Many “seasoned” pilots reason a new flight student arrives for their first lesson with two buckets. One holds the student’s flying experience, which is empty. The other holds the student’s flying luck, hopefully it’s full. From that point forward the student’s goal is to fill his bucket of experience before the luck bucket is empty because it is known that good decisions come from experience and applying the lessons learned from those previous experiences to the current situation. Unfortunately, too often experience is obtained as a result of bad decisions that are survived by making a withdrawal from the luck bucket.
While these notions reflect a fair amount of pragmatism, in my opinion they diminish both the role of the pilot and his instructor in addition to any additional mentors encountered in his flying career. It implies that any of us pilots who are alive today are only alive because of luck. Like most endeavors, pilots that depend on luck to keep themselves, their airplanes and their passengers in the air will someday find they have run out of airspeed, altitude, skill – and luck – simultaneously.
Now I admit to having relied on my luck bucket more than once in my flying (as well as every other) career. After one flight from Lafayette, IN to Rochester, MN I put 36 gallons of fuel in a 38 gallon tank. On another occasion the Skyhawk I was flying at 7,000 feet developed over an inch of ice on the leading edges of everything in about a minute. On a flight to Kitty Hawk I flew into a developing thunderstorm where we climbed over 2,000 feet per minute from 7,000 feet to nearly 15,000 while the throttle was at idle and the only piloting skill I was using was keeping the wings level and the airspeed around 100 knots maneuvering speed. Sure glad I wasn’t in a downdraft! Each of these “experiences” was gained by bad go/no-go decisions and I was lucky enough to deliver myself, my airplane and my passengers safely to our airport of intended landing.
Once subscribed to the “Two Bucket Hypothesis” then you must also believe that your luck bucket only has a finite amount of luck in it. If true, can we have a long rewarding flying experience while reserving our luck for riskier enterprises – like finding our spouse? I believe we can by making sure ourselves, our airplane and the atmosphere is ready for the flight.
Ourselves – are we ready to make the planned flight? Are we healthy, prepared and certified for the trip? A cramped, stuffy cockpit on a hot ramp or in rough air is no place to be nursing a cold, stomach virus, headache or that dreadful combination of a hangover. Have we acquired the necessary skills to complete the flight and are you ready to use them? Practicing seldom used skills is a great way to maintain proficiency and provides an excuse to go flying (like we need an excuse). On every flight I like to try my hand at some skill like spot landing, simulating an engine out, no flap landings or navigating a leg by pilotage or dead reckoning. It can be too easy to take off, turn on George (old pilot’s slang for auto-pilot) and sit back letting the equipment do the work – until one day it doesn’t. It pays to be ready.
Airplane – is our airplane ready for the flight? You have probably checked to make sure the airworthiness certificate and registration is there along with the POH and weight and balance. Those documents are important and a lack thereof will keep you on the ground but there is nothing about pieces of paper that will keep you flying once you are aloft. A thorough physical preflight is a must. Occasionally get out the POH. Make sure your preflight inspection hasn’t somehow been abbreviated over time. If you find a squawk, make sure it is resolved.
Putting air in tires covered by wheel fairings can be a pain, but landing with a flat – at a commercial airport – requiring shutting down the runway – and a tow – and a large service charge – plus being the subject of an NTSB report saying something like “incident occurred as a result of pilot preforming an inadequate preflight inspection” is a much bigger pain. Using checklists for each phase of flight is a good idea and the preflight inspection is a good place to begin that practice.
Atmosphere – is it conducive to completing the flight? Is it VFR, not only at your destination but along the route? There is no such thing as an “all weather” airplane (OK those P-3s the hurricane hunters use are close).
Even the airlines will throw in the towel cancelling flights because of weather. And those airplanes have professional crews, an abundance of power, high wing loading, anti-ice, and tactical weather systems on board. Be prepared to make a no-go decision and stick with it. Do not allow others (or yourself) to talk you into a flight that proposes unacceptable risks due to the weather. Check winds aloft. How will the winds effect groundspeed? Do you have enough gas? Will your trip require an extra stop? If so, have you checked out the conditions at that intermediate airport? Will its FBO be open? Do they have self-serve fuel? Is it working?
Years ago we had a plethora of flight service stations with knowledgeable technicians to answer these questions for us. Now, although a version of flight service still exists, apps such as Fore Flight puts much of this info literally at our fingertips as we swipe our iPads. Teamed with a GPS receiver your groundspeed and time to destination is constantly computed leaving little reason to ever come up short on fuel.
On your next flight make sure yourself, your airplane and the weather is conducive to safely completing it so won’t waste any luck on something over which you have control. You want to have plenty of luck left some day when you might need it to keep the airplane flying in a dire situation – or win the lottery.