Acceptable Risk

Posted by in Safety

Dutch pilot Jaap Rademaker recently landed his Foxbat A-22 on the deck of a new kind of cargo ship which features a completely flat top deck. The resulting video has been making the rounds on the internet, and was recently picked up by AOPA. From the comments posted therein, the prevailing opinion seems to be that Rademaker’s landing was an ill-conceived stunt by a low-time pilot with poor judgement.

I really don’t see the big deal. Yes, there was some risk involved with the landing, but so what? There was advance planning, coordination, and the pilot had considered the worst case scenarios. So he’d never landed on an aircraft carrier before. The Wright brothers had never flown a powered aircraft prior to 1903 either.

Bruce Landsburg, head of the Air Safety Foundation, compared the landing to other “questionable” piloting choices.

Is our perception situationally based? Here are some common GA scenarios:

Land in a greater-than-demonstrated crosswind
Tackle an area of widespread thunderstorms
Land with minimum fuel
Fly in to an area of icing with a non-approved aircraft
Land out of an instrument approach “right at” minimums
Take off or land at a really short strip

If everything works out you’re the ace of the base, but foul it up and we think of you as a dummy! How many times have you done something in past flight experience that you reflect on afterward and think, “That just may not have been my finest aeronautical moment.”

I’ve got news for you: you’re going to be thought of as a dummy if you foul anything up, period. That’s how aviation works. You don’t even need to be near the aircraft to be castigated by your loving peers. You could be sitting at the airport cafe having lunch and you’d still be spoken of as an idiot if your aircraft got scratched due to jet or prop blast. The wags would be saying you shouldn’t have parked there, you used the wrong knot, you didn’t chock all three wheels, you shoulda shoulda shoulda…

I don’t necessarily see an issue with Bruce’s scenarios. Landing after flying an approach that breaks me out of the clouds at minimums? Professional pilots do that all the time. Even newly minted instrument pilots are trained and tested to perform that task. Landing with minimum fuel? Every time I fly the Pitts, I’m landing with minimum fuel because that’s all it holds. Flying in areas of icing without “known icing” approval is something pilots in the Northeast and Midwest sometimes do in winter. If you’ve got turbine or turbocharged powerplant(s), solid VFR, and/or non-freezing temperatures above the MEA along your route, it might be perfectly safe.

My point here is that people want to apply their own personal flying standards to everyone else’s operation, and that just doesn’t work. That’s why they’re called “personal”. For example, as a fixed-wing pilot living in the L.A. area, I think I’d be crazy to fly a single-engine aircraft all day at 1,000 feet or less above the dirt. But I’m not going to say nobody else should ever do it. Single-engine helicopters pilots, banner towers, aerial photographers, ag pilots (yes, they exist even in downtown Los Angeles!) and others spend their whole careers down there.

Perhaps it’s just because I don’t fly the same airplane every day, but the concept of “acceptable risk” is a moving target, even for an individual aviator. If I’m flying solo aerobatics in an Eagle, my risk profile is higher than if I’m flying the Gulfstream with paying passengers on board, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even on a single flight, the level of risk one is willing to accept can change (think: weather). As long as it’s an informed decision made with all relevant factors in mind, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it.

So who are we to condemn Rademaker for his so-called stunt? He felt it was worthwhile enough to invest his time and money in the venture and put himself and his airplane at risk. He took precautions by coordinating with the ship operator, using safety equipment, and waiting until he felt comfortable enough with the approach to follow through with the landing.

I say “good job”. What say you?