When I was faced with a seemingly impossible challenge in the early days of my previous career as a State Department foreign-service officer, a more seasoned diplomat wryly urged me to remember that the worst times always make the best stories later on. It was cold comfort at the time, but I eventually recognized the truth in his observation. In fact, for many years since, I have had the best time regaling friends and colleagues with some of those “worst times” stories.
Pilots are pretty famous for doing the same thing. Much like fishermen who enthuse (and maybe exaggerate just a bit) about “the one that got away,” pilots engaged in the sport-or is it an art?-of hangar flying enjoy sharing “there I was .” stories of narrow escapes, derring-do, and (of course) stupid pilot tricks perpetrated by all those other people.
Stories Stick. Trading tales is fun, but good hangar flying stories can offer a lot more than entertainment. In their 2007 book Made to Stick, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath note the power that stories have on human beings:
Stories illustrate causal relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems. . The story’s power, then, is twofold: It provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). . A credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care… The right stories make people act.
That is why we aim to structure many of the magazine’s articles around stories of, for, and by real pilots and mechanics – people like us whose experience can help us operate more safely, but also teach us ways to avoid the worst-times abnormal and emergency situations that generated their “there I was” stories. The AOPA Air Safety Institute takes a similar approach with its Real Pilot Stories series. As the AOPA/ASI Web site observes, listening to pilots involved in a flight that went bad can help the rest of us become better pilots.
Read and Heed. Stories are a great way to convey information, but we humans sometimes have a way of hearing without really learning. As I have regularly confessed in some of my weather presentations for pilot safety seminars, I once found myself heading for a continued-visual-flight-rules-into-instrument-meteorological-conditions situation because I had allowed external pressures to overpower my situational awareness and dominate my thinking.
Having previously read and heard dozens of stories by pilots who made that very mistake, I was shocked to find myself so close to doing exactly what they had done. I promised myself then that I would henceforth endeavor to read and heed, not simply review and then later redo my own version of others’ mistakes.
One key to learning from a story is to imagine yourself in the other pilot’s seat, and mentally accompany him or her through the experience. It can be satisfying to focus instead on how you would never be as stupid as that other pilot-I admit I’ve been guilty of such thoughts. However, I can benefit even more if I try to understand the chain of decisions and actions, and then use the story to help me find and fix the weak links in my own decision-making chain.
Learning from others is a powerful way to minimize your chances of getting into an abnormal or emergency situation, and to maximize the likelihood of safe flights and happy landings. (FAA Safety Briefing – NovDec 2010)