Be brave, take a guess. Here’s a hint. It starts with “P.” If you ask other pilots, you’ll get a host of answers, many of them good. For example:
A worthy guess, but too obvious, don’t you think? Nevertheless, pilot error, before or during flight, can definitely lead to what I’m suggesting is the number-one demon of the cockpit.
Close again, but no cigar. Yet, poor planning can contribute directly to this coup de grâce of many pilots. Particularly if the planning, or lack thereof, leads to falling farther and farther behind the aircraft.
I confess to being desperate for another “P.” Still, I bet no one guessed this. Probably because it’s not regarded as dangerous, per se. In fact, it’s often demonstrated to student pilots as an example of the longitudinal stability of a properly trimmed aircraft.
But take away your pitch control and you can find yourself at the mercy of phugoid. Read up on United Airlines Flight 232. Those pilots wrestled with it. But they avoided that old “demon of the cockpit” and saved many lives.
Now that’s a good guess. I’ll even give partial credit, because if you fall prey to what I’m suggesting, you could pass out. Especially if you’re given to hyperventilating.
Surely you’ve guessed it by now. In my opinion, here’s the number one thing you should never do in the cockpit: Panic.
You knew it all along. No need to be modest. If it had been a multiple-choice question, every pilot I know would have picked the right answer. But the written test is not the most critical one to pass, is it?
So—even armed with the right answer—how does a perfectly rational pilot (excuse the hyperbole) go bonkers when an emergency strikes? Or worse, create one where none exists?
The Demon-Possessed Pilot
My choice of the word “demon” is significant. Panic truly is a monster capable of possessing you. It fills you with a sudden and consuming fear, with or without cause, which propels you into irrational behavior. Panic is the primary catalyst for greater catastrophe.
When training for my private pilot license, I heard about one poor student who, on a long cross-country, became confused over a VOR. He flew round and round it. That, of course, made the needle on his VOR indicator swing wildly. The To/From flags danced a jig. You know what happened to him. He became “demon” possessed.
He spotted a plowed field and landed a perfectly good airplane in it. No real emergency existed. Not a thing on that plane had quit working (with one notable exception). The nose wheel dug in, and the aircraft did a somersault onto its back, totaling both the plane and his career. Sad.
And there’s more. It was determined later that he had enough fuel to return to home base. Even sadder, there was an airport within a stone’s throw of the VOR, clearly visible from the air.
What was he thinking?
He wasn’t, and that’s the point.
Arm Yourself Against the Darkness
I’m telling you—it’s a demon. Panic will come screaming out of the dark ignorance of your mind, grab your amygdalae, and shake them for a fare-you-well. There’s no telling what you’ll do. How does a pilot fight this?
Have you heard this little lesson yet? Question: What’s the first thing a pilot should do in an emergency? Answer: Sit on your hands.
That’s not suggesting you should do nothing. Only that you shouldn’t start throwing switches and jerking knobs—or making other rash decisions. Think. (Of course, it helps to have something to think of.)
The phrase “dark ignorance of your mind” was more than poetic license. Many of our fears rise out of ignorance. But ignorance is fixable.
Knowledge is power—and a great confidence builder. Knowledge will rob panic of its primary fuel and arm you with a weapon capable of chasing that demon off when he shows his ugly face.
Here’s some suggestions for arming yourself (not exhaustive by any means):
Bone up on your aircraft’s systems (fuel, electrical, hydraulic, etc.).
When you understand how something works, it’s easier to decide what to do when it stops working. And you should brush up more often than just your recurrent training sessions or biennial flight review. If you’re not already required to do recurrent training, then start.
Use your checklist(s).
You should already be using the Normal checklist. Keep the Emergency one handy. A laminated, one-page list is easy to handle. Memorize the first few items of each emergency. Review them periodically.
Do a crew briefing.
If you’re fortunate to have another pilot with you, then discuss what you’ll do if an emergency occurs. Remember, during an emergency, at least one of you must fly the airplane. Don’t forget this.
If you’re flying by yourself, then do the briefing sotto voce. There’s nothing wrong with talking to yourself. Decide what you’re going to do before the emergency happens, which leads to my last point.
Every pilot knows you must stay ahead of the aircraft. It’s why we do pre-flight planning. And you need to be in the pre-phase frame of mind during the entire flight. Think about every phase of the flight before you get to it.
And mind your map. Know where you are. In these days of nifty GPS systems, iPads, and other navigational aids, there’s no excuse for poor situational awareness. Know where the nearest airport is and what’s available to you. If you have a real emergency, it’s nice to know you have a real place to go.
We’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so many ways to arm against that demon of the cockpit. But knowledge is not going to jump into your head. You must take the initiative.
However, properly armed, you can stand against that wild-eyed fiend who wants to take advantage of any ignorance he finds in you. Resist him. Don’t turn into a pilot-in-confusion, or worse, a pilot-in-chaos. Prepare—as you should—to be a pilot-in-command, both of the aircraft and yourself.
Has that demon ever tried to climb into cockpit with you? Share it with us in the comments. We can all benefit.