A horse and rider…it is a beautiful metaphor for many situations in life. When I think of a horse and rider, I think of a beautiful sunset being viewed by a silhouetted cowboy sitting upon his best friend after a hard days work rounding up cattle. The two together are a highly productive unit…the cowboy’s brain and the horse’s brawn. Melded together, they can accomplish much, apart far less.
I recently learned about the horse and rider metaphor through an unlikely source, a book titled Thou Shall Prosper by Daniel Lapin. A fabulous book with many insights beyond the scope of this writing, I highly recommend it. He details how prosperous people view the intellect (rider) as the controlling mechanism for the body (horse) to win in the marketplace.
For the pilot, the horse and rider metaphor works well too. When we fly, we really do become one with the airplane. Without us, the airplane is just an artsy pile of aluminum or fiberglass and without the airplane, we are a ground-bound land-lubber with no access to the third dimension. Put the two of us together, and we, like the horse and rider, are able to do and be so much more. Airplanes that fly without humans (drones) do not provide the perspectives that move people emotionally or physically. Aerial photos do a decent job of projecting an scene, but still pale in comparison to the actual perspective of being airborne. Yes, the human and the airplane go together as a horse and rider; the two are nearly inseparable if maximum productivity and the best perspective are desired. In fact, a pilot is only a pilot if there is an aircraft at his disposal.
Yet, as any real cowboy can tell you, things are not always good between the horse and rider. Sometimes the horse “has a mind of its own” and sometimes the rider acts in a manner that confuses the horse. Anytime there is a question about “who is in charge” or “who makes the decisions”, the rider is not doing his job. The rider must always be in control for he understands intent behind the meaning of the relationship.
As pilots, we must always be in charge in the relationship. When the cowboy is not in charge, we call it a rodeo. When the rider is in charge, it is a polo game, productive ranch work, or some other positive equestrian event. Rodeos are great entertainment, but there is little positive correlation for most events in a rodeo to the world of aviation. Pilots who live to tell the story of when the airplane was in charge do so with the the knowledge that they are mere survivors, not masters of aviation worthy of emulation as mentors.
I once had a friend who had horses who invited me over for a ride. The conditions were perfect on this day…the sun was shining, the wind clam, and the temperature moderate. However, the horse had an innate intuition and knew I was a novice the minute my butt touched his back. He then decided to take control and I was too ignorant and inexperienced to respond properly. Despite my efforts to slow him down, he ran for the opened gate (which was opened up just enough to allow him to go through) running my knee into the gate. After only about 10 seconds of horseback riding, I had plenty of time to consider my situation in the ER as the doctor sewed 12 stitches to close the gaping hole in my right knee. I was not in charge and the horse was…to our detriment.
In aviation, we are the ones to open the hangar, check the weather, make the flight decision, determine the airworthiness of the airplane, advance the throttle, and effectively make every other decision as to the management and consequent safety of the upcoming flight. If the airplane runs us into the gate, we were clearly not in control or were simply along for the ride with no Plan B.
Bottom line, no airplane has ever crashed itself, at all times humans crash airplanes because we make the decisions. Yes, mechanical issues can occur with our steeds, but they rarely occur without giving some forewarning, allowing us the ability to come up with a Plan B. And, situations can develop that were not as intended and pose you few options. Yet, we are the brains of the relationship. We are to set the conditions so that a Plan B really does exist. Consider a pilot who flies up a valley in mountainous terrain – he has no options. If he runs out of ability to out-climb the rising terrain or turn inside the terrain, then the pilot gave up control and started a personal mini-rodeo. He’ll either barely make it over the peak and tell his great tale to his buddies, or he’ll die an out of control death in a pile of metal on an obscure mountain peak. We make the decisions of whether to fly or not and we create our own Plan B. It is our job to never delegate control to the horse and to always make decisions that are in the best interest of the relationship. If you were at the controls of a crashed airplane, since you had a choice to get into the airplane to start with, it is (at least in a large part, if not entirely) your fault. The airplane would not have flown without you.
Consider Sully Sullenberger and his epic crash into the Hudson a few years back. Here’s an example of a true pilot. Although the airplane gave him an incredible set of circumstances (two dead engines over a huge populated area) he remained fully in control all the way to the ground. Was the outcome as he originally intended? No. But it is a perfect example of a pilot utilizing a Plan B and remaining in control. Was it his fault? Well, yes. It was his fault that he landed safely and everyone survived. He was at the controls and he made the decisions. Could he have avoided the birds that caused the dual engine flame-out? Probably not, but who’s to know? Could the same thing happen to us? Certainly. We fly single-engine airplanes and we are just as much a glider as Sully’s jet if the engine fails on our Malibu. The point…the rider must always be in control.
Now, this is all easy to accept if you’ve never crashed an airplane. If you’ve ever been at the controls of an airplane that did crash…this is a pretty harsh analysis. Yet, the point of the discussion is to not stop flying, or to not ride a horse. In fact, my point is exactly the opposite. I’d suggest Sully’s successful outcome was partly a function of his being a high-time pilot with great training. I love flying and seek out opportunities to fly as often as possible. In 8,000 hours of flight time (and counting), I’ve been at the controls of many flights where I gave up control to the airplane without thinking about it with a “horse and rider” metaphor. I’ve also had flights where things went horribly wrong (engine failure, loss of cabin pressurization, loss of many instruments, etc.), but never gave up control of the airplane, executed Plan B and survived with no bent metal.
Like the cowboy who knows his horse so intimately that they work as one together, a pilot must know his airplane. How much time to you spend with your horse? Are you flying more than 100 hours per year? Do you allow a month to go by without visiting your airplane? Do you know its every move in crappy weather conditions? Could you land in a 12 knot crosswind on a 3,000ft runway after flying a GPS approach to minimums? If your engine died at 10,000ft MSL 15 miles from an airport, could you land safely? If your attitude indicator tumbled could you fly an instrument approach in IFR conditions? If not (and you are a Malibu pilot), then you need to get some good training and start flying more often. Don’t simply train for the best of circumstances when “any ole’ pilot” could ride the horse, train for those times when you absolutely and unequivocally must be in control from takeoff to touchdown for a successful outcome.