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Guarding Against Complacency

All active pilots are subject to complacency. It is of course, a widely variable risk, based upon many factors. What do pilots do to recognize and mitigate it?

A relatively new pilot who flies a rental plane once a month, is likely very aware of his or her [perhaps limited] skills, and is very attentive. Thus, for that pilot, complacency is probably being mitigated by diligence, though low experience could be a factor in higher risk, in some situations.

A very experienced pilot who does not fly regularly may be less diligent based upon his or her sense of their own experience, and this can raise the risk. The skill might balance things, but skills fade.

A pilot who flies frequently can have very fresh skills, but an artificial sense of well being, based upon all the preceding trouble free flying, and thus is a greater complacency risk. This is particularly true when that pilot is flying the same plane all the time. "It was fine last time, nothing's different this flight....".

What are some of the checks and balances that others apply to their flight preparation and actual flying to minimize risk and ward off complacency?

Home runway, in central Ontario, Canada

It's an excellent question, and probably helps to explain why high-hour pilots are not much less likely to kill themselves than low-hour pilots

Personally, I try to stick to standard procedures i.e. use the checklist rigorously on the ground, for 1 or 2 things in the air (e.g. configuring the kit for an ILS) and generally fly accurately even when it's not necessary.

It's often said that a regular flight with an instructor is a good thing, which I agree with if the instructor is one with a wide experience of flying.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

Complacency can only be fought off with strict routines and by always expecting the unexpected. For me, it's checklists, checklists, checklists.

I notice that the more experienced pilots, such as ATPL pilots who also fly SEP for fun, use the checklists more than the "average" pilot. And by "using checklists" I mean actually taking it out and reading it rather than ticking off the points from memory.


I preach the 1-2-3- building block mantra. Carry out your pre flight the same way, all of the time. Fly regularly with DIFFERENT instructors, who can tell you, and you can tell them, the error of ways. Like Peter, I tend to fly accurately, and try at all times to build in an approach mode, particularly when arriving at a new field. No smart stuff, when arriving for the first time. Always use a checklist, and always strive for precise and professional use of the airwaves. I fly different types, and it is not always possible to practice what I preach. For instance last week we were fooling around in a Piper Cub, in and out of a 300 metre, 15 foot wide strip, (the farmer had ploughed it wrongly),with trees either end, large trees. A Kitfox lives at this field. Great fun, and very precise flying, and really focused the mind. I did notice though, that our checks appeared to go out of the window, concentrating in spinning the cub around at the end of this strip, to taxi back and go again. We had decided that touch and go's might just be a bit ambitious, even for us!!! Keep complacancy away by varying the flying, and keeping it strict.

Fly safe. I want this thing to land l...
EGPF Glasgow

I never did give much of a damn about nailing the PPL in 45 hours. I figured it gave some very short term bragging rights and that was about it - getting experience was all I care about. Consequently, as long as the instructor was happy, I would go up in some fairly hairy conditions. I wanted to know how conditions on the ground could relate to conditions in the air. Those lessons didn't serve a lot of purpose in giving me a sanitised environment to practice my flying, but more often than not would serve the purpose I had intended and leave me very aware of my own mortality. Full of confidence before the flight and spectacularly humbled afterwards. I dare say it won't be the last time.

Now, before I get in an aircraft, especially if I am feeling super confident, I always pause and remind myself of the before and after feelings I had after those training flights. For me it's a good grounding technique and a cue for me to switch on.

Having just passed the skills test, the intention will be to hopefully fly lots of different aircraft, with some different people, to be critical and set high standards for myself (which at least some of the time I hope to attain).

Initially at least, I've often heard people say "Only do one thing new on a flight". If I go to a new airfield, it'll be in an aircraft I am familiar with, and I won't carry passengers if I haven't carried any before. I think it's reasonably good advice.

I think for me it is sticking to my standard processes, and I am talking flight planning and preparation here. Even if a flight is has to be cancelled, or I choose to head off in a different direction due to weather, I dont take off until I have thoroughly checked the route, the weather, the airspace limitations, I have the plates to hand that I want, I know winds etc.. I am not one of those who just takes my flight bag into the plane and plans a route with the engine warming up, or in the air. Preparation gives me the confidence that if there are any issues, then I can at least be armed with whatever is necessary to try my best to deal with them. There are no guarantees however....

Also, I dont take W&B for granted. I once (only once) loaded 4 medium sized adults into my PA28, with almost full fuel, on a long grass runway, in summer. I had taken off successfully with a similar configuration before, though with slightly less fuel. We got airborne OK, but really struggled to climb, and only really got some vertical speed when I quickly raised the flaps to reduce drag. Later on the ground I did do a W&B and we were just within all aircraft envelope limits. However at the time, the aircraft engine had nearly 2000 hours on it, and some months later when it was tested for a 200 hour extension, it was approximated to only have 90% of its stated power. So in reality I probably wasnt in the envelope limits of the aircraft.

I assumed W&B only once on a full aircraft, and never again ;-)

For an engine to really be 10% down on power, its internal condition must be very bad. Not just wear but chunks of metal having come off, and/or broken piston rings, compression well below the airworthiness limit.

I recall reading an AAIB report on a 4x fatal PA28 accident and the camshaft was so badly damaged that 25% of the valve lift was lost. Yet they said the engine was just 10% down on power.

In that case, it was obvious that nobody had even opened the oil filter. I sent that report to two respected US engine rebuilders and both said there would be heavy traces of metal in the oil filter.

Oil analysis? Got to be kidding

Also it is clear the pilot never checked for the correct RPM at the start of the takeoff roll. With a fixed pitch prop, that check is essential. If it doesn't make it, don't fly.

My vague recollection from my PA28 renting days (10+ years ago) is that it is quite difficult to get 4 people in, and have enough fuel to go anywhere useful e.g. to France, and be below MTOW.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

I like to follow the same procedures every time including setting up autopilot/GPS/FD even if I don't plan to use it for the entire flight. Heading bug on runway heading. Checklists out and used. Approach selected even if visual so I get an extended runway centreline for SA. Always track fuel manually. Also, I like to always fly IFR and fly an approach if I can and the cost isn't too proscriptive.

EGTK Oxford

More likely 10% down on climb performance I suspect.

I tend to revert to procedure unless very current and do everything as if it were a skill test. Revise the POH, make up a full kneeboard, don't rely upon memory for checks, if necessary do the walkaround twice until I'm fully mentally in the groove. If it's not my aeroplane (and periodically if it is) always do W&CG.....

Also ensuring a proper brief, emergencies brief before lining up, and "lessons learned" debrief after each flight.

It keeps me alive.


Boffin at large
Various, southern UK.

Checklists are well and good in an airline environment (challenge and response). And they have their place in complex aeroplanes, or any aeroplane the pilot is not familiar with. However, if you fly a simple type as I do (Chipmunk) and have flown it for a long time, I don't see the need for a checklist. I use the aeroplane itself, walking around from the front of the left wing root, right round and back to the same spot.

In the cockpit I do a left to right check starting with power checks and finishing with flap setting (or not) and taking in everything else on the way.

Some pilots seem to use the checklist 'by rote', not actually thinking about the actions. Using the aeroplane itself as your checklist helps obviate that. It also means you don't have a check for items that don't exist on that aeroplane, like cowl flaps or retractable undrcarriage. If they do exist on that aeroplane, using the aeroplane as your checklist means they will be included (as I did on the Yak52).

I actually consider that chanting 'undercarriage down and welded' in your C150 checks is laying a trap for yourself in the future, when you fly an aeroplane where it isn't 'down', still less welded!

Barton is my spiritual home.
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