Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to fly. My motivation was simple. Flying scared the heck out of me. I travelled so much for business that I had gained platinum status with my preferred airline. But every single flight terrified me. I would always send my wife a text before taking off, so the last message she had from me on her phone was “I love you.” I was convinced that every flight would be my last.
I wanted to overcome my fear, and so I decided that I was going to learn how it all worked. I reasoned that if I knew how it worked that I could overcome my anxiety and get to a place where I had a healthy respect for those ‘metal tubes of death’.
I found a flight school and took my first introduction flight. The instructor said, “Matt, you have nothing to worry about. Airplanes want to fly”.
I was still nervous after my first flight, but realized I was still alive and that I wanted to continue learning.
During my second lesson I told the instructor, “Take me immediately to the part where most students drop out. I want you to see if you can scare me out of doing this before I invest a lot of time in training.” So, we went up and did stalls.
“That’s it?”, I asked. I always thought stalls were engine failures. Apparently so do most news reporters covering airplane accidents. I learned that a stall was simply when the airplane stopped producing the lift necessary to sustain flight, and was fairly easy to recover from with proper training and altitude. In fact, the airplane would most likely recover on its own as long as I wasn’t telling it to do something different. My first instructor was right – airplanes really do want to fly!
Not only do airplanes want to fly, but so did I. I wanted to become a pilot.
Love of Aviation
My sheer love of aviation came unexpectedly. Getting my pilot’s license is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Flying is cheaper than a therapist, and more effective too. There’s nothing more peaceful than soaring through the sky, taking in the awesome sights, and seeing a majestic perspective on all of the beauty that our Creator has given us.
The airline folks don’t even get to see the kinds of stuff us small airplane guys do – they simply fly too high. But flying 2,000 feet above the ground, over a hidden lake on a mountain top that no roads can access? You’re seeing things most other people will never get to see. You gain an awesome appreciation for how beautiful our world is, and how insignificant we really are in the grand scheme of things. It’s not only awe-inspiring but humbling as well.
Fast-forward to a few months ago. I now have nearly 800 hours of flight experience under my belt, and have flown from coast to coast, and experienced all sorts of flying conditions.
The night in question I was travelling to the Midwest to pick up my wife and daughters, who were there visiting family. In the right seat next to me was a good friend and fellow pilot – who also happened to be a certified flight instructor. It’s always fun to fly with someone else on long trips.
We stopped in St. Louis for fuel. We also stopped to get around a line of thunderstorms to the north. Not even the airlines fly through thunderstorms, so we gave it a wide berth – a minimum of 25 miles at all times. But the disco light show was nothing short of spectacular. It was a great night to fly.
We were on a relatively short flight, and so we levelled off at 15,000 feet. The book said that’s where we would gain the maximum time and fuel efficiency, considering the distance of our flight. After all, it takes a lot of fuel and time to climb. Being bored pilots, we decided to test the book to see if it was accurate, and climbed up to 19,000 feet to see what it would do to our time en route.
Weather can vary significantly by a few thousand feet, and once we got there, not only did we realize that all we had accomplished was adding a couple minutes to our total flight time (the book was right), but that we were now smack dab in the middle of snow and started to pick up some icing. This particular plane was certified for Flight Into Known Icing. But it wasn’t necessary for our flight and flying in icing conditions is just not fun if you don’t have to do it. So, I got on the radio to Air Traffic Control and joked, “We came, we saw, we would like to go back down to 15,000.”
We got back down, out of the weather, and had just levelled off at 15,000 feet. I was still watching the lightning show now 30 miles off to my left when in my headset I heard the distinct “ding-ding” sound of the crew alerting system. I checked the screen in front of me and saw a red message “warning - low oil pressure”. I quickly glanced to the oil pressure gauge and saw that we had virtually none.
“We have low oil pressure,” I said.
“What?” my co-pilot asked.
“We have low oil pressure,” I repeated.
I immediately hit the direct-to nearest airport button on the autopilot, and saw that we had an airport with a nice long runway only 7.1 miles from our current position.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday, we’ve lost oil pressure, diverting to Terre Haute!”
When an airplane loses oil pressure, you’re immediately on borrowed time. Your engine will fail, and there is never a guarantee of how much time you have. It could be a minute, it could be five or a little more. But it will happen. It’s as guaranteed as death and taxes. No oil = no engine.
