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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Yehuti O’Toole
The Accident That Didn’t Happen
By John Lorenz

My mother used to tell me stories about “Yehuti O’Toole, the little man who wasn’t there.” I prefer to think that he was some sort of legend from the 1940s rather than a personal delusion of hers, but delusion or not, we’re surrounded by Yehuti-type potential accident gremlins waiting to take form.

Accident prevention is never as spectacular as the prevented accident would have been. The accident that does not happen does not sear a pilot’s soul. When we find water contamination in the fuel during preflight and remove it, the engine doesn’t fail and the related crash doesn’t happen. We feel good about having noticed water at the bottom of the sample cup, but that feeling has nowhere near the impact that the off-field landing would have had if we had not looked for the water. The reward for a good preflight inspection and an accident-prevention attitude is merely an uneventful flight, whereas it ought to be a symphony with fireworks. It’s an unfortunate imbalance. Water in the fuel or the click of a magneto while repositioning the prop by hand should send cold shivers down your spine – after all, they’re trying to kill you.

This train of thought leads eventually to a murky realm that includes questions such as whether or not trees crash noiselessly in deserted forests. I don’t spend much time worrying about answers to questions I don’t understand, but the concept of something that doesn’t happen has relevance to safety in aviation. Because there are no consequences to an accident that never takes place, it’s easy to become complacent and relegate accident prevention efforts to a secondary status in our thinking about what’s important in flying.

Return to the preflight inspection, the most basic of accident-prevention procedures, and consider the hundreds of preflight inspections that turned up nothing un-airworthy. This can lead us to start hopping into the airplane and going out to fly with only cursory inspections. Usually we get away with such practices, but usually isn’t always, and the fact that we get away with something doesn’t make it good practice. A non-accident should take place as a result of preparation rather than luck, since you control preparation, whereas luck is its own master and inevitably turns on you.

Another accident-prevention technique that gets less attention than it deserves is to avoid stretching the human and mechanical envelopes of flight. Stopping short of the final destination rather than staying in the air, sweating out fuel and hoping the gauges have some slop in them, offers a world of relief to a pilot, but the decision to stop is actually a hard one to make. The human mind prefers to complete the task at hand rather than to interrupt it in exchange for something nebulous like risk reduction. It’s not logical that this should be the case, but then again, we should never make that claim for our species. Similarly, stopping because we’re tired or for deteriorating weather, once the decision is made, is less stressful than pressing onward, yet it takes a conscious effort to initiate an inconvenient change in plans even though it would reduce risk. The risk reduction and the accident that only might happen are intangible, whereas the inconvenience of lost time and a diversion are immediate and real. A potential accident should outweigh inconvenience, but the balance is often misconstrued the other way.

Even if we have an uncomfortable feeling about a situation, it usually takes a wrench in thought and a concerted effort to decide to change it and prevent an accident. If, for example, we’re following another pilot in to a marginal crosswind landing, or to an IFR approach at a field that’s below minimums, there is no shame in saying “nuts to this!” and going somewhere else. If the preceding pilot lands successfully despite the marginal conditions, we have no idea of how experienced that pilot is, how capable the aircraft is, or maybe just how foolish but lucky the pilot was. The decision is not always easy to make, but the effort to consider a change in plans rather than marching blindly forward needs to be made if there is potential for an accident.

The Yehuti-type potential accident gremlins can either become all too real, or most can be like the little man who wasn’t there and never materialize, depending on whether or not we take action to keep them at bay – to prevent them. They remain as ethereal non-events only if we stay alert, pay attention, and don’t take shortcuts. Think of accident prevention in terms of the inverse of the dreadful consequences of an accident rather than as a safety program. Most of our accidents are caused by pilot error. There would be fewer accidents if positive strokes for accident prevention had the same size as, but opposite impact of, an accident. Look for the potential accidents in every aviation situation, then reward yourself (bowls of ice cream? a new GPS?) each time you prevent one.
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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