By Johan Lottering

PRETORIA'S students have always been taught when the Jacarandas start blooming, it is generally too late to commence studying for exams. In aviation the otherwise beautiful month of October has a special significance too. Seasonal weather changes introduce new flying conditions and entire sets of different consequences and considerations. These include, but are not limited to, thunderstorms embedded in Nimbostratus and dangers associated with high density altitude.

In 'Black October 2008' no fewer than 25 people lost their lives due to poor aviation practices. A common denominator in the spate of accidents seems elusive, till one looks in the right places. Though the types of accidents seem diverse, in most cases caution had been thrown into the wind at some stage in the accident causal chain. Lack of professionalism could have been precluded by better and more thorough training and preparation.

Aviators simply do not have the luxury of learning 'while taking a chance' or 'exploring the limits'. By then it's generally far too late. We also do not have the right to do so in situations where others may be paying for the exam fees with their lives. The best decisions are based on the best information. Acquiring and assimilating such information takes due diligence. The record shows that both experience and qualifications ironically sometimes become a kind of 'licence' for venturing into 'uncharted territory'. Flying below safety heights in mountainous terrain goes against every principle pilots have been trained for. Yet, we often see it applied in practice.

In one case the pilot of a four-seat piston helicopter had over 4,000 hours and 1,440 on type. Notwithstanding his considerable experience he'd ventured into a gorge and collided with a power line, killing all three aboard. In another case involving an instrument rated commercial pilot nine people were killed when he'd ventured below safety heights into mountains to remain underneath clouds. Having flown a Britten-Norman Islander in bad weather, I can attest that with her high-lift wings she jumps around like few aircraft do. But, that's no excuse... And, as professionals we simply have to master our fears and abide by the rules. That can only be accomplished with the right kind of en-route training and experience.

The 21-year-old pilot had taken off 292 lb over gross weight limit applicable to prevailing conditions. Flights in twin engine aircraft should be calculated for single-engine performance clearance limits. Overloading 'per se' had not been the ultimate cause of the accident, but most likely reveals other vital safety considerations had been neglected. Similarly, the pilot who'd killed him and five others in a Piper Lance had allowed the aircraft to be loaded 260 lb over the gross weight limit. His aircraft was simply unable to adhere to obstacle clearance limits as he took off from Rand's Runway 35.

As aviation safety protagonists we should learn from the past and prepare young pilots how to cope with pressure from passengers, especially in situations when it's clearly not in their best interests to commence or proceed with a flight. What on earth has happened to climb gradients? Why do pilots, unlike the veteran charter jocks, not do 'circling climbs' anymore e.g. to clear escarpments? The pilot of a Baron 58 was killed having lost an engine, then situational awareness and ultimately control of the aircraft. He had no passengers and over a 1,100 hours experience. Why could he not cope? The most probable answer is that with 15 hours on type he had evidently not been properly and repeatedly prepared for such scenarios. In summary, do not be too keen to try out new things or venture into situations neither thoroughly rehearsed nor properly prepared for. In other words, do not try the test first and get the lesson afterwards… lest the purple Jacarandas lament your demise!

Johan Lottering - Focused Flying

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