Last week I received an old-school handwritten letter delivered by the United States Postal Service from a reader named Bill. I’m only going to use Bill for reasons that’ll soon be apparent.
Bill’s letter starts off by saying “I really enjoy the news and the stories that reflect the opinions and experiences of the older aviators from the good old days.” From there, Bill launches into a story he “decided not to admit to anyone what a stupid thing I had done.”
I’m not sure why he shared it with us, but I’m glad he did.
Back in the 1950s, Bill owned an Ercoupe he used to commute from Rockford, Illinois, to Chicago’s O’Hare Field to fulfill his USAF Reserve duty.
“On 8/27/1955 I left O’Hare and was looking forward to a smooth flight home. I loved to fly with the canopy open in hot weather. When I reached my cruising altitude, I tuned into a Chicago station that played pleasant, dreamy, mood music. I trimmed my plane and sat back to enjoy my flight in my Ercoupe ‘convertible.’ The next thing I knew I was suddenly awakened to realize I had dozed off. I didn’t know where I was, so after a bit of triangulation I discovered I was well up into central Wisconsin, probably 200 miles from home.”
Nearly 43 years later, on 8/9/1998, I boarded a late-night, red-eye commercial flight from Seattle via Minneapolis to Appleton, Wisconsin. The purpose of the flight was to retrieve our Beech Baron I had left, due to weather, in Oshkosh following the 1998 EAA fly-in.
Upon arrival in Appleton, I took a taxi to Basler Flight Service at KOSH, checked the weather and headed west. The first leg, from KOSH to Minot, N.D., was uneventful. While the weather was VFR, the hazy, humid airmass didn’t allow for great visibility. Seventy-five, or so, miles north of Minneapolis I crossed the southeastern shore of Mille Lacs Lake in perfectly smooth air. A few moments later all sense of motion was gone. I could no longer see the shoreline of the 200+ square mile lake. The horizon was out there, somewhere. The only way I knew I was making progress across the lake was watching the DME count down the miles to my next waypoint.
That first leg to Minot was 3.5 hours. The second leg to Cut Bank, Montana, was 2.7 hours. Both stops were quick. I wanted to get home. (Insert ominous music here).
At the time, I was 28 years old. Happily married with children still in my future.
Climbing out of Cut Bank I recall being tired. I’d been awake for more than 24 hours at this point. Can anyone truly sleep on a red-eye flight sitting in coach? Why I was pushing myself to make this flight home so quickly is something to this day I don’t understand.
To make matters worse, the sun had caught up and passed me. In the morning it was behind me, now it was squarely in my face, providing a pleasant warmth that almost forced my body to sleep.
Suffice it to say, the autopilot did its job and kept the plane upright. I have no idea how long I was asleep.
I’m ashamed to write that sentence.
Around the time I received Bill’s letter, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) released a dramatic video titled “56 Seconds to Live.” The premise of the video is how quickly things can go bad for “a helicopter pilot operating under Visual Flight Rules who unintentionally continues flight into IMC.” As you can likely surmise, it goes bad quickly.
The video is sobering and relatable and worth a watch, even if you don’t fly helicopters.
Whether flying an aircraft — unintentionally — into IMC or falling asleep at the yoke on a perfectly clear day, things happen. And those are just two examples of mistakes we can make.
Part of the FAA’s Single-Pilot Crew Resource Management advisory is the I’M SAFE checklist, which stands for Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotion. In the case of the USHST video, the pilot pushed beyond or ignored S and E. For Bill and I, it was F that could’ve been our “gotcha.”
Bill and I each had a safe outcome. Thankfully. But there are many ways any of us can become a statistic. Let’s all commit ourselves to not becoming that kind of statistic.
But let’s all go one step further, and commit ourselves to no longer having these kinds go experiences to share.