In my novice years as an ag pilot, while discussing the issue of flight safety with someone much more experienced, I asked him what makes a safe ag pilot. He was straight and to the point.
It’s a judgment call. Pilots with good judgment tend to make good decisions. Pilots with poor judgment tend to make poor decisions.
I do remember pondering over his answer for quite a while. It was clear enough at first glance, but as the old saying goes, the good things are always simple, but the simple things aren’t always easy.
Sound judgment sets the foundation for making good decisions, whatever the situation. But how do you go about developing sound judgment?
One way is by experience. I was flying an AgCat treating a field with very prominent tree lines on both east and west borders and power lines, which I was overflying at the south end. Halfway through, the R-1340 developed a small prop seal leak, resulting initially in a few oil splatters on the windscreen. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I could open the left door and reach around the wipe off the smudges.
The situation worsened after several trips until it was getting very pronounced. But a partial load would finish the field, and I decided to press on. On the very last pass, I was flying next to and very conscious of the tree line and forgot about the powerline at the end of the field. I pulled up just in time to contact the powerline directly on the spray pump. Fortunately, it was a single strand and broke upon impact, but not until it sheared off the pump.
Yes, a lesson learned from experience – stop flying when you have a problem – but experience can often be a strict teacher. Better to learn from the mistakes of others through ongoing dialogue than to experience them all yourself.
Education a Core Element in Safety
One of the basic foundations of developing good judgment is to do the very best you can in educating yourself about the many hazards, constraints, and pilot attention demands common to ag operators. See Figure 1. The more you know, the better you can assess the associated risks and make sound and fact-based judgments on the task at hand. That starts with a professional ag school program and a disciplined approach to keeping flight safety as the number 1, 2, and 3 priority. No substitutions are allowed.
One of the interesting things about being an ag pilot is how proficient we get at stick and rudder flying. It’s a direct result of having a lot of takeoffs, landings, and low-level turns at max gross weight that fine-tunes our ability to handle the aircraft safely in situations that demand skillful piloting.
At the same time, one of the danger areas of being an ag pilot is that we get so proficient that we lower the margin of error by being overly confident. Our judgment of what is safe and what does not tends to get clouded, especially when the action gets hot and heavy. As we get more experienced, we tend to push aircraft and weather limits to where a small error can spell disaster if we are unaware of the consequences of lapses in good judgment.
Thank goodness there is a lot of educational support for in-flight safety from the continued efforts of national and state ag aviation organizations taking a proactive approach to flight safety and safety.
The training of ag pilots has also taken leaps and bounds over prior years where a normal approach was “There’s the aircraft. Go fly. Let me know if you have any questions.” Today professional ag pilot schools deliver comprehensive curricula and training programs that stand a novice pilot in good stead in their developing years in the ag business.
Let the Good Times Roll
The issue is not whether we exhibit good judgment when the pace is slow and all the ducks are lined up in a row. The issue is how do we ensure continued good judgment when someone turns on the blender, and the action gets hot and heavy.
Here again, the national and state ag aviation associations have a lot of great materials, from posters to programs focused on helping you make sound judgments, particularly in recognizing higher-risk situations where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Flying single-seat aircraft means we are the only ones monitoring our flying. It is too easy to get a bit lax at times, straying away from complying with information in the Aircraft Operating Manual or standard operating procedures. When assessing your work, be fair but firm as you would be when evaluating someone else’s work.
Statistical reports consistently indicate that pilot error, mechanical failure, and poor weather conditions are the primary causes of accidents/incidents. Luckily problems with powerplants have been sharply reduced in recent years due to the growing complement of turbine-powered aircraft and an increased focus on preventative maintenance.
I’ve seen statistics that cite pilot error as the primary cause of 50% to 80% of accidents, and however you cut the cake, that’s a large percentage that needs addressing. No one wants to be a statistic.
Suppose you foster and fly in an environment that actively supports a “Safety First” attitude. In that case, you and all those you are working with are much more likely to prioritize safety than environments where the bottom line drives a culture of accepting unacceptable risks with little thought on the possible consequences.
Like many things we do, it’s often a judgment call. We must make many decisions directly affecting how safe and effective our aerial applications will be. Those decisions will most likely turn out just fine when supported by common sense, sound judgment, and adherence to the basic principles of flight safety.