When Things Go Sideways

I can’t determine who first said it, but flying has been described as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. The phrase may have been adapted from a description of trench warfare published in Guy’s Hospital Gazette during the first world war. Anyway, as an aerobat, the first bit leaves me scratching my head. Flying? Boring? I don’t get it.

The C-310R sits on Interstate 405. It won’t fly again, but at least the pilot avoided the too-common stall/spin. The occupants survived.

The part about sheer terror can occasionally ring true, however. That was my first thought upon hearing that a Cessna 310R had crashed on the southbound lanes of the 405 freeway just feet from the airport boundary at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport a few weeks ago. From takeoff to engine failure to pancaking onto the highway took but a couple of minutes.

Thankfully the pilot avoided a stall/spin situation and landed the aircraft more or less in one piece. As a result, both occupants survived. If you want to see what it looks like when the pilot doesn’t manage an engine failure as well, I wrote a post about it several years ago entitled “VMC Rollover”. (Warning: it includes a graphic video of a Beech Queen Air crash.)

Despite the SNA incident, I’ve often noted how NTSB statistics teach us that most mishaps occur on the ground rather than in the air. That has been my experience as well. This crash represents the first major accident I can remember at SNA – my home field — in many years. The airport has nearly 300,000 operations annually, so that’s really saying something.

One thing airborne and ground-based accidents have in common, however, is that when things go sideways, they tend to do so in an awful hurry. One such example occurred to my airplane recently. I returned from a trip and left the plane in the (normally) capable hands of the line staff at Signature. The next day I received a phone call informing me that one of their fuel trucks had backed into the trailing edge of the right wing.

This is not what you want to see on your airplane…

The damage was not catastrophic, but it set off a long chain of insurance claims, inspections, temporary repairs, ferry flights, downtime, aircraft rentals, missed trips, etc. which continue to this day. I spent a few hours at the airport, documenting the damage and interviewing anyone who was there or had information which might be relevant.

One person I did not have the opportunity to talk to was the driver of the fuel truck. He had been sent home and, I later learned, terminated. That seems to be typical these days, but I sort of wish it wasn’t. In Bob Hoover’s autobiography, Forever Flying, he relates the story of his Shrike Commander being misfueled with Jet-A instead of 100LL at a San Diego airshow in the 1980s. After a dual engine failure and off-airport landing, Hoover says he told the offending fueler, “There isn’t a man alive who hasn’t made a mistake. But I’m positive you’ll never make this mistake again. That’s why I want to make sure that you’re the only one to refuel my plane tomorrow. I won’t let anyone else on the field touch it.”

I’m fairly certain the fuel truck driver who backed into my aircraft would never have made that mistake again. Alas, the risk averse nature of modern business ensures he’ll never have the opportunity to become a better, safer employee.

If I could have spoken to the driver, I would’ve remind him that damaging a wing was not the end of the world. First of all, that’s why we have insurance. Second – and more importantly – is that things could have been a lot worse. A few years ago I saw a ramp worker walk into a turning King Air propeller on the same field. Believe it or not, he wasn’t killed or permanently maimed. At least, not that I know of. The pilot had already pulled the condition levers to “cutoff” and the prop levers to feather, so the ramper was whacked by the flat blade of a slowing prop and knocked out. It was bad enough that they took him away in an ambulance, but at least he was alive. The FBO terminated his employment.

A friend who flies a Stearman once related the story of hand propping the plane and having one of the blades nick the side of his leg as the engine fired. Cut and a little bloodied, but not permanently injured, he too escaped what could have been a disastrous accident.

I could go on all day with stories like that. An experienced and conscientious ramp worker I knew at Van Nuys was working the graveyard shift on a poorly lit area of the tarmac one night, preparing to tow a Gulfstream toward the hangar. Suddenly, to his horror, the airplane began rolling away. Can you imagine the disbelief with which he must have watched the slow speed crash as the jet collided with another Gulfstream parked nearby? A critical pin had not been securely fastened to the tow bar and once the chocks were removed, gravity took over. As with the others, the employee lost his job.

Though we’re not always cognizant of it, everything we do in life involves risk. But the nature of flying and the cost of aircraft make aviation particularly unforgiving of carelessness or error… so let’s all be careful out there, even when – or perhaps I should say especially when – you’re on the ground.

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  13 comments for “When Things Go Sideways

  1. Bret Mosher
    July 24, 2017 at 5:36 am

    Thank you for another great read, Ron!
    In our disposable oriented society, we do need to remind ourselves to appreciate our imperfections and build on the experiences we recieve and observe of others.
    The regular person doesn’t learn from mistakes. The smart person does learn from mistakes. The truly smart person learns from others mistakes.

    • July 24, 2017 at 11:18 am

      I often say something similar about good food: a little is good, more is better, and too much is just right. 🙂

      Seriously though, you’re spot on. When I first started flying, the fact that aviators spent so much time studying and discussing accident reports seemed morbid. Now I understand that it’s a natural follow-on of any activity which is so unforgiving of carelessness and/or error. We simply want to avoid a Bad Day and learning from others is a proven, low cost way to do it. The more we learn, the more valuable we become from an instructive standpoint — in addition to being low-risk for another error of the same kind.

  2. July 24, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Great post… as always Ron.

    Back in pre-desktop publishing days we used the photos in the classifieds over and over (as long as they didn’t change). The photos were pulled off the page (the beauty of wax) and left on top of the layout table.

