Matters of Awareness

Out of the blue.


On February 14, FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolan issued an initiative that he called an “FAA Safety Call to Action.” After opening with the statement, “We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted,” the administrator added, “Recent events remind us that we must not become complacent.” (Emphasis mine.)

Granted, the impetus for this initiative involves Part 121 operators—the airlines. However, the system of airspace, airports and ATC that the FAA is seeking to thoroughly review directly involves all of us. Ironically, after the events that initially spurred this federal review and the short time frame between the issuance of the memorandum and this writing, the number of eyebrow-raising events has at least doubled, and may likely continue to do so.

A dirty little secret in the airline world is that, as safe as the system is, “irregular” events happen rather frequently due to the sheer volume of operations. Most of the time, unusual events don’t make the evening news. The good news is that the layers of redundancy are so stacked and refined that even major failures get “caught” before metal and tissue are damaged. However, in today’s world, just about everyone has a smartphone and a YouTube account—so more irregularities become public than ever.

Back to the FAA’s safety review. Nolan correctly identified complacency as a key concern. Various definitions for complacency include: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; and a feeling of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder.

Applying the definition to aviation, I like elements of all three of these definitions. Over the course of more than three decades of ground school classes, exams and briefings, complacency has always been a prominent topic and apparently soon will be even more so if the FAA gets their (appropriate) way.

The truly insidious danger of complacency is that it is an inherent byproduct of doing well. Collectively we’ve all built a system so amazingly safe that it’s human nature to rest on our laurels and become complacent. However, complacency is just as visceral and physical as any debilitative effect of any ailment or impairment. Complacency can kill just like hypoxia or CO poisoning. Complacency may not be identifiable on a coroner’s slab, but it can be just as lethal as anything that can.

Aviation pioneers couldn’t benefit from the experience or technology we have today. Yes, they died in tragic numbers but they also extricated themselves from a lot of harrowing situations simply because they stayed on their toes—because they had to. Dangerous irregularities were expected. Today, we can punch a couple of buttons, recline the seat and travel with a level of information at our disposal and mechanical reliability around us that even ocean-crossing airliners didn’t enjoy until fairly recently. Still, we should not forget that fate hasn’t given up the hunt.

Avoiding complacency with situational awareness and strong habit patterns helps to improve safety. It’s how today’s airlines have such a good record.

Experimental Perspective

What does complacency mean to us? Like anyone, we can be both victims and/or perpetrators of the hazardous effects of complacency. However, some aspects of our avocation are unique to those who build and maintain our own aircraft. Complacency can be a huge negative factor in building and maintaining a project. One key to fighting off the ill effects of complacency is to start and maintain good shop habits from beginning to end. Keep a tidy and well-organized shop.

We also need to take the time it takes to get good at the skills of building and maintaining. They’re not hard but they do require instruction and practice. If you’re building a composite aircraft you’re either going to get good at mixing and sanding or you’re going to have a shoddy result. For metal airplanes, you’re going to pound thousands of rivets and it gets easier with practice.

You can bolster your skills through many resources but always consider the source. I will never forget a cringeworthy moment at an EAA meeting where I overheard an “expert” tell a newbie not to worry about misshapen rivets as drilling them out and replacing them can cause more damage than it cures. Of course, the correct answer is to learn how to correctly set rivets and identify those that don’t meet the standard (it’s not hard and there’s a glut of guidance). Learn the skills and take the time to correctly remove and replace poorly set rivets without causing additional harm.

Know what you know and what you don’t know. There are several skills to building and maintaining that, while not difficult, require a learning curve to master. Either put forth the effort or find someone who will. “Good enough,” quite frankly, isn’t and it always takes more time and effort to do a task a second time than to do it right the first time.

Study the plans thoroughly and keep meticulous records. One pro tip passed down to me was to use an inked date stamp to mark the completion date right next to the task description on the plans. Also don’t assume you know things like which holes should be dimpled and which not. The plans on most kits that have been out for a while have been well vetted. Trust them. Months or years later, something that didn’t make sense initially will make total sense as big components are eventually mated.

In Flying

Obviously, flight operations are where we need to stay focused and engaged to avoid complacency. Developing and maintaining solid habits establishes the foundation. It starts with preflight planning, continues through the physical preflight walkaround inspection, carries through each facet of the actual flight and isn’t over until the gyros are spinning down, hopefully at the intended destination. Whole books can and have been written about operationally refining an entire flight from beginning to end. On the specific topic of complacency, I would like to focus on just three specific situational examples. The skills, habits and techniques to battle complacency are universal across all flight regimes.

Takeoff: Prior to taking the runway in an ultralight or an airliner or anything in between, take a few seconds to refresh in your mind the conditions that exist off the departure end of the runway for an emergency landing in case of engine failure in a single—or review the memory items for an engine failure in a multi-engine aircraft. Then, prior to crossing the hold-short line, verify that the final approach and the runway are clear.

En route: Perform the en route checklist periodically during cruise flight. Checking engine parameters, navigation status, weather updates, fuel computations and systems switches like pitot heat, exterior lights and fuel pumps not only refines focus and enhances situational awareness but can also catch small issues before they become big ones.

Approach to landing: Brief in your mind or aloud to a crew member the memory items for a go-around or missed approach and mentally commit to immediately initiating a go-around at the first indication that aborting the landing would be appropriate. I had an instructor who hesitated on a go-around at a high mountain resort and ended up in the trees, killing himself and his passengers.

Sharp pilots are situationally aware and proactive—those caught out by complacency often have their awareness dulled and become, at best, reactive. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is a precious few seconds. We’ve all been guilty of complacency and should commit to improving. Awareness is the crucial step forward.


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Myron Nelson
Myron Nelson soloed at 16 and has been a professional pilot for over 30 years, having flown for Lake Powell Air, SkyWest Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. He also flies for the Flying Samaritans, a volunteer, not-for-profit organization that provides medical and dental care in Baja California, Mexico. A first-time builder, Myron currently flies N24EV, his beautiful RV-10. He has also owned a C-150 and a Socata TB-9.



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