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Assume Nothing

By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Imagine the pilot's surprise when, upon landing unexpectedly in a Nebraska cornfield shortly after refueling and taking off with the fuel selector on 'left,' he discovered that the left tank of his Bellanca BL-17-30A was bone-dry.

Yes, he had asked the lineman to top off both tanks. But had he double-checked before departure to make sure they were full?


As this August 2002 report from the National Transportation Safety Board illustrates, it's darn tempting to assume important things will get done, both before and after liftoff, and that the status quo will prevail.

But you shouldn't bet your life on it.

Those thousand and one preflight tasks make the temptation even greater. As the nuisances stack up, your complacency builds. Maybe you cut corners on the preflight. Or assume the weather at your destination will be fine.

A private pilot with 250 hours probably assumed the best when, in July 2002, he accepted another aviator's offer to fly them from Farmingdale, N.Y., to Providence, R.I. Only after the Piper PA'28-161 skidded off the runway at Providence during a crosswind landing and came to a noninjurious halt did the private pilot learn that the PIC actually was a student pilot with only 60 hours, not a licensed pilot, and that his endorsements to fly solo and cross-country had expired.

We assume our flying buddies are competent'and, at the very least, legal. But are they?

A third pilot recalls the day he flew into a local airport, without a briefing, like he had done at least 100 times before. Much to his surprise, however, the airport was in special use airspace at the time, as a NOTAM warned, because performers were preparing for an upcoming airshow.

'From this incident,' the pilot said, according to NASA's Aviation Reporting System, 'I learned never to take anything for granted in flying.'

Other foolhardy assumptions:

  • It's safe to relax my scan'flight following has me on radar.
  • If there's a potential conflict with another aircraft, ATC will alert me.
  • Other pilots in the pattern are following ATC's instructions.
  • Other pilots flying near this nontowered airport are where they say they are.
  • I must be the only one in the pattern. No one else is talking on the radio.
  • The wind at Podunk Airport always blows from the north. No need to check the windsock before I land today.
  • Surely the FBO will be open when I land for fuel.
  • As always, ATC will tell me to enter left downwind.
  • It's a clear day, so all other pilots can see my aircraft.
  • I've been an aviator for 20 years. There isn't much I don't know about flying.

It all boils down to complacency, a real killer among general aviation pilots. You simply can't assume your tanks were filled (or filled with the right kind of fuel) any more than you can assume all pilots play by the rules all the time.

Indeed, the most important rule may be this one: 'Never assume anything.'

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif.

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