    A new production staffer, in an attempt to tidy up and organize, threw away those images.

    When deadline loomed, we looked high and low for those photos. Our staffer spoke up and admitted his mistake.

    After much scrambling, we found a solution and proceeded with deadline. After learning his lesson, our production guy was a great long-term employee who never again repeated that mistake.

    • July 24, 2017 at 11:31 am

      Thanks Ben! I’ve never met the offending staffer, but just from your description of him, I admire the guy. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to come forward and admit the error, which — on the positive side — gave you some valuable insight into his character. The temptation to hide his mistake must have loomed large, especially with a) the deadline afoot, b) multiple images missing, and c) his low seniority as a new employee.

      Likewise, the fact that he didn’t lose his job undoubtedly told him a lot about how your operation valued honesty and understood the sometimes painful nature of learning a lesson the hard way.

      Aviators tend to be Type-A perfectionists. We have a passion for flying and really want to get it right. But as an instructor I always remind pilots after a tough flight that we learn a lot more from the things we do wrong than the things we do right. We review, internalize, and process the errors. And as such, we end up performing those tasks better in the future.

  3. July 24, 2017 at 9:38 am

    Great perspective, Ron! Mistakes are indeed often not repeated – at least when they are properly assessed. It’s too bad we can’t find a way to engineer these mistakes in a safe environment to learn from them without harm. Thanks for the great blog! I blog over at Clayviation.com and really enjoy your writing.

    • July 24, 2017 at 11:45 am

      Thanks, Clay! And you’re so right, proper assessment is very important. That has to come from within. Some people just don’t seem to care that they very narrowly avoided an accident, incident, or violation. Those are the people that really make me nervous. “A miss is as good as a mile” might work for some activities, but not flying.

      Simulators are good places to allow the errors to occur… but even the best Level D sims can’t model every situation. I do think training has improved dramatically with the advent of technology. Instead of just reading about something, it can be illustrated and dramatized via video, which is far more impactful.

      I took a quick look at your site and was impressed by the design and your Instagram feed! I’ll dig into the blog a little later. Thanks for reading!

  4. zaitcev
    July 24, 2017 at 11:48 am

    I think the phrase was coined to describe the life of a sailor aboard of ship of the line in 16th century.

    • July 24, 2017 at 11:56 am

      It would definitely have applied there, as well. They were crossing the Atlantic regularly by that point. Boy, what an arduous voyage that must have been…

  5. Hannah
    July 24, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    I really admire you for being so gracious to the poor truck driver. I’m not sure I would have . . .

    On a side note, Pappy Boyington said a similar phrase in reference to a fighter pilots job, “Hours and hours of dull monotony sprinkled with a few moments of stark horror.” I think that most have been a common theme among combat pilots since I’ve heard it other places too. But like you, I’m wondering what is dull about flying?

    • July 24, 2017 at 8:26 pm

      I suppose flying might be dull for the airline passenger or pilot who is going aloft for the 200th time this year. Even then I’m not sure it’s the flying as much as the ancillary activities like dealing with security, crowded terminals, long lines, and so on. That’s dull no matter how often you do — or don’t — fly!

    • July 24, 2017 at 8:28 pm

      By the way, I don’t know that I’m all that gracious. 🙂 It’s just a matter of thinking about how I would like to be treated if I made such a mistake. Because in crowded ramps and such, it’s always a possibility. I haven’t collided with anything, but it’s not a stretch to imagine it could one day happen!

  6. July 24, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    The obvious adjunct to the ‘moments of sheer terror’ quote is, of course, Capt. AG Lamplugh’s oft-quoted observation “…that the air, to an even greater extent than the sea, is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” (Originally made before the Royal Aeronautical Society, October 29, 1931.)

    Aircraft are engineering’s thoroughbreds – strong, powerful, but finely balanced. Even a slight bump can have far-reaching implications for the airframe, its systems and our wallets, so its critical to stay on your A-game until the machine is chocked and locked. And even then… Fortunately I’ve never seen even a minor accident and I keep my fingers crossed that I won’t.

    But there’s another story here, isn’t there? The outrageous (as in ‘I’m outraged’) treatment of staff who make a mistake. I would think Bob Hoover knew a thing or two about risk management, and yet litigious mitigation is taking precedence over risk mitigation. Surely that’s some kind of negligence?
    I’m reminded of 19th Century mills where a 16-hours-a-day child labourer who got caught in the machines could lose a limb and their income – AND be fined for interrupting production while they were pulled free.

    For all our progress and shiny new machines, perhaps humanity has ‘gone sideways’ too.

    • July 26, 2017 at 12:24 am

      That’s about as accurate a description of an airplane as I’ve ever seen. The Pitts always comes to mind as the ultimate example of an airborne dichotomy: strong enough to handle Unlimited level aerobatics, yet so fragile that stepping in the wrong place will result in a jagged hole all the way through the wing.

      As for the outrageous treatment of those who err, it seems to be part and parcel of modern society’s intolerance for risk. As you noted with the child labor example, the pendulum has swung quite far in the other direction at times. Nevertheless, we seem to be on an fairly long arc away from the middle. Perhaps the bourgeoning shortage of labor in the industry will do something to moderate things. We would all be better off for it, I think.

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