Are You Becoming Complacent?

Complacency - The Silent Killer! 

Before we continue, stop and ask yourself, are you becoming complacent in your flying?

We all remember the early stages of our flight training, attentively reviewing each step of the process, checking and cross checking your flight planning, and slowly working through each and every line of your checklists.

12 months later, you’re getting good at this now! You don’t have time to get the weather forecast before leaving for the airfield, but you only intend on flying a short distance and the weather looks fine. You know your checklist from memory, and everything is going to plan – That is, up until the point when everything changes!

Complacency is something that as humans we deal with every day. In our jobs, our relationships, and our hobbies, but as pilots and maintainers how does this effect our performance, and how do we combat complacency before it turns into an accident?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, complacency is defined as: "a feeling  of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder”. Unfortunately as pilots, no level of experience makes us immune from the need to apply the same procedures we learn during our flight training during each and every flight with little room for error.

Complacency is much like flying a tailwheel aircraft; just when you think you have perfected your technique, you relax, let your guard down, then find yourself in a ground loop. But what about the situations that do not remind us that we need to keep on our toes, some with far more serious consequences?

Loss of control events are the number one cause of fatal accident not only within RAAus operations, but in general aviation (GA) operations globally. Of these events, one of the most common situations is due to inadvertent stall entry within the circuit. Unfortunately, these events are often preventable by maintaining safe operating speeds, or in the event of an engine failure, by recognising the failure and immediately lowering the nose to maintain the best glide speed for the aircraft. Now ask yourself – How accurately are you maintaining your climb-out and approach speeds, and when was the last time you reviewed your emergency procedures?

Another common observation in relation to complacency is the acceptance and normalisation of risk within our daily operations, often referred to as normalisation of deviance. An example of this may be obstacles, such as trees, fences, or powerlines, located on the final approach path to a runway. As pilots we are often overly conscious of these risks when we are first exposed to them, initially ensuring we pass 50ft over obstacles during the first few approaches to land. After we have been successful in doing this, we realise we can get away with reducing that margin, foot by foot at a time. We become comfortable, now passing only metres from the small branches extending from the top of the tree-line, after all, they look pretty flimsy. On the next approach, everything looks identical, we are on speed, the flight is smooth, and the wind is straight down the runway, except this is where the similarities end. You experience unexpected sink approaching the tree line, this time with a passenger onboard, you apply full power but the extra weight impacts your performance and your wing ever so slightly clips the leaves on the trees. Unfortunately, that’s all it takes, and one brief lapse of judgement could result in your last flight.

The danger surrounding complacency is that it often goes undetected until being faced with a close call, an incident, or an accident.

So how can we recognise it before it catches us off guard?

1. Use checklists
Checklists are designed to avoid human error. Avoid the temptation to skip checklists despite knowing these from memory. Configure the aircraft for the required activity and use a checklist to ensure nothing has been overlooked.

2. Practice emergency procedures
We all like to think that an emergency will never happen to us, however at some stage during your flying it is likely that you will be exposed to some form of emergency. Knowing what to do in the event of an emergency and acting quickly and accurately will result in the best outcome. Rather than thinking – “That won’t happen to me”, plan for it to happen on each and every flight. Perform an emergency brief prior to each flight identifying the actions that will be taken in the event of an engine failure on take-off.

3. Conduct a risk assessment
This doesn't mean sitting down with a spreadsheet for hours, or filling out a lot of paperwork, but simply considering, identifying and managing local threats within your flying operations means you are prepared for what risks may impact your flight. This should become part of your pre take-off planning before every flight considering operational, aircraft, and personnel risk.

What are the local and en-route threats: Birds, traffic, runway surface/length, weather, obstacles, density altitude, unfamiliar aerodrome?

Are there any threats in relation to the aircraft: Maintenance, defects, performance?

Are there any threats in relation to personnel: Recency, currency, time on type, fatigue, hydration, passengers?  

