Lessons Learned: When to Ground Yourself

Flying is an inherently dangerous venture.  While still significantly safer than driving, by the numbers, there is a much higher risk involved with flying because of the unforgiving nature of problems that occur at altitude, or even on the ground where other aircraft are operating.  In fact, the largest accident in aviation history occurred on the ground.

Because of the dangerous nature of flying, in the Air Force we have a process to determine how much risk we are taking on for each mission.  We assign numbers to the various aspects of the mission such as flying at night, flying an unfamiliar route, or having inexperienced crew members.  It can be somewhat difficult to assign numbers to some things, but it helps paint a better picture of the level of risk that is being taken on for each flight.

Part of the process for determining the overall risk level for the mission is determining the risk level for each individual crew member.  This individual score is based upon two factors, our own personal health to include things like fatigue and sickness, and personal factors like family problems or work stress that may impact our ability to perform at the highest level.

Surprise surprise that a government organization has an in depth process to allow people to fly long before the actual flight even takes place.  I have no idea what airlines do but I would venture to guess it is based largely on legal compliance which makes sense because their flights are essentially the same every time.  When it comes to individual people flying smaller planes I think most people walk out to the plane and do some level of pre-flight, with a level of detail unique to each individual, and get in the plane and fly.

Which finally brings me to my lesson from this last flight.  As I mentioned before, I am in the middle of lead upgrade which means I get to do all of the planning for our mission.  I spent half of the day before this flight coming up with a plan to meet training objectives and ensure we were as effective as possible.  I even went to sleep a little earlier than usual to try and be rested.

Unfortunately, my body decided it didn’t want to sleep for half the night but would rather spend that time in the bathroom.  I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say I wasn’t enjoying a nice soak in the tub.  I finally just got up and went to work to finish preparing for the flight.  As I was driving to work I noticed that I was not as sharp as usual which was really no surprise considering I only got about 4 hours of sleep.

All of us will have this happen at some point in our flying career.  We will be tired, or sick, or even stressed to the point that our performance will suffer, and we will put ourselves, and everyone else flying around us, at risk.  It can be really hard to know where your limits are.  Especially when you have a crew that is counting on you, or passengers trying to get somewhere, no one wants to be the reason that a flight doesn’t go.

As I was making my last preparations, before everyone else showed up, it became apparent to me that I was not in a position to be flying so I made the decision to ground myself and hoped that we could come up with a solution to allow others to still fly.  Coincidentally, someone on the other crew was also not able to fly so we had to rearrange crews anyways and only one plane flew that day.  Not the ideal situation, but the safe one.

The point I am trying to make with this long explanation is that each of us needs to know what our limits our.  We need to recognize when we are tired, or sick, or even just distracted, and we need to ground ourselves.  This may disappoint our friends or cause scheduling issues at work, but that is way better than having an accident because we weren’t in the right mindset to handle it.

You don’t have to create a formal sheet like we have in the Air Force, but it may not be a bad idea for that to be the first step in your checklist:

1. Am I in the right mindset/physically able to fly today? 

Making sound decisions is a huge aspect of being an aviator, and that begins long before you ever start the plane up to fly.