By Ed Downs
As implied by the title of these editorial thoughts, current events often drive the creative rants offered by those who share their opinions in public. This month is no exception, although the quantity and volume of news stories parading through the TV media and web makes it hard to choose which one to go with. The obvious answer to, “which subject do we exploit,” is to simply combine several stories together. How about recent events, which include an embarrassed movie star, the “lying” media, a famous cartoonist, and of course, a lesson from the FAA’s favorite subject, Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM). Tough assignment? “Heck no,” as they say in red neck country, “Hold my beer.”
The embarrassed movie star is an easy story to pick up on. Once again, actor Harrison Ford is in the news with a flying adventure. In today’s world of smart phone cameras, it is virtually impossible to make any kind of mistake without someone catching it on video, ready to run on the 10 o’clock news. Such was the case when Mr. Ford lined up with a taxiway, as opposed to a parallel runway, at John Wayne Airport in Southern California. Ford has a large collection of aircraft (can you sense the envy?) based at the besieged Santa Monica airport, which he frequently takes out for a local flight.
Readers might recall his forced landing in a beautifully restored PT22 a couple of years ago when the engine failed (a part failure in the carburetor) while departing Santa Monica. It was generally agreed that his survival was a demonstration of remarkable flying skills under the worst of possible conditions. However, this most recent incident gave the “lying” media an excellent opportunity to come up with a story that makes yellow journalism look like Pulitzer Prize writing.
For several days, every news station in the country bombarded the public with the terrors of a “near collison” between Ford’s Aviat Husky and the airliner that was “full of terrified passengers.” Such terms as “barley missed,” “terrifying near collision,” “averted disaster,” “endangered lives,” and too many other phrases of death and destruction to count spewed forth. All reports seemed designed to support the narrative that small airplanes are out to hit big airplanes, especially if Harrison Ford is the pilot. One news person (I am being kind) even glowed as ATC tapes were played that recorded Ford as he miss-identified his Husky while flying through the LA Class B airspace. Another tape from John Wayne Tower captured Mr. Ford asking if “the airliner was supposed to be under him.”
Upon playing these tapes, the news anchor arrogantly offered, “perhaps Ford’s flying days are over.” To be sure, the incident was embarrassing, but to even the most casual aviation qualified observer, the so-called “near miss” fell into a mid-level runway incursion incident in which no one was in danger. To be sure, Ford and the FAA (including local ATC) need to understand what happened, as the responsibility might be shared. The fake story, however, was one of “life and death,” danger by an incompetent pilot, a story which did not exist except in the minds of competitive news media writers seeking to sell commercial advertising time.
One is caused to wonder, if this type of fictitious reporting goes on regarding subjects that we aviators know a lot about, how many stories are out there about less familiar subjects that suffer from similar false and fallacious storylines designed reap ratings, not tell the truth. One can only conclude that GA flying is not the only fall guy in the wonderful world of media reporting.
So there it is, the embarrassed Hollywood actor part of the story and a rant about the media. But what about the cartoonist and Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM)? Garry Hart and his very edgy cartoon series, “The Far Side” has always been a favorite of this writer, which may tell those familiar with Hart’s work a bit too much about this writer’s mental state. The “Far Side” explores an out-of-the-box side of human and animal behavior that is hysterically funny, while at the same time, often earning a groan. The cartoon that accompanies this editorial is a case in point. Our two hero pilots look calmly out the windscreen and wonder why a mountain goat is way up there in the clouds. Most of us would take this as a clue we need to add some backpressure and get the heck out of there.
Obviously, mountain goats do not live in the clouds; they live in the mountains (did their name give you a clue). Nevertheless, there is the reality that the plight of these two dimwits represents a behavior we can all fall victim to. That behavior may have been a contributing factor that allowed Mr. Ford to line up with a taxiway instead of the adjacent runway. It is a phenomenon known in the ADM world as “plan continuation bias.” This can also account for miss identifying the airplane you are flying. This writer would like to claim that I have never lined up with the wrong runway, entered a wrong traffic pattern of messed up a radio call, but I have done all of the above. Typically, it is because I had a mindset that all was good, and I was flying exactly as I expected to fly. In other words, I was continuing with what I thought was the correct plan of action and that “nothing can go wrong” because I have this under control.
Once the human brain has a concept or thought firmly planted, it is very difficult to recognize that a variable has set in and a change of plan is needed. In the case of misidentification, this pilot has flown for flight schools that use only Cessnas. The mindset is to identify the plane as a “Cessna” when making a call. Having called “Cessna” all day, a plan that has worked, what do you think might happen when the last flight of a long day is in a customer’s Piper? Are there any readers out there who have not, upon calling the tower from a rented plane, realized half way through the call that you cannot remember the “N” number of the plane you are supposedly in command of? Somewhat embarrassing, eh? This writer is guilty of all of the above.
In virtually all cases, it is because I thought I had a plan in play and was committed to that plan. The same continuation bias applies to lining up with the wrong runway. One would not do that if you knew it was wrong, nor would the tower allow it. Is it possible that in the case of Mr. Ford’s adventure, he had planned for a straight-in and that is what he was doing? The tower had given a clearance, and their plan was that Ford would comply. Everyone had a plan and followed it to an unsuccessful outcome. And, just a food for thought, a big airport with parallel runways can easily have up to six (or more) strips of very wide pavement running parallel to one another when you count taxiways that might be wider than most GA runways. They all look very good to a Husky.
We all need to have a plan when we fly, and we need to follow and trust that plan. However, like a very popular POTUS once said, “trust but verify.” One needs to be situationally aware. Even when everything is going according to plan, ask yourself “what is waiting out there to bite me?” Sometimes it is the negative perspective that gets you the best result.
So, there you are, four dissimilar subjects wrapped into one editorial. Now, if you will excuse me, I would like to finish my beer. That is my plan!