We Are What We Fly

A Champ, flying at its most basic

This week I was invited to speak to the international gathering of Gulfstream business jet operators. Safety was the theme, but the exact topic was my choice.

What Richard Collins, who has spent even more decades than me studying accident reports, and I have marveled at is how the very same pilots behave differently in different categories of airplane. Why does the highly experienced ATP rated pilot who has a near perfect safety record in business and airline jets often make the same mistakes, and same risky decisions in piston airplanes as a less experienced pilot does?

This safety contrast is most stark when you compare the accident rates of twin turboprops and business jets. The turboprop doesn’t have quite as much performance reserve and system redundancy as a transport category jet, but power loss and system failure is almost never the reason for the accident in either turboprops or jets. Put the same jet pilot in a turboprop and the record shows he will be less safe. Put that pilot in the left seat of a piston airplane, and the record becomes much worse.

If the majority—or even a substantial minority—of fatal accidents were caused by aircraft failures the safety record would make perfect sense. The performance standards and system redundancy required of the jet should prevent serious accidents. But the reality is that in most piston and turboprop fatal accidents the airplane is performing normally.

I have come to think of this as the Chevy Biscayne vs. Super Sport effect. In the late 1960s the big Chevy sedan that your grandparents would buy was the Biscayne which was a pretty low point in styling and performance. But Chevy took the same plain vanilla Biscayne and dropped in its biggest V-8, put a Hurst shifter—remember those—in a center console, tuck and rolled the interior, and jazzed up the exterior trim and changed the name to Super Sport.

Pull the very same drivers out of dad’s Biscayne and put them in a Super Sport and you can guess what happens. In the Super Sport the driver makes very different decisions, and they are not going to be safety oriented choices. I don’t have any statistics on how the fatal accident rates of the Biscayne and Super Sport compared, but I do know how the traffic tickets stack up. My brother bought a Super Sport not long after he was out of high school and in a few months survived a departure from the road wreck and racked up enough additional violation points to be put on the beach for a year. I am absolutely convinced that wouldn’t have happened if he had been relegated to getting around in a Biscayne.

I see the same behavior in myself when I move from one category of airplane to another. In a jet I would never dream of taking the runway without knowing the takeoff weight, the CG, the required runway length considering all factors, the decision and takeoff safety speeds, and a very specific plan of what to do if something goes wrong in the first seconds or minutes.

But when I taxi out for takeoff in my Baron I have a general idea of my weight and know it’s under the certified limit. Same for the CG. I also know there is enough runway available unless something really bad happens at the worst possible time. I’m not casual about takeoff and the flight ahead, but my attitude is just different than in a jet.

I have concluded the reason that I—and apparently other pilots—behave differently in airplanes of different capability is that the risks are not the same. In the jet I know that people have sat around for many years pondering what could go wrong at the worst possible time and then developed a solution to get the airplane back to a runway. What is required of us as pilots in the jet is to perform the procedure correctly and the airplane can continue to fly.

In a piston airplane there is no such assurance. If the worst happens we need luck as well as skill to live through the forced landing. Because luck is part of the equation we need at least a little hope. Once a little hope is added it’s easy to take on more hope, which is just another word for risk.

Believe me, I don’t want all airplanes to meet transport standards because that would be the end of personal flying, but I do want to be aware of, and try to compensate for my attitude difference. I want to be aware of the choices I make in taking on risk and adjust those choices for each situation.

I know some of you are thinking that Sully and Skiles needed skill and luck to get their powerless jet down on the Hudson, but that is such a rare event it earned the name “miracle”. If fatal accidents in piston airplanes were ever to become that rare none of us would have much to worry about.

We are what we fly, and we fly different airplanes for many different reasons. And we can’t eliminate risks simply by adding ratings or hours to the logbook. I just want to be sure I consider the risks before every flight and decide that I understand the risks and that they are worth taking.

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28 Responses to We Are What We Fly

  1. Frank R. Sandoval says:

    Great article Mr. McClellan. Makes me refelect on the difference between common sense and wisdom.

  2. I’m rather surprised. I’d except the EAA to emphasize our similarities not our differences. There are more than enough people wanting to divided and conquer us.

  3. Cary Alburn says:

    If this is true (and I’m only saying “if”), perhaps it’s the relative simplicity of the smaller airplane which requires the pilot to be a pilot instead of a systems manager, which perhaps some “highly experienced ATP rated pilot who has a near perfect safety record in business and airline jets” isn’t really prepared to be. The “highly experienced ATP rated pilot” may not have done all that much hands-on flying in a long time, in spite of his apparent experience. I’m not trying to bash anyone, but stick and rudder skills which aren’t used tend to atrophy. And it’s stick and rudder skills which can often save the bacon when the going gets tricky in the more basic airplane.


