Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.— Gen. George S. Patton.
As I have noted in these pages before, I caught the aviation bug at an early age when my cousin and I listened with rapt attention to the stories my dad — a wartime pilot — and his friends used to tell. I knew back then that I wanted a career that involved flying.
In part because of my dad’s example, I started as he did: I worked as hard as I could, watched for every opportunity, and prepared myself to move from inspiration and aspiration to the realization of that dream.
And so, like my dad, I served for many years as a military aviator. Though I did not imagine back then that I might wind up working for the FAA — much less as the director of the Flight Standards Service — my personal and professional background provided much of the education, training, and experience that prepared me for this position.
It’s Not About “Luck”
If there is anything I have learned from the twists and turns taken throughout my life and career, it would be just how much truth there is in the old cliché about how the thing we call “luck” is really just the point where opportunity meets preparation. We tend to think of that phrase in terms of its application to careers, and certainly the preparation-plus-opportunity-equals-luck equation applies in that arena.
But it clearly applies to aviation as well. We have all heard and read about “lucky” pilots who walked away from events that could have had a very different outcome. A lifetime in aviation, including stints as an aviation instructor and evaluator, leads me to believe that the chance-driven variety of luck usually has little to do with it. Rather, I strongly believe that an aviator’s luck is the self-made version, one that demands years of constant, dedicated study and preparation. However, the quote at the top of this page summarizes a lot of what true aviation preparedness means to me. In any aviation training program, the formal curriculum necessarily and appropriately focuses most heavily on preparing for what is known. We learn about known aerodynamic principles and their practical implications for flight. We learn about known aircraft systems and performance capabilities, using carefully developed charts and graphs to gauge whether and under what circumstances the aircraft can do what we ask it to do.
And, notwithstanding all the jokes about the uncertainties inherent in weather forecasting, we learn about known principles of meteorology. This list goes on.
I submit, however, that mastering what is known is only the most basic, necessary-but- not-sufficient aspect of preparedness. Aviation safety demands that we also seek to prepare for the unknown, and that is where the late General Patton’s counsel comes into play. We prepare for the unknown in two key ways. First, we prepare by learning as much as possible about, well, everything related to aviation. Second, we learn from how other aviators have coped with unusual circumstances. Aviation history is replete with illustrative examples. Two famous events — United 232’s loss of all hydraulics in 1989, and USAirways 1549’s goose-induced dual flameout in 2009 — come to mind as case studies in how the pilots’ mastery of the known prepared them to cope with the unforeseen and the unpredictable. Yes, they were “lucky” because when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a life-or-death challenge, these aviators were prepared to take it on. We should all aspire to do likewise…
Aviation safety demands that we seek to prepare for the unknown
An aviator’s luck is the self-made version, one that demands years of constant, dedicated study and preparation.
John Allen – Director of Flight Standards – FAA