It was only after I had already started my diversion to the nearest airport and our mayday call to ATC that I fully appreciated the situation we were in. Those responses were only instinctive. It took a second to gain full comprehension – we were experiencing a real life emergency.
We pulled the throttle to idle, just like the checklist and training taught us, and at that moment turned into a glider. I squawked the emergency distress code on our transponder. Even though we were talking to ATC, I knew that being this close to an airport they were not expecting us to land at meant that they were going to hand us off to two additional controllers before we got on the ground. In case we were too busy dealing with the emergency or accidentally punched in the wrong numbers on our new radio frequency assignment I wanted every controller in our sector to know our intentions – with or without talking to anyone - we were landing at this airport.
“Report souls on board and amount of fuel remaining,” came the standard emergency request from ATC.
“Two souls and…” I paused. The information page on the airplane calculates fuel on board in hours remaining based on current fuel flow – and we were at throttle idle. I was looking at my screen and it was saying 14 hours. I knew that wasn’t right, but I’ve also never claimed to be a mathematician and right now I had bigger concerns.
“…138 gallons remaining,” I finished, figuring that someone somewhere in a nice comfortable office on the ground could figure out that math – we were too busy flying the plane.
Ironically, considering we were so close to an airport when this all happened, we actually had to do an emergency descent at around three times our normal descent rate in order to lose enough altitude.
We were lined up with the runway, our altitude was good – we were close to making it. It felt like an eternity, and as our wheels finally touched down I let out a sigh of relief. We were safe. We pulled off the runway and shut down right on the taxiway to get out and inspect the plane. There was oil all down the side of the aircraft. Our instruments had been correct – we had lost oil pressure - because there was none left!
In the days and weeks that followed the factory, the engine manufacturer, a whole slew of people got involved. Turns out that it was a faulty cap that had failed to stay properly seated, and that the redundancy feature that was built in for extra safety failed to prevent our rapid oil loss. A part that probably costs less than $100. And nothing we could have done to detect or prevent it. In an age where no one ever likes to take responsibility, and almost all accidents are blamed on “pilot error”, it was comforting to hear the words “there’s nothing you could have done differently”. But also scary. If there wasn’t just one thing I could have done better that would have prevented this from happening this meant that I was a subject to circumstances beyond my control.
I’ve reflected on this incident for the past few months, and I’ve come to one very clear conclusion about flying. At some point in your flying career the airplane will try to kill you.
What Flying Has Taught Me About Preparedness
This was the message I wish had been pounded into my head more during my training days. You see, I trained in what is recognized world-wide as the safest model of small airplane on the market. Not only are 90% of small airplane accidents “walk away” accidents, but the fatality rating on the aircraft I was flying is almost half the national average.
I trained with factory authorized instructors, big believers in the brand. As part of boosting my confidence as a student pilot (and promoting the brand they believed in), I was constantly given reassurance on how safe the airplane was. Of course, I received great training in how to handle emergencies, but the overwhelming notion that I was in the safest model available lulled me into a false sense of security. Add that with almost 800 hours of nothing going wrong, and one can easily understand why at that very moment in time I wasn’t thinking about a possible engine failure.
Thankfully, our training and instincts immediately took over and we handled it very well. I’ve thought about this incident a lot, and as I was driving into my office the other day I realized how much being a pilot - and a pilot who has experienced a real life emergency – has taught me about preparedness.
My Personal Checklist
1. Never Stop Watching for Warning Signs
A big part of flying is constantly scanning the cockpit, checking your instruments and gauges for any unusual or alarming trends. While you get to look outside and take in all of the amazing views you’re still in command of an aircraft. It is your job to constantly be aware of anything that doesn’t look, feel, or sound right. Unfortunately, in our particular emergency there was no way to anticipate it in advance, as it was a rapid loss of oil pressure. But in most cases, you can locate warning signs that give you time to deal with any potential problems that may arise before it turns into an emergency.
2. Trust Your Gut
Ironically, right after we departed on this particular flight I looked over at my pilot friend and said, “I have this feeling like today is the day we have an emergency.” The airplane told me NOTHING to give me this idea, it was just a gut feeling – and a fleeting one at that. After we were safely on the ground I had to be reminded that I had even said it, because I had forgotten all about my brief second of an inexplicable and seemingly crazy gut feeling. However, most pilots I’ve talked to who have survived crashes or accidents have had the same story. Something didn’t feel right, and usually long before the accident. But instead of trusting their gut, they dismissed it because there was no evidence to support the ominous feeling they experienced.
