Your Wife’s Guide to Risk Management

I know that I’m on thin ice generalizing about how the sexes communicate and how each side often views the same situation differently. But here goes.

Stancie and I were talking the other evening about how every woman we know is going to ask her guy “what were you thinking” after some event doesn’t go well. Usually this question is asked more than once with only slightly different wording or intonation.

The real problem is not the question, but the guy’s answer. Women hate our response which is invariably some version of “I didn’t think that would happen.” That answer usually generates a repeat of the first question as the woman continues to search for some deeper understanding. But the guy is being totally truthful. Nobody, not even we guys, blow themselves up on purpose. We just didn’t think THAT was going to happen.

I thought about these too common kinds of communications as the FAA changes written tests and flight test guides to emphasize risk management. Now the FAA can be your wife, or mother or girlfriend demanding to know “what did you think was going to happen?”

Well, when it comes to flying I obviously think my airplane is capable of handling the situation, and my pilot skills are up to the job or I wouldn’t take off. And that’s what the FAA wants us to think about and carefully consider before each flight. But the bottom line is that unless you are the pilot of a major airline jet here in the U.S. you are also applying a little hope, playing the odds, when you fly because there are risks that are beyond your control.

It’s been almost 12 years since a passenger lost their life in the crash of a U.S. major airliner. And during that same period there have only been two fatal accidents among the regional airline fleet. That record is so close to perfect it’s almost unbelievable.

But the aircraft design, pilot training, and operating requirements that have created that airline safety record would simply destroy personal aviation if we all had to fly the same way. In airline, or even business jet flying, each risk is identified and addressed so that the outcome is not hope to survive the crash. Even when avoidable crashes happen the design features and strength of modern jet airliners make survival likely as we have just seen in the Boeing 777 accident at San Francisco.

To keep personal aviation available and enjoyable we can’t be major airlines and we assume clearly identified risks every time we fly. For example, flying with a single engine involves the obvious possibility of having to make a forced landing. Flying single pilot also has the unavoidable risk that if the only pilot makes a mistake, or becomes incapacitated even momentarily, there is no backup. The list of risks inherent to personal flying that are fully documented and well understood goes on and on and really can’t be eliminated without also eliminating the freedom and accessibility of personal aviation.

So we fly with the hope that the engine won’t quit, and that if it does, we can find a place to safely put the airplane down. But the smart pilot backs up the hope with good maintenance, plenty of reserve fuel and regular practice in making power off approaches. None of those actions eliminates the risk of power loss, but does reduce the risk.

If that “what were you thinking” question ever comes up involving your flying simply replying that you hoped it wouldn’t happen to you won’t cut it. Even though many risks can’t be completely removed from personal flying, there is much we can and must do to push hope and luck to the bottom of the response.

Maybe at the top of every pre-takeoff checklist should be the question “what were you thinking would happen?” If we came up with answers to that question before takeoff we may not ever have to answer it for real. At least not about our flying. For the rest of life’s events that question is also a risk that simply cannot be eliminated.

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8 Responses to Your Wife’s Guide to Risk Management

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    The “What were you thinking?” question can be applied (always after the fact, with 20/20 hindsight) to many aspects of Life:
    going on a joint vacation with another couple,
    getting married,
    getting certain jobs,
    volunteering to coach little league,
    replying in the affirmative when a wife asks if an article of clothing makes her look (unattractive in some way),
    etc. etc.

    I’m pretty well convinced that we humans were designed to fail once in a while, maybe even more often. It’s a design deficiency with which we live.

  2. James Butler says:

    Well said Mac. I completely agree. It boggles the mind when one thinks about the many thousands of people dedicated to taking risk out of airline flying. So then, why does the FAA and NTSB continually compare the accident record of GA to the airlines? Isn’t this holding GA to a standard that cannot possibly be achieved? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to set a much more meaningful and attainable goal?

    With that being said, why then does the FAA and NTSB hold the experimental aircraft community to the overall GA and airline accident records. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to separate the first flights of an experimental aircraft to the test flight records of the type certified aircraft? Maybe after the test flight hours are flown off of the experimental, then the remaining flight hours could be compared to the rest of the GA fleet.

    Wouldn’t we achieve better results if we set more meaningful goals?


  3. DEL says:

    “To keep [airline] aviation available and [useful,]” airliner design, maintenance and flying procedures also involve safety compromises and risk-takings, only at a lower level. For instance, a passenger jet would be much safer if equipped with crash-proof fuel tanks, a redundant set of landing gears, or an armored fire-proof passenger cabin. It won’t take off, though, or would be prohibitively costly. Thus, we accept some risk of dying in a fuel fire, in case of a badly botched landing, in order to be able to fly at all.

  4. Claudio F. says:

    Hi! Is there a way to get in touch with Mr. J. Mac McClellan?
    My email is in this comment :)
    Thank you!
    Claudio F.
    Editor in chief

  5. Ron Rapp says:

    Yes, we endure higher levels of risk than the airlines. From the outside, this often looks stupid to people who don’t understand what we gain: freedom. The freedom to fly where we want, when we want, how we want. Access to little airports, access to aerobatics, formation flying, sightseeing, and dozens of other things that make flying so wonderful. This is something the airlines will never have.

    The beauty of our system is that each of us can determine what levels of risk we’re comfortable with. I’ve met people who would not fly without two engines. Some won’t fly at night. Others stay away from mountains. There are those who think IMC in a single is too much. To each his own.

    • DEL says:

      “Airline pilots are no more than over-glorified bus drivers,” my mother told me, way back, when I confessed of my desire to be one. No offence, Jeff Skiles. But I took it to heart and converted to sport-pilot aspirant.

  6. Tony says:

    Not to poke fun at statisticians, a fellow glider pilot once told me “You’ve got a 50/50 chance of a rope break each time you hook up to the towplane – either it will or it won’t”. By extension, if we are truly prepared to cope with a mechanical failure each time we line up for departure, we’ll be thinking the same way.

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