An outside perspective

In my quest to understand where backcountry flying sits within my personal risk versus reward balance, I’ve learned volumes through the shared experiences of others who’ve gone before me in my chosen field. Revered backcountry aviators, willingly or not, have become not only my mentors, but confidants as I have worked to find a community to not only learn and grow in, but to thrive in as well. Endless hours sitting alongside the runways of the front- and back-country airfields, sleepless nights circled around the campfire, have done more for molding me into the aviator I am today and tomorrow than any FAA manual, advisory circular, or certification. And if a good pilot is always learning, a professional aviator, a true Disciple of Flight, reaches for opportunities to not only hone their craft, but to develop those in those who will fill those chairs around the campfires to come.

The last sentence of my latest article that’s been growing some traction thanks to a few new friends at AVweb is a quote that says “real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.” If there’s anything I’ve learned from the comments and critiques I’ve received regarding my article is that this competition is continuing off the STOL Drag / ArkanSTOL / STOL Competition courses across the country and now happening online, replacing winning times for community-sponsored thoughts and ideas. I truly believe in this quote, that there is a great opportunity for improvement to happen when we cease to try to be the bigger voice in the crowd.

The efforts of those like myself who donate their time, money, and talents to not only help to make the backcountry more safe, but to fight for airstrips to be open, are not without the benefits of a marketplace that supports the sale of nearly a half-million dollar modern Cub-type airplanes. The added attention the backcountry aviation receives has opened the doors into lands that were once closed to not only airplanes, but motor vehicles and people as well. Conversely, the continued accident and incident trends in the backcountry, many of which are kept off of the internet, off the NTSB’s radar, are putting us in a “one step forward, two steps back” dance that myself and my mentors agree substantiate the opinions I shared earlier.

My article was written from a place of frustration. Having read the unofficial reports from bystanders, having reviewed the images and videos shared throughout our communities, to see a fellow professional aviator in a situation where the ability to put food on the table for them and their family was put in jeopardy was nothing taken lightly. Having a large family myself, the thought of not being able to provide for them, let alone not returning home after an adventure, is something that weighs heavily on my risk versus reward inner monologue. Not knowing the pilot, I could only assume that his thought processes were similar; the desire for adventure, but a stronger desire to come home. An experienced aviator, both on and off the race course, with many competitions under his belt, would surely not have the successes he’s enjoyed in his aviation life without sound aeronautical decision making (ADM) keeping him alive. My frustration came from those thoughts and wondering how this could have happened.

It would be naive to think that one can achieve a level of airmanship void of error. For over a hundred years, we’ve nearly perfected the art of airmanship, yet to this day we continue to make the same mistakes. The fact that we have to substantiate aircraft impacts with the ground as “controlled” or “uncontrolled” helps make that point. But what causes us to err?

One thing the STOL marketplace has done recently is grown. While the airplanes and their varying iterations and models come about with each passing year with even more carbon fiber bits and pieces, the modifications and enhancements third-party companies offer appears to be outpacing the manufacturer’s output of the airplanes themselves. We’ve gone from throwing shade towards a spam can 172 flying in the Idaho backcountry to relishing in the capabilities that come from something so simple and so economical with the addition of some of these enhancements. 

When adding these modifications, one could note that the added capabilities of these airplanes seems to go unchecked without any enhancements to the skills of the pilot. If we were comfortable with X amount of risk, the addition of something simple, say, 35 inch bush wheels, leads us to believe that we can now push ourselves to X+Y risk levels, whether or not we have done our due diligence to see exactly what Y amounts to. Add in a STOL cuff, vortex generators, safety cables, aftermarket suspension systems, and you can see that it’s easy to add a few multiples of Y to the equation. A concept one of my mentors refers to as “risk homeostasis” has been seen in various realms, such as in skydiving, where the increased amounts of safety equipment and techniques developed over the course of skydiving’s history has somehow kept a similar fatality rate (known as Booth’s Rule #2).

One could come to the logical conclusion that it is the installation of these enhancements themselves that provides opportunities for errors to be made as risk is arbitrarily increased under the guise of added capabilities and supposed forgiveness.

The continued one-upping of these STOL competitions that started from takeoff and landing distances to timed drag races and closed-course takeoff and landing events surely increases the amount of opportunities for error to present itself. Adding in the complexities of close in obstructions to shortened runways, all under the threat of the clock, and a viewing audience, only adds alternative motivations to pilots as to what amount of grit can be exercised to take a few knots here and exchange them for a few seconds there. Coupled with target fixation, whether it be the time, the zero line, or whatever comes next in the STOL competition world, pilots are now pushed into vicarious positions of sacrificing speed, stability, or sound flying practices for the potential of a shiny new belt buckle and supposed fame.

Taking the aircraft and the racecourse out of the equation, the only thing left is the pilot. While some of the comments revolved around the pilot willingly knowing the risk of running the course in their airplane, the community that the pilot is a part of is where I believe improvements can be made to cure the disease of bent props, wrangled airframes, and broken bones at places like ArkanSTOL. At Oshkosh this year, I had the opportunity to hear a friend talk to a crowd about “Why good pilots make bad decisions.” Before I approached the tent, I had the thought in my mind “good pilots don’t make bad decisions…bad pilots do.” And while I’ll always agree with my rebuttal, I took a moment to remove any preconceived notions of what the talk was going to be and sat down with an open mind. I was impressed to learn about the idea of priming, and the concept that you are what you consume. When we find ourselves in the fold of pilots who tout waterskiing world records, harrowing tales of landing (illegally) atop mountains in the west, and associate ourselves with pilots who somehow are cherished for their poor decision making skills that have bent multiple airplanes, is it any wonder that the propensity to error is prevalent?

I want to know more about what caused four airplanes to end up in ways that their pilots didn’t intend to. We are quick to blame the errant nature of our specie, or at the least lean on that excuse as long as we can. But in those moments that lead up to a nose-over of one, the harder-than-intended landing of two off the runway, and this fourth plane who’s pilot continues down a road chocked full of surgery, therapy, and recovery, what was it that pushed them beyond what they, their airplanes, or a combination of both were capable of at that time? Diane Vaughan, a sociologist and professor at Columbia University, coined the phrase “normalization of deviance” during her examination of the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Through repeated unsafe practices that appeared to have no detrimental effects on operations, organizations like NASA became numb to, blatantly ignored, or openly dismissed these deviances and a new norm was accepted, with disastrous results as these deviances continued unchallenged or even multiplied. I wonder if the STOL competition community has pushed the boundaries of what is accepted as safe and normal, having noticed the banter that’s associated with images of aircraft waterskiing. If the purveyors of these events continue to award pilots who’ve damaged airplanes during these competitions, are they not also pushing these boundaries even further? When is enough enough? Must we wait for the first fatal accident in these events to take a step back attempt to view things from an outside perspective?

Last week, a few of my good friends and I enjoyed a quiet evening out on the island. A cool breeze from the northeast kept the mosquitos at bay as we watched the sun set slowly into the Great Salt Lake. A quick flight from civilization, Fremont Island offers aviators an often necessary reprieve from the modern world. Airstrips like these were made for us to enjoy, and opened to us through mutually-beneficial agreements on not only respecting the land, but keeping it safe and open for future generations to come. Through the poor choices of others, it was closed for a considerable amount of time. Today, however it is open, thanks to people taking the time to support organizations that rally around clearly-defined values. Safety through shared experience. Preserving and protecting airstrips. Promoting responsible use practices. And building community. Today, I’m thankful for being part of a community that not only embodies these values, but shares them with others as they partake in the joy that is backcountry aviation. If there’s something that my mentors have taught me, it is that there is always an opportunity to improve ourselves while uplifting others, and that there’s always a better day to go flying. There’s a difference between being right and doing right, and my hope is that purveyors of these events, the pilots that compete, and the community that supports these efforts, can focus their efforts on doing right versus being right. 

Photo courtesy of Taylor Dalton