3. Realize Disaster Can’t Always Be Anticipated
Disaster can strike at any time, and even if you’re on the constant lookout for warning signs, and paying attention to your gut, there are always times where it will sneak up on you and there is nothing you could have done to predict it. This is true of aviation, as well as almost every other aspect of life. While we should always be alert, but there are times disaster will simply come without notice.
4. Plan, Train, Prepare
In the moments following our emergency, myself and my pilot friend reacted instinctively. We’ve flown together quite a bit, and have always planned on how we would respond to an emergency. It’s actually a little morbid, and we’ve learned to mute our headsets from passengers in the back, because one of the things we tend to do on long flights is talk through worst-case scenarios. It keeps the mind sharp, and passes the time. We had predetermined that should we ever encounter an emergency that one of us would fly the airplane, the other would make radio calls and push the proper buttons, etc. We planned on taking what is normally a one-person job in an aircraft this small and turn it into a two-person job, automatically knowing who was responsible for what actions, in order to share the workload and help prevent one person from becoming overwhelmed. The only reason this happened flawlessly was because we planned in advance how we would react should we ever encounter an emergency.
In addition to planning how we would respond we had trained for this, so we were able to take the first few critical actions without thinking. We performed what pilots refer to as “memory items” in response to the loss of oil pressure, before ever taking the time to pull up the checklist to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything.
Because we had trained for emergencies, planned on how we would handle an emergency, and rehearsed it at length, even though we weren’t expecting it to happen when it did, we were able to quickly respond because of all of our planning and training.
Lastly, we were prepared. Smaller airplanes are much more sensitive to weight, and pilots over the years have always tried to find a way to make them lighter, carry less payload, and as a result increase performance. I literally know pilots who try to eliminate every single extra ounce. But I never fly without a survival kit in the back. I don’t care if it adds another 20 pounds. Even though I know around 90% of small airplane accidents are “walk-away” accidents, I know there are several places you could go down where rescue could take some time to reach you. Especially when you’re flying over mountains as often as we do here in the Western part of the United States.
5. Fight The False Sense of Security
This is the one I consider to be most important, and my biggest takeaway from this experience. It’s also very applicable to our everyday lives. As I pointed out earlier in the article, I was flying the statistically safest small airplane ever made. I have almost 800 hours of flight experience. Subconsciously I allowed myself to fall into the trap of an increasing false sense of security. I am, after all, only human. I’m not proud to admit it, but I think that by taking ownership of this others can learn from my experience. Every hour that went by in my piloting experience where nothing went wrong allowed me to start to believe that it might never go wrong, and as a result I became more relaxed.
I realized that this also happens every day to those of us who practice a preparedness lifestyle. Every time there’s a tornado, but it touches down 30 miles to the east of our home. Or a hurricane that ends up not making landfall. Or when all the warning signs say we might be one economic downturn away from total disaster. Every time we go through the checklist of items 1-4 above, and the end result is that nothing happens, it only adds to this false sense of security. It makes us want to question our observational skills (Checklist Item #1), it can cause us to question our gut (Checklist Item #2), it can cause us to forget that disasters don’t always come with advance notice (Checklist Item #3), and pull us outside of the mindset of Plan, Train, Prepare (Checklist Item #4).
How many of us have experienced this at some point of our preparedness journey? We’ve paid close attention to the warning signs, our gut has told us that trouble is on the horizon, we’ve started to prepare for impending doom and then - for one reason or another – nothing happens.
Does that mean that our preparedness efforts were all in vain? Or that we allowed ourselves to become a little too anxious, and that the world isn’t a scary place after all?
Of course not. It simply means that we have yet to experience the disasters we are preparing for.
I wish one of my instructors early on would have taken me by the shoulders, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “Matt – there will be a day the airplane will try to kill you. It might happen your next flight, or it might be on your 1,000th flight, but it will happen.”
I know airline guys with over 10,000 hours experience who have never had a true emergency. I also know student pilots who have suffered an engine failure on their very first solo flight. At the end of the day, you just don’t always know when an emergency will strike. And the most devastating emergencies typically come when you least expect them.
I hope that by sharing my experience, and how I think it relates to the Preparedness Mindset that we are all working towards, that you may learn something from my mistakes – even though my story had a happy ending.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply