A few days ago a customer paid me in cash for 4 days of initial training (thousands of dollars). Normally, I don’t carry around large amounts of cash, but I had to on this occasion for the drive home. I put the cash into a pocket on my backpack and placed the backpack in the bed of my truck for the drive home.
Now, in defense of all the horrible thoughts that are developing in your mind about me, I’ve owned the truck for 28 years and have developed a habit of throwing stuff in the back normally. It is a small-cab truck and the bed of the truck is a fine place to put things temporarily…it’s convenient. I’ve yet to lose anything of value out of the back of the truck, and I had no thoughts otherwise on this day.
Well, you know how this story is going to progress…right? When I got home and retrieved the backpack from the back of the truck, the zipper that held the cash was wide open. My heart sank as I considered the possibility of thousands of dollars being scattered along 15 miles highway. I pictured myself walking along the side of the road for miles and miles, all day if necessary to find the money. I closed my eyes, said a quick prayer, and stuck my hand into the open backpack pocket…thank God, all the money was still there. Did the wind open the pocket? Did I forget to close the zipper? I’m not sure, but I felt that horrible feeling when the reality of your fallibility slaps you in the face. I was dumb, stupid, and irresponsible and I knew it. The backpack was a safe place to put the money, but the back of the truck was definitely not a safe place for the backpack.
How does this story (confessional) apply to aviation? I’ve felt his same sinking feeling in the cockpit on a few occasions (thankfully only a few!) when things did not go quite right while flying. I’ll give you a few examples:
- One dark night under NVG’s I landed a UH-60 Blackhawk in a field site on sloped terrain while wearing NVG’s. After landing the crewchief jumped out and reported that a 3’ tall tree stump was in the tall grass and had missed the Blackhawk’s belly by mere inches. No one saw the stump in the tall grass. Who knows what damage that stump could have caused if we had hit it!
- I once took off in a Cessna 140 from an uncontrolled airport with a serious “bow” in the runway (the center of the runway was “high ground” with the two ends being “low ground”) on a windless clear morning. On the takeoff roll, I crested the hill on the runway to discover that another airplane was departing from the opposite direction at the same time! We crossed at mid-field at about 100’ AGL and waved to each other, both knowing that both of us were incredibly fortunate. We both saw each other once airborne and avoided each other to the right (as we are taught in primary training), but neither one of us heard the other’s radio call announcing takeoff. Yes, it was quite the surreal moment in time!
- I had a student pilot learning to fly in a tailwheel airplane who was approaching his first solo, but had not quite mastered the art of “aligning the longitudinal axis of the airplane with the intended direction of touchdown” (if you’ve got a less verbose way of relating that aviation principle, let me know!). On one approach, I let him go just a little too far and within milliseconds we were heading for the ditch. I did the best I could to control the groundloop, and was able to slow us down enough to avoid scraping a wing, but we still ended up on the side of the runway pointed in the wrong direction. We missed the runway lights, no one was hurt, the airplane was fine, but I was completely embarrassed and (after 400 hours of worry-free tailwheel flight time) got an object lesson in how fast a tailwheel airplane will ground loop.
On each of these instances, nothing really was really done wrong. I don’t mean that to be arrogant, but I had good intentions on each flight and performed the flight as I had on many occasions successfully. What went wrong on each flight? I didn’t have enough margin.
Simply put, on each flight I left no margin for error. I could have listened to the radio better, asked the crewchief to lean out the window (they wear harnesses) instead of sitting behind the closed window, and taken over the controls 1/2 second sooner when I knew the student approaching the runway misaligned. I could have buffered myself by adding margin, which could have really changed the outcomes.
Think this margin discussion only applies to aviation? Not true. When does the refrigerator in your kitchen go out? Only when you’ve only got $100 bucks in the savings account! When does your car need new tires? Only in the same month that the strong t-storm blows through ripping tiles off your roof and blowing over your fence (yes, this happened to me recently!). When is your son’s college tuition due? Yea…right…the same month the annual is due on your airplane! Ever notice that Murphy never knocks on your front door when you’ve got a fully-funded emergency fund? When there’s $30k sitting in the bank you’ve got margin. Murphy doesn’t show up, or if he does, you have the ability to deal with him seemingly inconsequentially.
Ever notice that the you seem to feel better about things when you are going to church regularly? Ever notice that your teenager talks with you more frequently (and deeply) after you’ve devoted serious time with him/her in the recent past? How about your physical body? Feeling tired lately? How much time are you spending working out? What is your intensity like during the workout? What has your diet consisted of lately?
On each of these areas of life (financial/social/family/physical), margin (larger savings, strong friendships, solid family, good health) creates peace of mind and keeps you from trouble.
In aviation, margin creates safety. Here’s some ways to ensure you create additional margin in your aviation endeavors:
- Don’t accept intersection takeoffs
- Fly at a higher altitude when given the choice
- Buy a carbon monoxide detector for your piston airplane
- Prepare a first aid kit that remains in the airplane
- Write down you “personal minimums” and don’t ever violate them
- Fly with a flight instructor twice per year instead of only once
- Never trust your fuel gauge…verify visually the fuel amount before every flight
- Do a “post-flight” inspection in addition to a “preflight” inspection
- Show up for your flight 15 minutes early and get all of those “small items” done so you mind is free to focus on the task at hand.
- Fly every third instrument approach with no autopilot and no processed data (raw data only) to keep your instrument scan crisp.
- Turn the golf-cart (or aircraft tug) key to the “off position” instead of just parking it in the hangar (I had one lurch forward into the side of the hangar when someone lifted the seat and the seat fell off the base onto the “go” pedal!).
- Clean the belly of your airplane once per month and take the cowl completely off the airplane at oil change so you get a chance to review the airplane closely.
- Put Foreflight on your Iphone as well as your Ipad so you have instrument approach plate backups in flight
This list could go on and on and on! My point in this discussion…when able, put some margin in your life, especially the aviation part of your life. Notice I am NOT saying that you should create margin by simply not flying or only flying on perfect-weather days. I’m specifically talking about doing those things that create margin so that you CAN push yourself in aviation.
To use my initial story as an analogy, I did not stop driving my truck and I still use my backpack for hauling my important stuff around. How did I create margin in this situation? I bought a truck-bed toolbox. The cab of my truck is still just as small, but now I have a lockable and fully weatherproof place to put my stuff. I created margin.