So just before Christmas I flew a fairly long five-hour mission in two legs, the first 3.8 hours and the second 1.2. All of it VFR (visual flight rules, for those of you new to aviation). I hadn’t flown prior to this in nearly six weeks. The experience was sobering. Allow me to list all the things I screwed up:
1. Forgot my usual practice of giving myself a pre-flight briefing (the kind you’d commonly perform if you were flying IFR in a two-crew environment). I forgot not once, but twice.
2. Didn’t call or check “airspeed alive” on the takeoff roll.
3. Realized too late that my en route track would take me directly over a busy general aviation airport and as a result was late deciding how I would transit their circuit and late communicating my intentions to other aircraft.
5. Made a complete butchery of my initial radio call as I began the approach for the landing on the first leg. My attempt to clarify the first call with another was nearly as bad. Looking back, had there been other aircraft in the circuit, they wouldn’t have had a clue what I was up to.
6. Didn’t check the runway length (with 5,000 feet available it wasn’t an issue, but the point is I should have checked).
7. Didn’t use VORs and ADF as backup navaids to my GPS until half way through the first leg.
Quite the shameful litany.
Now, none of the mistakes above fell into the category of what I’d term egregious. They were without question sloppy. But I don’t like flying sloppy. I don’t think any pilot worth his or her salt does. And any of the seven issues could easily have mushroomed, with the right amount of unlucky circumstance, into a dangerous problem. Needless to say, post flight I was mentally flogging myself.
So. How did it happen and what did I learn? Well, looking back, I can see I was lulled into a false sense of competency. Here’s how.
I knew going into the flight I hadn’t flown in a while and had made a mental note to be extra vigilant and to take my time doing pre-flight checks and running check lists. Fine and good.
A half hour or so into the flight our work took us into the Pearson (CYYZ) control zone, between runways 06L and 05 and a half mile or so west of the tower. Now, Pearson is a busy place, the busiest airport in Canada, and it’s not a place for a novice pilot or a Nervous Nellie. Was I apprehensive? A little, truth be told. But we got clearance to enter without issue and set about doing our work. My radio calls were crisp, we followed our instructions to the letter, accomplished our work within five minutes or so and exited promptly. I congratulated myself out loud, thinking I did fine given I hadn’t flown in a while and also thinking the hardest part of the flight was over with. The rest would be a breeze.
Hold on. Stop the tape right there.
That — thinking the rest would be a breeze — was, in my opinion, an egregious mistake. What I did was let my guard down, gave myself permission to be complacent and set up the environment in which mistakes happen.
The lesson? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t’ it? Don’t get complacent. The light at the end of a tunnel could well be a train. Or an airplane. The flight isn’t over until the engine is shut down. Simple. We’ve all heard it a thousand times, and now and then we need reminding.