Consciousness: It Really Matters in Aviation

As early readers of this blog will recall, I am a long-lapsed general aviation pilot who hasn’t flown in years but still reads Flying magazine cover to cover each month.

Years ago a good friend who was a former Navy F4 Phantom fighter pilot and then-current airline pilot told me a story about a flight he took in his Navy days.

He was stationed in San Diego and had a friend who had a high-performance single engine airplane. When he wanted to make a trip up to Las Vegas, his friend offered to check him out in the plane and let him use it for the trip.

So once he cleared Southern California airspace, he found himself cruising over the high desert, following the long straight road to Las Vegas. He could see for miles and he couldn’t see a car coming or going.

And then he had a great idea. One of the drills that single engine pilots practice routinely is what to do if the engine quits. It rarely happens, but when it does, you want to know what to do.

First you get your airplane stabilized in a glide and then begin to look for obvious, unobstructed places to land…like a long empty highway in the high desert. As an offshoot of that, a bucket list item that private pilots have to one degree or another is actually landing on a road.

So on this beautiful morning, circumstances suddenly collided with a training opportunity.

My friend pulled the power back to idle, the plane began to descend, he got it flying at best glide speed and began to make a slow 360 degree turn to the left to emulate flying in an airport traffic pattern. On the downwind leg of his “emergency” pattern, he could see that there was still no traffic coming up from behind him, so he turned left onto the base leg and could look back up the road to see it was still clear that way.

Satisfied that the road was clear and with the engine still at idle, he turned on final straight up the middle of the road. This was going to be good. When it was clear that he was going to “make” his imaginary target on the road — there was nothing to make, the road stretched for miles — he lowered the flaps to 20 degrees so that his touchdown speed would be lower (and easier on his friend’s tires).

Still watching for traffic the plane never left his aim point on the road; he was, after all a fighter pilot! And as a fighter pilot, he was a very good pilot. And all very good pilots have this little alarm system in the back of their minds that keep them from doing stupid things they shouldn’t be doing: buzzing their homes at low altitude, flying too close to bad weather…and landing on roads for the fun of it.

So as he was nearing decision height where he had to begin to flare the airplane for landing and with the road still wide open, his internal alarm went off.

He shouldn’t be doing this. And he certainly shouldn’t be doing it with his friend’s airplane! Instead of gently pulling back on the yoke to land, he added full power, arrested his descent and once the plane begin to climb, he reached over to retract the landing gear.

That’s when a chill ran though his entire body: he had never lowered the landing gear.

I was reminded of my friend’s hair-raising story by a column by Peter Garrison in the September issue of Flying.

In his monthly column, “Technicalities,” Garrison writes brilliantly and accessibly about “what makes airplanes work and how they can be improved, and on the factors, both mechanical and human, that sometimes cause them to crash.” He describes himself as Harvard-educated in English and a self-taught “aerodynamicist.” He actually designed and built his own retractable, long-range, single-engine plane. So, very, very smart guy.

There is an old saying in aviation, “There are two kinds of pilots, those who have landed with the gear up and those who will.” It’s a tongue-in-check, cautionary saying designed to keep pilots on their toes. There is even an acronym for each and every landing of complex airplanes: GUMP check. “U” stands for Undercarriage as in, put the gear down. (The others refer to gas flow from the tanks, fuel/air mixture to the engine and propeller pitch.)

For all that Garrison knows about this, in his “Help for the GULlible,” he confesses to recently almost landing with the gear up (the “GUL” standing for gear up landing). The only thing that saved him was another pilot holding short of the runway who called the tower to say that Garrison’s gear was not down. Garrison heard that transmission and lowered the gear just in time.

And then, to his own dismay, he reviews all of the things that a pilot with four decades of experience let get by him as he was making his approach to land.

He said that he had a distinct memory of putting the gear down. The retired airline captain and longtime flight instructor in the right seat noticed that he put the flaps down before putting the gear down, the reverse of his usual procedure, but didn’t think any more about it. Moreover, Garrison has an even more distinct, absolutely certain recollection that he had checked the gear twice. And he used the GUMP acronym to do it.

Because this was a home-built aircraft, it had an unusual gear lever and indicating system. Garrison remembers looking at the indicating system, but in hindsight, only at its precision, not whether it indicated up or down.

And he didn’t say so, but it’s also possible that his attention was on wanting to fly competently in the presence of his august passenger. It’s not every day that you get to perform in front of an airline pilot.

So what’s the point of all of this? That as human beings, we have different levels of consciousness, different levels of attention, that may be imperceptible to us in the moment. Surely we know when we’re nodding off on a long drive into the night. Haven’t we all had the experience of yanking ourselves back to attention with resolve not to do it again?

But our consciousness also varies in the brilliant light of the day, say, on the golf course…in a match…for the club championship…for the first time ever. Each layer of significance colludes to rob us of our senses, unless, like the drive at night, we’ve experienced it before and manage to keep ourselves focused.

When you are deep inside it, you never really know it until you come out of it. So one of the clues that your consciousness, your creative genius, is impaired is that you notice that you are having extraneous thoughts. We are really great at multitasking, but extraneous thoughts can kill you in aviation. I can remember a two-stop trip I once flew across the Everglades from Miami that I was so deep inside of that when I got home, I took a two-hour nap.

Because golf requires that level of awareness to play exceptionally, it’s such a great laboratory for mastery, a great laboratory for consciousness. A great opportunity to catch your thoughts and considerations wandering. And to allow yourself to get deep inside it.

Plus, you never have to worry about the landing gear.

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