  4. “In the jet I know that people have sat around for many years pondering what could go wrong at the worst possible time and then developed a solution to get the airplane back to a runway. In a piston airplane there is no such assurance. If the worst happens we need luck as well as skill to live through the forced landing.”

    What are you talking about? Have you ever read FAA aircraft certification requirements? Unless something has changed recently, small piston and jets are governed by the same rules of physics and are covered by essentially the same rules for T/O, climb, landing and emergency performance. While designing light airplanes, I have never seen any guidelines in Part 23 stating the role that ‘Luck’ plays in returning to the ground in the case of an emergency.

    Besides, I’ll bet that perhaps 1% of EAA members have never flown a jet themselves, so your comments are about as relevant to your organization as instructing us on how one walks on the moon. Now, you want a real challenge – make the first flight on an airplane you have designed and constructed yourself, or in a one-of-a-kind restored antique aircraft with no living pilot or manual to assist you. That’s what EAA members consider a real challenge, requiring preparation & superb flying skills, not really needed when maneuvering a push-button $20m jet. Your magazine is Sport Aviation, not AOPA Pilot or Flying.

  5. Mac says:

    Hi Cary,
    When you read accident reports it’s clear that stick and rudder skills go a long way in preventing the fender bender wreck. When you read only reports of fatal accident reports it is less clear that basic flying skills are the issue. Usually it’s a decision, perhaps far up the accident chain, that matters more than control manipulation at or near the end of the flight.
    Mac Mc

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    It would appear that Mr.McClellan is writing to the wrong audience. I have read every one of his articles since coming over to the Sport Aviation community and it is clear by the post article comments that more and more EAA members are wondering who is audience is.

    While your writing is very clear and concise Mac, I believe the majority of your audience has no interest as it does not reflect the spirit of Sport Aviation.

  7. Dave Conrad says:

    Hi Mac,
    You are exactly correct. Our fellow aviators need to realize it is our decisions and attitude toward flight which make us safe or unsafe. I fly a Gulfstream 550 for a living, but am also current in a Pawnee tow plane, gliders, hot air balloons, and a powered paraglider. What good would it be to have the safety of a $40,000,000 jet, and kill myself in an ultralight? I do not fly to take risk, but for other intangibles. I endeavor to fly reasponsibly and minimize the risks prior to every takeoff. This includes weather, terrain, the aircraft, and the pilot.
    Thank you for your article.

  8. Steve says:

    Well, Mr. Beasley, it appears that Mr. McClellan, Mr. Hightower and the rest of the EAA leadership are seeking out the likes of those like Mr. Conrad here.

    “This week I was invited to speak to the international gathering of Gulfstream business jet operators.”

    Huh!!! Other than Mr. Conrad here how many EAA members do you suppose would be attending that gathering?

    If you do not fly a Gulfstreem 550 and have the discretionary income to afford to fly all manner of other aircraft, you are going to be hard pressed to get any of the current EAA personnel to address your interests. I am glad Mr McClellan is able to make an impact upon the lives of those individual’s who attended this very important gathering of Gulfstreem operators. However, I am afraid it makes very little impact upon me.

    You know I used to receive Mr. McClellan’s blog posts in my email. For some reason I have not received any for months and have been relegated to reading whatever he writes once a week in the EAA e-hotline. In reality, I am coming to realize I am not missing anything. Never the less, I must confess I continue to come here and read his posts hoping for a change, but I think I am wasting my time. Mr. McClellan is too proud of his position and accomplishments to acknowledge he needs to change. Kind of reminds me of an old western I watched this weekend, Death of a Gunfighter. Richard Widmark portrays an old fashioned hard nosed town marshal that the town leadership just could not persuade to change. I am afraid there is no changing this old FLYING magazine editor’s ways.

  9. btc says:

    There’s something else professional flying offers that general aviation does not and that’s a safety net of of support people and systems. The same was true in the military. You often have dispatch to help with routing and briefing materials. There is often dedicated weather folks as well. Likely there are also company manuals, procedures, etc. that help decide your decisionmaking process beyond what’s provided by the FAA. When you walk out to you Barron, it’s just you. You also don’t have a flight briefing room filled with company pilots to commisrate with and discuss the weather, the route, the airplanet etc. I think all of this additional “network” helps. In the GA world, the burden of all this is on the pilot.

