The best period for thermal soaring in these parts? Typically late July through early August, which is now behind us. It’s officially late summer, when we’re due some welcome humidity and cloud development in light southeasterlies, even a quick thunderstorm or two plus several more within watching distance. (Some actually call it a monsoon!) For now though, our outlook is more Mojave dry. This weekend will mark a ‘cool’ dip in a two-week heat wave, with highs around 90, and clouds, if any, only over the mountains. Wind? Light early, strengthening westerly late, maybe some south at day’s end, as usual.
Dog days – except my dog’s smarter than us, she’s sleeping in the shade!
Hang around airports long enough and you’re bound to hear talk about newly rated pilots becoming more dangerous after 200 hours — and then less dangerous after 500. The implication is, those who survive this cocky phase become truly safe at last. My own empirical evidence as a flight instructor supports such a notion more than it doesn’t, but what do I know? Wondering if there were actual evidence, I cranked up the google machine and quickly found that, like so much of what ‘they’ say, the legend rings true… Half true.
The government publication DOT/FAA/AM-15/3 obviously was written by statisticians for statisticians and is spectacularly unreadable, but it does include graphs for assorted categories of accident probability that reveal striking similarity across the board. This one sample is representative of the whole set.
In each category, accidents within pilots’ first 100 hours are essentially zero, but increase manyfold by 200 hours, and continue to increase even more rapidly to 300. After that the increase continues at a slower rate until indeed peaking at 500 hours — but in every category the bell curve descends much slower toward the high-time side of the graph.
Several factors influence this data in opposing ways. It’s reasonable to expect that pilots with five hundred hours are more at risk than those with five thousand. But common sense also dictates the longer anyone flies the greater their chance of an inevitable mishap. From the perspective of DOT/FAA/AM-15/3, “…there are simply fewer pilots at higher total flight hours, hence fewer accidents.” Who knows to what extent low-time accidents eliminate less-safe pilots from the data pool? The authors grapple with with these and other potential contradictions by analyzing data in multiple ways, and not surprisingly, draw differing conclusions about what they call the ‘killing zone’ of heightened risk.
From a maze of exotic formulas and statistical jargon, they emerge with two deductions that carry the same message even as they disagree. One defines a killing zone from 50-350 hours, and the other from 100-2000. Either way, the authors note that “relatively high risk for an individual pilot may extend well beyond the 2,000-hour mark before leveling off to a baseline rate.” In other words, ordinary pilots with less than 5000 hours spend most of that time in the killing zone — and it takes much longer to leave the zone than to enter it.
Look again at the graph. There’s still data dribbling in far out to the right… I personally know of more old-timers than I care to count, who flew well into the five-digit side of this graph accident free, then took to the air, regrettably, just once too often. It’s what life in the air has in common with life on the highway: the killing zone is everywhere all the time, unless we do whatever’s necessary THIS TIME to make it otherwise…
Successful soaring pilots are those who obtain the most from the least, both physically and cognitively. Every moment of flight, we’re surrounded by more information of all kinds than we can fully comprehend, much less process. One of our greatest challenges is continually sorting through new stuff and discarding some to make room for whatever seems more important. Mental capacity is like bandwidth, always subject to limits. Especially when the clock starts ticking faster than usual. Triage.
And that can be any time from well before preflight until long after the dust has settled. Not only standard emergencies during takeoff and tow, but the endless parade of random jacks-in-the-box that pop up almost regularly throughout any long flight — or career. Say you survive a launch. Hooray! Now comes EVERYTHING ELSE, at least some of which you won’t know to expect. Objects running down, wearing out, going empty (or filling up) too soon; things occurring, or not, when they shouldn’t, or should. Perhaps out of nowhere (now here), fast and deadly TRAFFIC…
If it could happen it will, eventually, and when it does it will happen NOW. Call me superstitious, but such monkey wrenches always seem withheld by some cosmic hand until the worst possible time. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, my mantra is the same as for the actual air we soar: think negatively and act positively. Plan for the worst, play for the best.
Many minor calamities may seem forgettable, while some you couldn’t forget if you try, but they all enrich the database. Think of each as a unique and therefore special opportunity to learn. In ‘real’ time, observe any unusual detail closely, then when the pace returns to normal, take all of that precious resource you can afford to debrief and analyze those crucial seconds for gems of wisdom. They’re there. Information generated in this way expands the effective bandwidth available for your next surprise — and next success!
Unwelcome as these hiccoughs are at the time, they’ll constitute most of what you remember years later. And don’t kid yourself, how you respond determines the character of those memories. That’s why we do this, in the end, to indulge our curiosity and reflect forever on the results… fondly, we hope. Be honest, the evening after your final logbook entry, what else will you have to show for it all? The new memories you create next time you fly will travel with you from there on, whether you log them or not, so choose wisely.
First, this week’s accolades go to one of our very own, Cameron Evans, who passed his private pilot check ride last Monday. Way to go Cam!
Now for the coming week, thermal conditions will be fine by ‘normal’ standards, though suppressed by an influx of windiness from the southwest. So, each afternoon we might be able to thermal above spotty cumulus into wave…
SEE YOU SOON