to secure the little door with the fasteners. No harm was done, but to an obsessive perfectionist like myself, mistakes like this are not supposed to happen.

In the large scheme of things, these were all just “small” mistakes. None resulted in any damage to the aircraft, discomfort to the passengers, filed FAR violations or for that matter, much comment from air traffic control or anyone else. I have been flying long enough to know that distractions can lead to errors. Even knowing that fact, it was distractions that led to most of the above problems.

This bothers me (and most other pilots) more than the circumstances or actual events would justify, but at the same time, the nearly obsessive and perfectionistic mindset is what makes us good pilots. I think the idea is if you are bothered even by your small mistakes, it is much less likely you will make a big one. 

After more than 40 years and 11,000 hours, I have never had an accident, damaged an airplane, hurt a passenger or received a FAR violation. Somehow for pilots, a little compulsive and perfectionistic mental pathology can work in our favor. 

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