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Attitude Is Everything

Source: www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing, By Susan Parson

The longer I live and fly, the more I realize just how important it is to have the right attitude — and I’m talking about a lot more than just keeping the blue side up on the airplane’s attitude indicator. As you have read in other articles, the right attitude is a very important element of the FAA’s Compliance Philosophy approach to assuring continued safety for everyone who operates in the National Airspace System (NAS).

A Sharper Focus

While Compliance Philosophy puts it in sharper focus, the focus on attitude is not new. Not long after I got my private pilot certificate (but long before I started working for the FAA), I toured the tower of a major airport with friends from the Ninety-Nines (International Organization of Women Pilots). Like many new and, likely, more than a few not-so-new pilots, I was very intimidated by those scary faceless people on the other side of the microphone. I just knew they were eagerly waiting to pounce on any and every mistake I might unwittingly make with my hard-earned license to learn. So I was both surprised and reassured by the tower chief’s response to a fellow Ninety-Nine’s question about how ATC handles such events. (And no, I didn’t plant the question.)

“We’re not out to get you,” he stated. “Among other things, why would we want to do all the paperwork without a really good reason?” The tower chief went on to say that unless the pilot’s mistake —“deviation” is the official term — is one that requires official ATC action, controllers much prefer to correct problems by talking to the pilot and ensuring that he or she understands how to avoid repeating the mistake. It ends then and there, he observed, unless the pilot “cops an attitude.” In that case, ATC will quickly forget its aversion to paperwork and take a much less friendly approach to ensuring compliance with the rules.

A Sustainable Fix

I got a personal demonstration of this principle a couple of years later. On a trip from home base to Elizabeth City, N.C. (KECG), ATC kept me high a lot longer than I had anticipated, and it was a bit of a challenge to get the airplane from 7,000 MSL to the 1,511 MSL traffic pattern altitude in the remaining distance. The tower controller assigned Runway 10 for landing, which would have put me on a left base entry. For whatever reason, though, I “heard” him tell me to expect Runway 1. I suspect it had something to do with the ongoing descent and configuration flurry, and I remember thinking that Runway 1 was perfect because a downwind to Runway 1 gave me a little more time to get the airplane (and myself ) ready. I nailed the traffic pattern altitude just as I entered the downwind for Runway 1, and I was breathing a satisfied sigh of relief when a little voice in my head clued me in to the earlier “mishearing.”

Right about the time my thumb went for the push-to-talk switch to clarify, the tower controller called to ask if I realized my clearance had been for Runway 10. I immediately and humbly confessed, offering to go around and set up for the correct runway. “That’s okay,” came the response. “No conflicting traffic, so cleared to land Runway 1. That happens sometimes around here; just be more careful next time.” I did file an Aviation Safety Reporting System report (aka “NASA report”) both as “insurance” and to help other pilots learn from my lapse.

I’ve never forgotten the lesson and, thanks to the addition of a disciplined write-it-down procedure, I’ve never even come close to repeating the mistake. It also strikes me as a good example of meeting the core goal of the Compliance Philosophy’s approach: find the problem, and use the right tools to fix it in a way that keeps it from happening again. I’m glad to see this new development, and I hope you are as well.

Susan Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.