25 March 2009

Responsibility, Newspapers, and Airmanship

I was having a good morning.

I woke up a tad early, and was to work a tad early.

There were things going on, but it wasn't too busy to be overwhelming, and not too slow to be downright boring.

It was going to be a good day, I thought. It wasn't too cold, and the rain was light enough to not be a bother at all. My first departure left early, and I was feeling pretty good about the pace of the rest of the day. Until I read yesterday's Grand Rapids Press.

I am sure that we are all just as saddened and shocked by the recent rash of aircraft incidents and crashes that have happened all over the globe. There has been tremendous heroism in many cases on the part of the air crews involved, and undoubtedly, some of the passengers.

But there is also a dark side to these incidents, above and beyond the tragic loss of life and the devastation that occurs in any air crash.

Amid the stories of heroism and selfless courage, there is the story of the pilot of the stricken airliner who paused for a while before doing his emergency checklist, in order to say a prayer for safety. If the name of my blog is any indication, I fully support this pilot's faith and motives. It's his timing that I am taking issue with. I don't care how pious or devoted you are, how strong your relationship with God is, an emerging crisis while in the air is no time to stop and take a prayer break. There is a time for everything, and now is not that time!

Or the flight crew who attempted to fly to an airport in weather they really shouldn't have flown in.

Or the most recent, the pilot who killed himself and his passengers in Montana because he allowed too many people on the airplane.

Now, I do not want to speak too rashly, or call down premature judgement down on these incidents, but I do want to stress the importance of Airmanship.

In the grand scheme of things, I have virtually no piloting experience. But in my short time spent in the cockpit, the importance of checklists, the importance of knowing your equipment (specifically the equipment limitations), and the importance of respecting nature were very much impressed upon me. These qualities, and more, are generally referred to as "Airmanship".

Airmanship is responsible flying.

My actual experience in the cockpit reinforced things about flying that I had been taught as a child, listening to my father's "airtales" that he has collected over his career as a mechanic.

I cannot tell you how many days that I sat at the airport, on the ground, because the weather was right "at limits", as we say, treading that line between okay to fly and staying on the ground. It may clear up, it may get worse.

"It's better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground."

Respect for weather. Airmanship.

When I was in flight school, my instructor would make me do a weight and balance sheet for nearly every flight. It was unnecessary, because the aircraft we were flying was never overloaded with just the two of us on board, but he impressed upon me the importance of the weight and balance. In order to fly correctly, the aircraft must not be overloaded, and the weight that is carried on the aircraft must be distributed evenly, within a certain window. Imagine balancing an object on the tip of a pencil. You must center the object more or less on the pencil tip, or it will fall off to one side or another. The point where the object balances perfectly on the tip of the pencil is the object's center of gravity.

Airplanes have a center of gravity (in fact, everything does), and if you do not balance the weight to keep the center of gravity within the limits specified, the aircraft will not fly correctly.

Aircraft can only carry a certain amount of weight due to their unique design limitations, and if the aircraft is too heavy, it will not fly correctly.

If the pilot in Montana had flown easy, gentle, straight and level all the way down to the field, he probably would have not crashed. But the point is, what he should have done is not take all those people with him in the first place.

Calculating weight and balance and sticking to it is part of Airmanship.

Pilots have checklists for nearly every situation. When I was training, I had a pre-flight checklist, a pre-movement checklist, a pre-takeoff checklist, a climbout checklist, a landing checklist. Add to that the emergency checklist, a maneuver checklist to be completed before starting practice maneuvers, as well as a couple checklists that were not written down, but memorized.

If it is not written down, it did not happen. Responsible pilots always complete their checklists, and never deviate from them. Responsible pilots do their checklists the same way every time they do them, until they have the checklists memorized. And then, responsible pilots still use the checklist, holding it in their hand as they go through it, reading and checking off every line as they go.

If one must rate checklists in order of importance, then the emergency checklist is probably at the top of the list. When something bad happens while you are in the air, you simply must not hesitate to complete the checklist. It will happen quick, and things will go wrong in a hurry, and you will not have time to dwaddle.

This is also a part of Airmanship.

As I said, I read the tragic account of the Montana crash in the Grand Rapids Press. What really got me was the picture above the article.

It was a picture of one of the families that was killed. The entire family, Dad, Mom, and their three young children. They were all sitting pretty and smiling, for a family portrait that was taken recently, and no doubt ended up on their Christmas cards, and was sent to proud grandparents, and given to other family and friends.

And it sickened me that this picture was displayed above the article about the irresponsibility of their tragic death.

It struck me that this was probably just as irresponsible as their pilot was in cramming all his passengers aboard the airplane in the first place.

It wasn't all the victims. It wasn't the pilot. It wasn't anyone else involved in the incident. It wasn't the man who stopped his car on the road driving by to help. It wasn't the first firefighter to arrive, or the first policeman on the scene. It certainly was not the overworked and under appreciated National Transportation Safety Board agent who had the grisly task of examining the wreckage to discover the cause.

It was just the one family.

And unless we are prepared to display pictures of every single person who dies in a tragic, headline-making crash, be it aircraft, trains, boats, or automobiles, we must call this what it is:


Un-Airman like conduct, if you will.

And certainly not responsible reporting.


1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Very sad to read, but I appreciate what I learned here, as well as your perspective on this!