Images from Video in the Cockpit

When I began flying, I never would have imagined that the wonders of technological advances would bring us affordable, small, high definition cameras. Naturally pilots saw the potential to unobtrusively mount them in the cockpit in order to film their flights, and students immediately foresaw the benefits to their training if their lessons were recorded for later review. I doubt that I will ever forget the first time a student of mine asked if I would mind if he set up cameras in the cockpit to record his instrument lessons. He probably will not forget it either, because I dryly told him it was fine with me, especially since the NTSB would likely be grateful for any evidence his videos would provide to simplify their investigation given that I was an inevitable accident waiting to happen. Despite our friendship, I am not sure he fully appreciated my morose, self-depreciating humor.

Once I finally got serious, I made the prediction to him that it would only be a matter of time before the increasing prevalence of cameras in cockpits meant that there would be one running when an accident did happen, and I predicted the internet and news channels would be quick to share the footage. Sadly it did not take long for me to be proved correct.

Despite the effect accident reports and videos have on the general public, or even because of the effect, I have come to view myself as an ambassador to aviation. I flight instruct full-time and have for more than eight years. In that time, I have expanded what I do as a member of the aviation community to include teaching FAA safety seminars as a FAASTeam representative.

Recently, I was faced with creating a seminar focused on rusty pilots. Since I work to get people thinking outside the proverbial box, I wanted to make the point that pilots who are current can be “rusty” too. Think about a current pilot who has not flown at night in many months (or years). Rusty? Yes indeed, that term fits. It fits equally well on pilots who have not been to small airports or flown cross country, or − well, you get the idea.

During our brainstorming session for the seminar, I was reminded of a video I had seen where no accident occurred. It was simply a close call with terrain on departure. The situation involved a Beechcraft Bonanza departing a somewhat short, but adequate in length field. The pilot is shown to be diligent in taxing out to utilize all available runway, and is heard commenting about it before the takeoff roll begins. Despite his efforts, he narrowly misses the trees at the end of the runway. I was truly impressed with the pilot’s patience in not pulling the airplane into a stall despite the approaching trees, and I wanted to include the video in the seminar to show a case where even when pilots do everything right, they can still be surprised by circumstances. In my opinion, it was only by virtue of that pilot’s proficiency with the airplane, which he knew intimately well, that he successfully avoided the trees - thus my desire to include it in a rusty pilot seminar.

The video is available on the internet, but I wanted to get in touch with the pilot to ask permission to use his footage in the seminar. With a small amount of effort, I was able to, and was met with a surprising reaction. The pilot was happy to allow me to use his footage and he spoke with me at length about the circumstances leading up to the flight so that I could discuss it during the presentation. However, he was concerned that our seminar would not use the video to paint him with the brush of stupid pilot tricksters. He explained that after posting the video, he received a significant amount of judgmental backlash from others in the community about how careless he must have been. To his credit, he has left the video for all to see because he believes in the value it holds for the rest of us. I could not agree more.

I was glad that the pilot told me about his concerns because it led me to include some remarks in the seminar about the fact that it is rare that pilots set out intentionally taking risks. In fact it is very rare for a pilot to intentionally crash an airplane. Any time we see an accident report or view accident footage, we must remind ourselves, and the general public, that it is easy to point fingers after the fact. We must realize that, to the pilots involved, the decisions made seemed sound at the time, given what they knew, or believed. Some pilots are simply poorly educated. That is not the pilot’s fault. Some have skills that have deteriorated, and shame on the instructor who conducted their last flight review for not catching that. Others (like the Beechcraft pilot above) simply find the conditions different than expected due to unseen variables. In his particular case, it was more about the wind shear caused by the trees surrounding the airport. In fact he had been to an equally short runway earlier that same day, and the numbers for the takeoff performance showed the runway plenty long to be safe.

After almost any accident, much can be learned. The general public often will be quick to use accident reports and videos to argue that flying is a dangerous activity. Pilots know that to be false. Well trained pilots know how to assess and mitigate risks. We study accidents, not out of morbid curiosity, but because we seek to understand and avoid similar circumstances. So, perhaps my comments to my instrument student who wanted to put cameras in our cockpit were less “self-deprecating” and more an honest admission that any one of us could fall victim to circumstances. We can use accident or near-accident video alongside accident reports to expand our awareness of the risks we all face in hopes of seeing them approach so that we will all safely avoid them.

Article by: Terry Keller Jr.