  10. btc says:

    I disagree with others comments on Mac’s writings. His writings at Flying were the only reason I subscribed. I followed him over to fltplan.com when he had a blog there. Mac writes about a wide range of aviation issues and I’m glad he has a forum here to continue to do so. Even though he is referencing heavy iron here, the subject matter is still relevant to all pilots, regardless of type. If you look at his past few postings, Mac has written about crosswind landings, pros/cons of travelling on the airlines vs. your own plane, the decision making that goes into flying professionally vs. privately and changing regulations effecting aviation. How is that not relevant to everyone?

  11. C. Lloyd says:

    Two points come to mind and I will focus on piston engine multiengine vs. jet for comments.

    Jets have takeoff field length data that assure a takeoff or stop distance for a the field elevation, weight, temperature and wind parameters. One other table will give you net climb gradient.

    Mac’s Baron has takeoff data for two engines and no certification requirement for single engine takeoff performance. For this you have to go to two other tables for accelerate go and accelerate stop performance. Finally you go to a single engine climb table which will show wimpy climb performance.

    Calculating the performance for a piston twin is a pain and when you do it, there is not much margin. I used to give BFRs to twin owners at Houston Hobby Airport. The most used runways were 12 and 17. RWY 12R was 7,000 feet and 17 was in those days just under 5,000 feet. Accelerate Go performance near gross takeoff weight for a Baron or Ce414 was at or beyond the runway length for RWY 17 which was the preferred runway assigned by the tower to piston aircraft. That part to the BFR ground school was an eye opener to the owners. After this session most owners requested the longer runway.

    Mac, I agree with your point about having a hazy idea about GA takeoff performance. Go do an accelerate go calculation on a piston or turboprop aircraft and the results will be very enlightening.

  12. Ramiro Silveira says:

    Dear Friends,

    Sorry for diverting from this post main subject.
    I also feel that EAA is loosing the strong relationship with real experimenters, but what I think is that time has changed and homebuilting is evolving, there is a whole industry behind it.
    Mac is bringing to us a different and new experience he aquired in lots of years.
    When we are talking about flight safety related to human factors, it does not matter the size, the weight, the no. of engines, the price, etc. of the airplane.
    For example, Mike Busch does not have any experimental experience either, but his articles are clearly valuable for homebuilders.
    I think that EAA is on the right way, I hope we will find the equilibrium soon.


    • Rodney Hall says:

      While homebuilding is changing and I am sure there is a wide variation in the pilots involved this is EAA and it seems to be getting away from the VFR homebuilder types. One reason for the changes are the extreme expense of a new airplane as opposed to a RV kit or Sonex which can be tailored to the owner. I think most EAA members flying homebuilts are flying primarily VFR and not building jets so many times these blog posts seem toward the non-experimental, IFR bigger plane pilot. EAA was all about the VFR sport flyer building his own plane to get aloft cheaply but there has been a definite shift toward more sophisticated flying. I don’t know if many EAA members are dissatisfied with this shift but it is worrisome since AOPA and other organizations cover these areas and EAA seems to be going toward making experimentals just like a Cessna or Piper and not the unique experience it has been and should be.

      • Frank R. Sandoval says:

        Allow me to stimulate your thought process. In our modern world, many things are illusions. EAA has many forms. If an individual wants to remain in the steam gauge age, EAA offers you the spirit to do so. There are different divisons of EAA which you may join. That’s what makes EAA so great and special. Join the divison that suits your fancy and read the articles that interest you, be it Antiques, Warbirds, IAC, etc. Indeed, in this great country of ours, we may express our views on any issue before us. However, I stand firm. We have no authority to demean the writers or agents of this great organization because of our personal discontent. Mr. McClellan, in my view, does a superb job in spite of the senseless rhetoric he has to put up with.

  13. J. Grant says:

    I sympathize with you Mac. It appears that a lot of people who comment on your blog posts are only out to prove you are wrong and expose you as some sort of EAA infiltrator because your background does not the fit with that of the typical sport pilot. What they fail to realize is that much can be learned from people who come from different backgrounds and experience. It’s exposing a close-mindedness that frankly I find very startling in a pilot population that I think should be striving to learn ALL we can about this thing we call aviation, no matter the source.

    Just because Mac mentions $20m jets in his post does not mean that is what his message is about. If you take the time to read and ponder his post you would see he is trying to make us realize every time we strap in we need to be thinking about the risks, our attitudes, skills, and knowledge necessary to complete the flight safely. He is trying to make us see that complacency kills and that a proper attitude can reduce (but never eliminate) the risk of what we do.