4. Know your personal minimums
Complacency often results in deviating from personal minimums. Just because you got away with something once, does not mean this will be the case every flight. Set some personal minimums appropriate for your level of experience and the aircraft you fly. This can be as simple as deciding not to fly in more than 10 knots of crosswind (assuming your aircraft has this limit), not taking mates flying unless you have flown solo in the preceding 2 weeks, avoiding flying with cloud lower than 1500’AGL, or making sure you are current on the aircraft (no solo flights unless you have flown 3 circuits in the last 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months, depending on your level of experience. Avoid the temptation to push these minimums to the point where an accident occurs and don’t be pressured to operate when you don’t feel comfortable. Better yet, conduct some additional training with an instructor when conditions are challenging to safely improve your skills!

5. Fly every flight as accurately as possible
We are all guilty of becoming complacent when it comes to accuracy! Complacency in relation to deviation from standard speeds, altitudes or procedures may not seem like a big deal at the time – I mean, what’s the big deal about being 5kts off your standard approach speed, or 100ft off altitude downwind, right….? WRONG!

Standard operating speeds offer a margin of error. Too slow and you may be quickly approaching the stall if you encounter windshear or increase your angle of bank. 50-100ft low when operating within the circuit may put you in a position where you are positioned below the wing of a low wing aeroplane and go unnoticed leading to a near miss or collision. These variations may not seem significant at the time, but RAAus has attended fatal accidents where minor deviations from standard procedures are believed to have contributed to an accident.

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6. Treat every flight as though you have an instructor on board
When was the last time you flew with an instructor on board? I bet you were on your very best behaviour, but why should this change when the instructor is no longer in the aircraft along side you? Treat each and every flight as though you have an instructor watching over your shoulder, it may just fight off complacency creeping in to your daily routine!

7. Dont let comfort result in becoming complacent
Complacency often sets in when a task becomes repetitive or is no longer challenging. This includes operating out of our home airfield with many accidents occuring in the pilots very own back yard. This may be due to the fact that we become familiar with our local surroundings and allow complacency to set in. We might not check NOTAMs every time, might not make that taxiing call because there is never any other aircraft around, etc. Don't let an expected result get in the way of a safe flight - Ensure standard procedures, communications and lookout are maintained every single flight!

8. Continue to challenge yourself
Complacency sets in when someone no longer feels challenged by the situation they are in. Combat complacency by continuing to learn. Learn to fly a new aircraft type. Conduct some advance flight training. The day you believe you know it all, is the day you should stop flying!

9. Remember that even the most experienced pilots have accidents
We are often faced with members, instructors, and even CFIs who state: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, it won’t happen to me”. No-one is immune in aviation, in fact it is well demonstrated that pilots often over estimate their abilities and when confidence exceeds wisdom, an accident occurs, reminding pilots that they may not be as good as they think.

Pilots are often subject to the "Dunning-Kruger effect" or 500 hour pilot syndrome when confidence exceeds ability. Fight complacency by ensuring you do not overestimate your abilities, follow standard procedures, and maintain personal minimums!

"There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots" - E. Hamilton Lee

Complacency Checker

Ask yourself the following questions to find room for improvement in your flying operations:

  • When was the last time you practiced forced landings?
  • Do you know the V-speeds of your aircraft and when each should be flown (Vs, Vso, Vx, Vy, Vne)?
  • Are you confident you can instinctively, quickly and accurately respond with the correct actions following an unexpected engine failure?
  • Have you started to normalise risks in your daily operations?
  • Have your personal minimums faded?
  • When was the last time you conducted a dual training flight to improve your skills?
  • Are you conducting a specialised activity without appropriate training or endorsements leaving you unaware of potential risks (farm spotting, bush flying, mustering, low level)?
  • Are you accepting standards other than what you know is your best?
    - Not flying accurate altitudes?
    - Not maintaining accurate speeds on take-off and approach?
  • Is your confidence exceeding your ability?
  • If you had an instructor on board, would you be conducting each flight in the same manner, accepting the same standards?

Now that you’ve read this, we have to ask a different question: Complacency most certainly exists in our flying operations, so instead stop and ask yourself: Where am I becoming complacent?


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