Not long ago, I did something stupid in an airplane. Gulp.
The scenario looked like this: I departed a non-towered airport that lies under Class B airspace. As my flight home was a short one, I didn’t use Flight Following, as I normally would. Instead I simply took off, climbed to 2,000 feet, and settled in for a half hour of casual cruising over Floridan’s flat, wild countryside. And that’s where the trouble started.The cloud bases, which had been hanging low at about 700 feet when I flew in hours earlier, were now at 2,200 feet. At my cruising altitude I didn’t have legal cloud clearance for Class E airspace.
Rather than descend, which would have put me lower than I was comfortable with, considering the pointy metal towers and large expanses of nowhere to go in case of an engine failure – I chose to climb.
Climbing was a good choice. I chose 3,500 feet, which gave me a better glide range should the unthinkable happen. It gave me legal cloud clearance too. But I shouldn’t have climbed without considering what airspace was above me, and making a call to request clearance.
The simple truth is, I suffered a brain fade. I climbed into Class B airspace, without clearance, three or four miles short of the Class E airspace I intended to climb into. No alarms sounded. No lights flashed. I flew along fat, dumb, and happy without a care in the world.
A few miles down the road, I called a Class D tower to let them know I’d be clipping the edge of their airspace as I transitioned through on my way home. The tower asked me to ident. That was a little odd, but I complied. Then I got the bad news. The tower said, “I’ve got a phone number for you to copy. Call the supervisor after you land.”
In 26 years of flying professionally I had never busted Class B airspace. Not once. Not anywhere. Now I had, and I knew it.
This is where the wheels start turning. Some people believe you should not call the phone number, and certainly never admit an error. I take an alternate view. I was in the wrong. That being the case, I felt the need to take responsibility for my error. So I called.
I talked to the supervisor. I told him I was embarrassed. I explained that in trying to maintain weather minimums, I’d inadvertently climbed into his airspace without a clearance. I admitted my error and apologized for adding complexity and annoyance to his day and that of his team.
The upshot of all this was wonderful. He thanked me for calling. He acknowledged that my infraction was inadvertent and not malicious. He let me know that his primary concern is that an errant pilot like myself knows what he or she did wrong and knows to be diligent in our attempts to prevent it from happening in the future. He closed our conversation saying, “I don’t have any plans to pursue this further.”
I thanked him. Then I filed an ASRS form. More commonly known as the NASA form, the Aviation Safety Reporting System is a process that allows a pilot to self-report a blunder to the authorities. I explained what had happened and why it happened, in writing. I outed myself as an offender. I took responsibility for the lapse in situational awareness that led to my transgression.
This entire reporting process, both the phone call and the ASRS form, required me to review the full series of events. It allowed me to consider what I’d done and how I did it. It also allowed me the freedom to consider what my alternatives might have been, and how I might handle that same situation in the future should a similar scenario present itself.
This is the pilot way. In aviation, taking responsibility is ingrained in us. It’s a major part of our training. Taking responsibility is expected. It’s encouraged. And when done properly in a timely manner, it’s often rewarded.As a result, it’s a common occurrence for pilots to take a ton or more of aluminum structure filled with humans and fuel, climb a mile into the sky, and head out for the horizon in near perfect safety. The impossible has become the pedestrian. It’s a scene that plays out thousands of times a day, every day.
That’s not the case in our lives away from the airport. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is considered a fools errand. Instead we make excuses. We obfuscate the core issue and muddy the water until the truth of what happened is almost impossibly lost to the whirlwind of words.
As an example, drivers aren’t required to seek out or receive recurrent training in any of the 50 states. You take a class and get your driver’s license as a teenager, then spend the next half century or more developing bad habits, and suffering from our areas of ignorance, without any requirement or even a suggestion that we might learn a bit more about how this darned car works, and how traffic flow is planned to be executed.
Nation wide, the standard for competence is quite low and the willingness of drivers to take responsibility for their errors in judgment or action is missing almost entirely.
Rolling a car down a road at a moderate speed should be incredibly predictable and unassailably safe. Yet in 2015 more than 38,000 people were killed in traffic accidents. Nearly 4.5 million were seriously injured.
From 2009 through 2016 not a single person died in the crash of an American registered airliner. Not one. Yet aviation is considered dangerous. Driving is considered to be relatively safe.
In complete disregard for what we know to be true, car accidents are largely regarded as unavoidable. We blame the intersection, not the driver. We pretend the speed limit played a role, rather than consider the decision-making of the motorist. We consider these tragedies an inevitable part of modern life, and fail to even consider that training, and the taking of responsibility might be the missing links.
Personally, I’ll take a seat in the airplane high up in the sky over a crowded road filled with distracted, under-educated drivers any day. And I don’t expect the situation to change — ever.