Imagine, if you will, the perfect flight. The kind of flight where everything works exactly as you planned it would.
You nail your altitude and heading, never wavering by more than 10′ or a single degree. The aircraft works flawlessly. Not a single hiccup. Not even a flirtation with a deviation from the norm. You caught every radio call, answered with clarity and brevity, including all the pertinent information each time.
The perfect flight from start to finish.
Now, throw that idea out. The odds of it ever happening are slim.
If it does happen, it’s not likely to happen again soon. Because the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. A system failure of some kind is on the horizon, as it always has been. Even you are susceptible to brain fades, oversights, omissions, and screw-ups.
Perfect doesn’t happen in nature and it won’t happen in the cockpit. To which I say “So what?” If perfection doesn’t exist in real life, why freak out if we encounter little glitches and gremlins in flight?
Rather than planning on perfection, I tend to plan for a specific outcome, like arriving at my destination with myself, my passengers, and the aircraft in good shape. Serviceable. No new dents or active uncontained flames.
Now, don’t take that to mean I’m jumping into the aircraft willy-nilly with no concern for the condition of the machine, the pilot, the weather, the airspace, and yes, even the passengers. I’m actually quite conservative when it comes to taking flight.
I’m not afraid to cancel if things look dicey. I’m also perfectly happy to go when I can check all the appropriate boxes. If my briefing looks good, there’s no big, bad, TFR along my path, the airplane is working well, and my passengers and I are feeling good — let’s do this.
But none of that implies there won’t be an issue along the way. Things happen. My goal as PIC is to do all I can to prevent bad things from happening, while simultaneously being as prepared as I can to deal with issues as they pop up.
My first encounter with real adversity came nearly 30 years ago shortly after departing Key West International. It was a much more casual airport in those days, with a Customs Office that looked suspiciously like a folding table set near a single-wide glass door that led to the ramp.
My planned flight was domestic. Just a leisurely jaunt from Key West back to my home base of Sanford, Florida. Even in a C-152 I was confident I could make the trip in no more than four hours. I was wrong.
Shortly after takeoff, as I climbed out over the Florida Straits, headed more or less directly overhead the U.S. Navy Base at Key West, I realized I’d lost my electrical system. Suddenly I had no radio, no lights, no flaps, and a long way to go.
Back to Key West I went. A series of light-gun signals brought me safely back down onto Runway 9 for an unanticipated overnight stay.
Things happen. What are you gonna do?
My next memorable glitch came at the end of a dual cross-country flight with a young woman named Marcy. Arguably the best, most dedicated student I’ve ever had. She was terrific. She studied hard, practiced diligently, and did an outstanding job on our flight from Meriden Markham in central Connecticut up to Orange, Massachusetts, and back. In fact, her planning and handling of the airplane was as good as I’ve seen.
The flight should have been a complete cake-walk, except for the inconvenient problem that arose when the airplane ahead of us in the pattern plunked down on Runway 36, collapsed its nose gear, and came to an abrupt halt on the centerline.
Meriden Markham only has the one strip of pavement, which meant Marcy and I had to deviate for real. This was a bit of a problem, as I’d rushed from my previous student’s debrief to brief, pre-flight, and go with Marcy. By the time we were taking off from Orange for the return trip, I regretted not taking the time to make a pit stop. Now, with another hour of flight under my belt and an increasingly uncomfortable bladder, I was not all that thrilled to realize I was going to have to wait a bit longer — if I could.
All was well, even if it was a little less than perfect.
Just the other day, while flying a C-182 I’d never flown before, I had the peculiar experience of seeing the radio stack vibrate right out of the rack after I’d rotated and pointed the nose to the sky.
I pressed the boxes back into the slot and asked my student to hold them in place while I proceeded to climb normally, fly the pattern, and put us right back on the ground only a few minutes after we’d departed. That was a short lesson, but a valuable one.
Fly the airplane. Deal with the issue. Find a place to go and go there. It’s not really all that complicated, even if it does get a little more exciting than you might like now and then.
Perfect isn’t in my repertoire. It’s probably not in yours either. Don’t fret.
In my experience perfection is pretty much unattainable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth planning for the ideal situation. But don’t get all bunched up and panicked if it doesn’t happen.
You’re a human being operating a machine. If one doesn’t have an issue, the other probably will.
Our situation is not one that requires absolute precision and purity at all times. We can adapt and take action when things go awry. Thank goodness.