Sometimes the Best Chance for Success Comes from Quitting

“This is the kind of thing you’re always warning against...” was the single line email I received along with a link. The link was to a preliminary report for an accident synopsis which, in two short paragraphs, summarized a pilot’s final flight. It was a trip that is described as ending with a “right turning descent”, after which “both radar and radio contact were subsequently lost.” What makes this the “kind of thing” I spend so much time warning pilots against is that the crash followed no fewer than four (4) attempts at an instrument approach into the destination airport.

For some reason, a persons’ ability to evaluate their level of performance diminishes as they make subsequent attempts to accomplish a complex task at which they continue to fail. This can be deadly. For example: I have been with numerous pilots who have gotten poorly set up on an attempt to land (especially on windy days) and prudently decide to abandon their approach and go around. Typically, they come around and are able to set up a much more stabilized approach and land successfully on their second attempt. I am always pleased by their ability to recognize when something is not likely to work out and by their willingness to initiate a go around early on. Sometimes though, their second attempt goes as poorly as - or worse than - the first attempt. The disconcerting oddity of human behavior that I have observed is the resolve that develops that practically shouts, “I’m going to get it next time.” The problem is the resolve to succeed on subsequent attempts seems to numb people to the risks they are facing and blind them to the signs that they are still not likely to successfully complete the task at hand.

This is why I have a personal limit of trying something twice in an airplane - what I often tell people is, “My limit is two.” Yet as I considered my self-imposed limit while researching this column, I realized that sometimes, I won’t even bother with a first attempt at something, let alone a second. And, I am willing to bet that many of you reading this are of the same mindset, and may not even realize it.

Think about a strong windy and gusty day. Have you ever cancelled a flight having concluded that the winds exceed your personal minimums? Or, have you ever arrived at the airport to find that the marginal weather conditions seem reluctant to improve as forecast? Did you (would you) scrub the flight rather than take the chance of ending up getting caught up in an encounter with the bad weather? If so then you, like me, sometimes won’t even try something a first time. Yet the accident files are filled with reports detailing the escapades of pilots who got in over their heads in windy conditions they were not proficient enough to handle, or lost control of the airplane having inadvertently flown into instrument conditions.

To me, it is important to be willing to not even try something once. It is a recognition of our limitations and a validation of the personal minimums we establish for ourselves. Yet, it is equally important to remember that having a personal limit on not trying something more than twice does not compel a second attempt at something. Consider this: My home airport frequently experiences a strong cross wind on the large/main runway. Fortunately, we have a smaller, crossing runway that can be more favorable on those days. It is not uncommon for a pilot, like me, to make an approach to the long runway with the cross wind and go around and conclude that the conditions are not likely to be any better on the next attempt. When this happens, I simply request the other runway. Often, I do not need a second attempt to prove that I cannot land (or don’t want to be bothered to try to land again) on the main runway.

I will be the first to admit that almost anything can happen during an instrument approach. I have flown many instrument approaches in near minimum conditions. Sometimes I have been able to land, but sometimes I have not. Depending on the conditions, I have sometimes chosen to attempt a second approach after I have not been able to land on the first one. Other times it has been quite apparent that it simply was not worth a second try. There have been occasions too when the weather reports have made it seem that the approach would be a sure thing, and yet, I never saw the runway. And, I have flown instrument approaches to a point where I was out of the clouds and saw the runway, only to fly back into a cloud and have to abandon the landing.

The report about the pilot I mentioned at the beginning of this column is only preliminary, so the cause has not been determined. However, it is significant that they pilot crashed after four attempts at an instrument approach at the same airport. The weather conditions observed at the approximate time of the accident place the ceiling within 300 feet of the lowest altitude the pilot could legally descend to on the instrument approach. There is no way to know what he saw that compelled him to try the approach multiple times. There is no way to know if he pushed things too far out of desperation, or if he exhausted all of his fuel in his multiple attempts and the poor weather left him no altitude to find a suitable place to land. Perhaps a mechanical malfunction was really to blame. However if we presume that the airplane itself was not the cause, this accident does illustrate the propensity of humans to keep pressing on to a point where they fall prey to the mindset that we will succeed (we have to succeed) on the next time. Had this pilot believed that sometimes the best chance for success comes from quitting what you’re doing and proceeding down a different path, he likely would have had a very different outcome.

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Article by: Terry Keller Jr.