Cultivating Safe Habits Vital For Survival

AS a young sports reporter for the Pretoria News I was once tasked to cover a world record attempt by paraplegic athletes to balance on the back wheels of their wheel chairs. These men worked as a team. After what seemed like more than three days' pure suffering and determination, the record was finally broken.

I will never forget a remark by one particularly burly chap: 'Tell the people out there to never think it cannot happen to you'. He was referring off course to paralysing spinal injuries. Shortly afterwards I did a follow-up story at the then H.F. Verwoerd Hospital's spinal unit. Having interviewed several patients and caregivers, it became clear most victims had been injured in similar ways - road accidents, diving accidents and a small remaining category with diverse causes like domestic or sports injuries.

How unnecessary it seemed to be penalised so severely for diving into a body of water without gauging the depth, or ascertaining the absence of obstacles! Almost four decades later I still find a notorious predictability and regularity in the way aviation people get into all sorts of trouble. We attempt to 'simplify' our flying activities through routines and drills. Nothing is essentially wrong with cockpit flows, vital actions and drills. But, the assumption that we are 'automatically safeguarded' by routines often contains the key to understanding phenomena like altitude busts, heading deviations, runway incursions, etc. in conditions of added strain - like single-pilot instrument flying.

Air disasters and light aircraft accidents alike are often associated with loss of geographic and spatial 'positional' awareness, as well as loss of overall and personal 'situational' awareness. A common denominator seems that the more we comply with certain routines, the more inattentive, distracted or complacent we become about deviation. Demanding circumstances associated with stress seem to detract from and impair our residual mental capacity to detect error or threat.

Being a rather 'average' and perhaps a 'spoil sport' pilot, I had always found it prudent to anticipate the unexpected. I have found it necessary to have organised cockpit procedures; i.e. writing down all ATC clearances on a kneepad or clipboard. Using little sticky papers to write down next frequencies has proven invaluable on numerous occasions. My regular 'flybuddy' Kosie Robbertse and I must seem like a real pain in the butt to some. We for instance never take-off in the Baron 58, ZS-SFO for a mere 40 minute flight from Wonderboom Airport to Ellisras without calculating 'single engine take-off weight'; i.e. for the prevailing density altitude and temperature. Our pre and post-flight routines are ridiculed by some.

We strive to never attempt any take-off whatsoever without realistic safety and risk assessment briefings. We do our best to have all relevant weather information. We aspire to cover all the applicable tables in the pilot's operating handbook. We derive our fun from honing our skills that way. I am not saying we are safer than our peers. But, we do realise the power of assumption can take any of us unawares. We try to remember there are no substitutes for constantly taking our flying seriously; to always be on the lookout for factors which can ruin our perfect little picture. We 'assume' no one is bigger than the game. Cultivating safe habits is vital for survival. Flying safety takes discipline and remains a balancing act. Fly safely!

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