    Keep the words of wisdom flowing Mac. Some of us out here are listening and appreciate the different perspective you bring to the table.

  14. Mac says:

    Thanks J.
    My hope is that pilots will be interested in what I write and find at least something worth consideration. If pilots of all types of airplanes can’t exchange ideas and concerns it will be difficult to make progress.
    Mac Mc

  15. Steve says:

    Mr. Grant, I have problems with the delivery for the same reason educators must continue to make their lesson plans relevant to their students. The mention of $20M jets does more to DISTRACT me from a safety topic than it does to help reinforce safety.

    If I were to continually discuss my concerns for automobile accidents by repeatedly discussing the motorcycles I ride and then try to convince an automobile owner there are too many similarities between the safety of operating a motorcycle and that of operating an automobile, how many automobile owners are bound to take head to the message? There are much too many differences between the operation of an automobile and the operation of a motorcycle to lump them together in any truly meaningful discussion concerning the safety of either.

    This is the true issue I, and perhaps others raise, concerning Mr. McClellan’s continual discussion of air transport, private jet, twins or systems and networks in place to operate the commercial air transportation system(s). Discussing these issues in an environment that is primarily focused on moderately powered, light weight, slower (than a jet) aircraft just muddies the focus. Comparing my flight safety issues to that of a Gulfstream operator is ludicrous.

    As others have mentioned, there are many many other resources those operators utilize that I will never have the opportunity to use that dictate the differences. It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that ATP and private jet operations have completely different systems and networks in place that drastically affect the safety outcome of their flights. These systems are completely different than those available to pilots who operate a private singe engine piston aircraft for recreational/personal pleasure.

    There is no doubt that safety of commercial transport and business flight is a very important aspect of the aviation world. The question I raise in my comments is this: Is addressing safety to a bunch of EAA members by discussing big iron and major aviation network systems going to ever really hit home without somehow talking about examples that pilot can relate to? I can guarantee you I cannot relate to operating a Gulfstream jet aircraft no matter how much someone attempts to convince me flying them is similar to flying my single engine piston aircraft I built at home. Relate your topic to something that the reader can have first hand experience with and you will have a group of people who will listen to you. Don’t, and well, the message may fall onto deaf ears no matter how important the message is.

  16. Matt Schmitt says:

    This article does not make sense to me at all!

    “But when I taxi out for takeoff in my Baron I have a general idea of my weight and know it’s under the certified limit. Same for the CG. I also know there is enough runway available unless something really bad happens at the worst possible time. I’m not casual about takeoff and the flight ahead, but my attitude is just different than in a jet.”

    Is that not the reason right there? Your attititude (an other’s) IS different and IS wrong. If you take the time to understand all the information in a jet, why do you not do the same when you step into a GA aircraft. You are “precision” flying in the jet and “wingin’” it in the barron. I think all to often we pilots do not treat flying with the respect it deserves and the results are evident in the statistics.

    We are what we fly???? If we keep our approach & attitude the same it shouldn’t matter at all what plane we are stepping into.

  17. Steve says:

    Mr. McClellan, a point of clarification. I do not specifically think you are a bad writer. For that matter, I think you are quite good. Furthermore, I am sure you are a great person as well. To that end, I am not writing as a personal affront to your writing capacities nor toward your character. To the contrary, I do appreciate your writing. I think it does indeed hold merit on some occasions. I do believe you feel you are conscientiously writing your blogs and articles for the greater good of ALL aviation. I suppose this is one of the reasons I continue to return to see if you have anything different to say. The problem is whenever I do return to read something, I find you are continuing to write about topics and examples that just flat out do not address many of my needs, wants or desires. I continue to hold hope that will change. Perhaps it will, perhaps it will not. If not, I suppose I, along with others, may find I will be left behind as the organization I once thought was catering to my aviation needs slowly moves away from what I felt was the intended purpose. Sadly, I feel this may be coming to fruition. If so, you will indeed continue to rattle on about such topics and examples without change. Given that this may be true, I am sure there may come a time when I will be left by the wayside. Perhaps if that day comes, others will take my place. Or, perhaps they will not. I guess time will tell.

  18. Chris Moran says:

    Cheers for J Grant’s comments. I for one am getting a little tired of the obvious prejudice some have for Mac’s work. We all have the right to our opinion but some of these comments are downright nasty and not needed here. If you cannot identify where you disagree without the animosity kindly keep it to yourself.

