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Risk Management

There’s an old, but true, saying in flight circles, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots – but there are no old bold pilots.”

I’ve been driving airplanes for over fifty years, so I guess I’m in the old category. I’ve managed to keep flying, and keep living, by managing risks. Everything we do in our lives involves some measure of risk. You can’t avoid it. All you can do is to try your damnedest to minimize it. But even then, fate can jump out of a nightmare to multiply the risks. When that happens, hopefully you can survive by relying upon the preparations you’ve made for just such eventualities.

Preparation comes in all forms. In flight training for a multi-engine rating, you practice single engine operations. You have to demonstrate it to the FAA to get the rating. You have to demonstrate it during your Flight Reviews. But, if you fly a multi-engine aircraft, you’d better be able to DO IT when it becomes real. You have to prepare not only to deal with the risk, but also to recognize it when it sneaks up on you.  

Case in point: a simple flight home that turned into a high risk journey. There was just the two of us in a single engine light plane and I’d topped the tanks before departure. The trip was only a little over an hour and I’d flown it many times. Clear night sky with a full moon – beautiful flying weather. With full tanks, running out of fuel shouldn’t have crossed my mind.  But, you have to “expect the unexpected.”  Soon after taking off, I noticed the fuel gauges kept going down faster than normal. We were twenty minutes from arriving at our home field. I was 90% sure that something was wrong with either the gauges or the fuel senders. It was ‘impossible’ to be that close to running out of fuel, and we were almost there, but I had sworn that I would never be one of the idiots that run out of fuel.

I declared an emergency, got priority routing, and landed at a major airport along our route. We rolled out, turned onto the taxiway – and the engine stopped. We had to be towed.  After our take-off, a fuel line had sprung a leak. All that reserve fuel had bled away unseen and I’d have been facing a forced landing at night if we’d have kept going. Risk recognition is a big part of risk management.

I stopped while writing this to make a grocery store run. I turned from a residential street onto a thoroughfare and as I dawdled along at the speed limit, I had a guy blow by me at 30 over. I stopped beside him at the next light. He took off – and I again stopped beside him at the next light. At the store, I walked in about ten feet behind him. So – what was his point?

I’m no stranger to speed – I’ve spent some time on the other side of 600 in the air as a pilot and 1400 in the backseat of an F4. But – why unnecessary speed – or more appropriately, why take unnecessary risks? At the best, the guy ends up with a ticket and bump in insurance rates. Or, he kills someone (maybe me) and himself.  

Another writing interruption. While taking a shower before an appointment, the cell phone rang on the vanity. I could have “dived” to get it, while all soaped up, and at my age, risked a broken hip or a broken neck. To hell with it! That’s what voice mail is for. The telephone has no constitutional right to be answered.  

I’ve engaged in a lot of risky activities, flying a plane is just one of them. But in each case, I’ve learned to recognize the risks, realistically evaluate the risks, figure out how I can minimize the risks, and develop a plan to deal with the risks in a worst case situation. That’s probably why I’ve managed to last 50 years past my “expiration date” based upon some of the risky things I’ve done.

As we age, things gets riskier. Our reactions are slower, our vision is worse, our bones are more brittle. No one will take care of you but yourself. Take a look at everything you do, everything, no matter how trivial. Think about what can go wrong, what can happen, and plan accordingly.  That doesn’t mean crawl into an underground bunker, but to know the risks and deal with them with the very best of practices. That way, you can end up as an old fogey like me and pass on some of your hard earned “wisdom.”

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Reeves Motal
Reeves Motal
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