In Aviation, Small Differences Can Have a Big Impact

I am always amazed by how much difference there can be in very small distances.  As I was watching my favorite college football team last night, I was reminded of that fact once again.

As the game was coming to a close our team was down five points and driving towards the endzone.  The quarterback threw a pass near the goal line that was caught, but the receiver was tackled about  a yard short of the goal line that would have won them the game.

Once I got over the heartbreak, which came much later in the season this year than I am used to, it really hit me how often in life a relatively small distance can make a very big difference.

In this case the receiver has over 1,000 yards receiving this year.  He is on watch lists for major national awards.  He has been hands down the team’s best receiver, but he came up one yard short of winning the game for his team.  It had to be heartbreaking for him and his teammates, and I know it was rough for me and all of the other fans across the world.  All because of three feet.

In the flying world, these small distances can be far more critical.

I knew of a crew that clipped the top of a wall near an airfield and carried 80 feet of concertina wire on to the next base they landed at.  Three feet lower and the crew probably doesn’t get to tell the story.  Three feet higher and there is no story to tell.

It can be easy at times to take these small distances for granted.  Does it really matter if we run takeoff and landing data for an airfield we have used a million times in a plane we are very familiar with?  Is it the end of the world if I am a few knots slow on final?  Does it matter if I land a little long on a runway that has plenty of distance?

The vast majority of the time, the reality is that none of the things I mentioned above are going to kill you.  Tons of people do all of these things regularly without any bad outcomes.  At the same time, people have died from every single one of the things I mentioned, because those small differences can be the difference between life and death when flying.

The biggest reminder of this to me is a friend I lost because of a small Pelican Case probably less than six inches in size that got placed behind the yoke.  Six inches of plastic literally cost him and his crew their lives.

Whether it’s six inches, a couple of knots, or three feet, all of these small amounts can make a huge difference in being safe, or at great risk.  It is our job as aviators to keep ourselves on the three feet high and a couple of knots fast side of the situation so that we can not only continue to enjoy this thing we love, but to keep ourselves and those around us safe.

The real challenge with flying is that we also can’t err too far on the safe side, because that can be just as unsafe.  I heard a CFI talking about the dangers of adding too much of a safety margin to our flying that really hit home with me.  It’s acceptable to be a couple of knots fast when you are landing, but say it’s a little windy so you decide to carry a few more knots.  It has also been awhile since you flew so you decide to carry a few extra knots to feel safer.  Before you know it, you are more than ten knots fast on landing which is also not a safe situation.

Despite some of the inherent risks of taking people into the air inside of a metal tube, flying is a relatively safe endeavor when we follow the rules.  All of these small differences are manageable when we put in the proper time for training and experience.  We must settle for nothing less than perfection as we improve our aviation skills.  That doesn’t mean that every single approach will be on speed at exactly the spot we were aiming for on landing.  But when we aren’t on speed and we land long or short we should analyze why it happened.

We should take a moment to think about what we did and what the result was.  Did we pull the power a little early?  Was their a gust of wind right at the flare?  Did we fly speeds for a different flap setting than what we actually configured?  There could be dozens of different causes for our mistakes, but if we never take the time to analyze what we did, we can never fix those mistakes.  More importantly, we increase the likelihood of exceeding the safe limits and having an accident.

I think this constant pursuit of improvement is one of the reasons I love flying so much.  You can fly thousands of miles and after all of that, it comes down to just a few hundred feet of accuracy to end the trip safely.  There is also always room for improvement.  There is no such thing as the perfect flight or the perfect pilot.  There is always a new skill to learn, or a new type of flying to try out.  And there is always an opportunity to make sure we are staying on the safe side of these small differences.