  19. Alex Kovnat says:

    What is the casualty rate of bizjet pilots who fly swept-wing Mach 0.8 jets for a living and then get into accident situations with far less complex piston singles, as compared to the casualty rate of pilots when they first transition from simple fixed-gear piston singles to faster and more complex aircraft (i.e. single engine piston retractibles which also have controllable pitch propellers, twins, and then turbines)?

    Recently there was a real heartbreaker of a tragedy whereby a whole family – mother, father (the pilot), and all four children – were killed in an aviation tragedy involving a massive single engine turboprop aircraft. In contrast to the situation discussed in this thread whereby a bizjet pilot gets hurt (or worse!) in a less complex aircraft, here we see a tragedy which may well have been caused by a pilot with 2000 lb or 3600 lb thought patterns transitioning to a plane which has a gross takeoff weight of 10,000+ lb. And, is considerably faster as well.

    So it would be interesting to see what is the bigger problem: ATP’s getting hurt in aircraft closer to the Sport Pilot level, or pilots at the Cessna Skyhawk level getting hurt when they move up to bigger, faster and more complex aircraft?

  20. John Ewald says:

    Wow, you EAA guys are a bunch of jerks.

    I like Mac’s articles…been reading them for 25 years. I’ll bet he has more piloting knowledge, skill and experience in his pinky than most of you guys will ever have.

  21. kilo papa says:

    Perhaps those who seem to find no redeeming qualities in Mac’s articles should do themselves the favor of not reading them. And do the rest of us the favor of not wasting space by making petty complaints about them.

  22. Charles Lloyd says:

    Mac, Lane and Jeff bring a whole new perspective to EAA publications. I fail to see how they detract from this excellent publication.

    I made a good living selling and flying “business jets” for a long time and enjoyed every minute of it. Parallel to that I flew all the major brand single engine GA aircraft. The statistics say that professional flying is safer. So the question I have today is how to adapt the lessons learned from airline and business jet articles to SE GA flying that I do today.

    Some of the things I never thought of before flying jets are: duty time, recurrent training, training a significant other (non-pilot) in crew coordination techniques. There are always safer ways to fly.

    Mac does a great job of raising thought provoking issues in his articles. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with an author. However, if you do at least offer a suggestion that benefits all of us to fly safer.

    Man and Lane’s arrival at EAA is Flying Mag’s loss and EAA’s gain. Thanks for coming over Mac and Lane.

  23. Frank R. Sandoval says:

    Mr. McClellan, some of the comments generated by your article, “We Are What We Fly,” are a textbook example of why GA accidents continue to remain at a unexplainable degree. There is no Gamma Waves erupting within this complaining group. Regardless of technology, rules, or guidelines that are implemented, GA accidents are a major concern. The key element to reduce GA acidents is a willingness to consider information, ideas, and concepts that don’t seem worth considering. The FAA, any agency, or any organization for that matter, are helpless in that regard. It is so important to consider the irrelevant in life if you are to survive in the GA arena. Indeed, that is the essence of your article, and what I come away with. The gratifying element is; the complainers, who have a difficult time accepting your writing style, end up taking in more. Therefore, Mr. McClellan, don’t stop now. Lucky are your readers. God only knows how many lives you have saved thus far.

  24. Mac says:

    Thanks for the many positive comments. All pilots can learn from others if we listen. Not all issues are the same for every pilot, but most are. And evaluation of risk before every flight is something we all must do. We don’t need to reach the same conclusion on what is an acceptable risk, but we should always be honest about the risk we are assuming. And that is the point of this blog. We take different risks in different categories of airplane for many reasons. Risk can never be fully eliminated but it should be considered and understood instead of denying its existence.
    Mac Mc

  25. Harold Bickford says:

    Mac is opining about an observation regarding pilot action and behavior relative to experience and aircraft type. The argument regarding aircraft types and relevance is very much like similar arguments in model aviation. Personally I find all aviation discussion interesting.

    Current involvement is a Pietenpol project that will take some time to finish. Along the way the educational process continues which involves the full spectrum of aviation activity.

  26. This article reminds me of a joke I heard years ago. A newly retired ATP decided to get back into GA flying. He went to the local airport and got checked out in a Cessna 150. When he was at the end of runway for his first “solo” in the plane, he called the tower “Erewhon Tower, this is Cessna 1234A and I’d like to declare an emergency”.

    The tower, knowing the airplane was on the ground at the end of the runway, came back “34 A”, what is your emergency?”

    The ATP replied “I’m down to one engine, one radio, one pilot and no radar!”

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