What I learned from my aviation accident

Last month, I completed my commercial pilot checkride and earned my certificate. Along the way, I matured as a pilot in ways that I did not expect. I thought that I would simply learn a few new maneuvers and become more precise, but what I actually learned was an entirely new way to think about flying, thanks to an accident that occurred.

During a training flight, an instructor and I inadvertently starved the plane’s engine of fuel, resulting in an engine-out landing in a corn field that totaled the aircraft. Luckily, we walked away from the accident with no injuries, and the experience changed how I think about flying and my relationship to it.

The root causes of the accident and how to avoid them are worth their own article, which I’ll get to at another time. For now, it’s enough to know that it was pilot-error (we messed up), and that I ended up being the pilot to fly the plane down into the field, so I was at the controls the whole time.

Lesson 1

I don’t remember the first time I flew in an airplane, but I do remember how I felt. As the plane gained altitude, it felt both precarious and unavoidable. “Of course,” I thought, “if you move fast enough, you will fly.” Physics demands it. But that’s thanks to a very particular arrangement of parts held together by engineering and policy and pilots. That’s what makes flight magical to me: it only comes about when everything is set up just right and held in a precarious balance. I have never lost that sense, and I hope I never do.

However, that precariousness is made much more tangible and immediate when you’re hurtling at 100mph towards the ground, trying to put an aluminum-can-with-gasoline-filled-wings down between trees and cows and sprinkler tractors.

I remember feeling how fragile the balance of forces that make flight possible actually are, not to mention how fragile the thin-skinned plane protecting me, a soft meaty human, was.

I remember a sudden awareness of how wild and powerful the forces of flight were, now that they weren’t tamed and directed in the conditions of normal flight. The power had always been there, but had been wrapped in layers of controls and carefully arranged forces in balance. When the engine died, thrust, which is the force that normally lets me balance drag and thus generate lift, was gone. As a result, things were no longer in balance and I was left to wrestle physics without the help of the domesticated engine.

After the event, I spent a lot of time processing the shift in my perceptions about flying. What I internalized, more so than I had flying uneventfully, is that there are no magic words or rituals that make it safe. It is engineering and physics, real materials and forces and chemical interactions. The checklists and procedures help with safety, but they aren’t themselves a guarantee.

Modern technology and practices do a really good job of making flying reliably mundane, but at the point where air meets wing, it’s physics, and it happens very fast and with a lot of energy. Humans are small and squishy things in comparison to the forces airplanes handle. The role of pilot is to harness that power, but it can break free.

Lesson 2

At the time, accidents felt like things I could avoid by “being careful,” whatever that really means. Losing an engine was a nightmare I thought I could ward off by following the rules. In this case, of course, I could have, but my life suddenly had an event in that that broke out of the velvet ropes which had previously guided everything I did. Rules, checklists, instructors, procedures: all these things used to feel real, as real as the air keeping the wings up. But now, they feel like human notions. Just stories we tell.

They are better than superstitions, since they are backed by logic and reason, but psychologically, it is very easy to let them fill the same role as superstition.

I want to clarify that I think I live and have always lived a very sheltered, safe, and privileged life compared to most people. Even in my immediate family, I have had fewer “real-life moments” than my little sister, who built her life and character around stepping off the beaten path, which she did far more courageously and consistently than I ever could. I always colored in the lines and did what my teachers told me to and viewed even stupidly banal rules as real. I’m not trying to imply that I somehow discovered some rare truth about life. It’s just new for me.

The other thing I want to point out is that I don’t think the rules, regulations, procedures, instructors, etc. are wrong. They still are the best guarantee we have for safe flight. But they aren’t enough in and of themselves. Each rule exists to ensure that reality agrees with the pilot’s expectation of reality. They don’t fly the plane, and it is the pilot’s responsibility to ensure that reality and expectations actually do align as the rules say they should.

The lesson I took away from the accident was that the rules aren’t real. There is no difference really between life by the rules and life outside them, because of course, the rules are imaginary.

Lesson 3

I thought I’d walk away from a nearly near-death experience with a newfound appreciation of life, but I didn’t. I went back to my normal humdrum life. Work from 9-5 for the man, collect my bi-monthly paycheck, spend it on eating out and fancy tech toys (and flying of course), rinse and repeat. I didn’t suddenly come home with a drive to align with my true inner purpose, nor was I struck by how fragile life is and a sense that I need to make the most of every day.

The reason, I think, is that I always knew that aviation involved risks, and my expectations were not challenged, which I believe is necessary for the sort of epiphany that changes lives. When it happened, my first thought was, “well, here it is.” Not, “how can this be happening to me?”

However, I have noticed that I am now less easily intimidated and more willing to be myself. Little social confrontations used to make me very nervous, but they don’t seem as threatening anymore. I can be myself without as much apology. Not because “life is short,” but because I trust myself a little more. I was tested, and I managed to pass the test, in a way. It’s not a test I would ever want to face again, but I at least gained some self-knowledge.

I think a lot of pilots wonder how they would handle an emergency like that. I know I did. I had done all the training, but I wasn’t sure, when an engine actually failed, that I’d have the presence of mind to respond calmly or the skill to put the plane down safely. It turns out I did have that presence of mind and those skills, and that means something to me, about me, which has me less afraid of being just me.

Just me: the last squishy meat sack standing between a bad decision and unforgiving physics.