Who Survives and Why

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Near the conclusion of his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why (318 pages, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2004, available through Amazon.com in paperback and hardcover for $8.61 and $17.29, respectively), author Laurence Gonzales offers a list of seven rules for adventure survival. Although the list is intended to be generic, it reads like specific guidance to pilots flying in the low level aerobatic environment.

Before he presents his list, Gonzales provides thoughtful, often counter-intuitive explanations and analysis of survival stories. To help make his points, Gonzales looks at aircraft carrier landing operations, whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, wilderness snowmobiling excursions, military survival training, backcountry snow skiing, big water surfing, and survival stories from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in September of 2001.

Writing about a group of experienced mountain climbers who were killed in an accident on Mount Hood in Oregon, he observes that, “The climbers were set up for disaster not by their inexperience, but by their experience. It was the quality of their thinking, the idea that they knew, coupled with hidden characteristics of a system they had so often used.”

At the end of the book, he summarizes those survival lessons in a seven-item list.

  1. Believe, perceive, then act. 

Gonzales writes, “…what you need is versatility, the ability to perceive what’s really happening and adapt to it.” It is a truism that air show pilots should, “Brief the flight and then fly the brief.” The critical importance of adhering to the proposed air show maneuver sequence is drilled into air show pilots continuously. But, when circumstances require it, that discipline must give way to flexibility and a willingness to adapt.

“It’s important to have a plan and a back-up plan. ‘What-if’ sessions…should precede any hazardous activity,” Gonzales writes. “You must hold onto your [original] plan with a gentle grip and, [at the same time], be willing to let it go. Survival is adaptation, and adaptation is change, but it is change based on a true reading of the environment. Those who avoid accidents are those who see the world clearly, see it changing, and change their behavior accordingly.”

  1. Avoid impulsive behavior; don’t hurry.

Sadly, even a cursory review of accidents in our business during the last two decades makes it very clear that haste is dangerous in the air show environment. As part of an ICAS initiative to preserve the “Sacred 60 Minutes,” performers and event organizers have been encouraged to focus on the challenge of low level aerobatic flying during the hour that immediately precedes an air show performance. One purpose of the “Sacred 60 Minutes” is to eliminate mistakes that might be caused by last minute haste before a performance.

  1. Know your stuff.

“A deep knowledge of the world around you may save your life,” says Gonzales.

There is no room for on-the-job training in the air show business. Safety margins are simply too thin for pilots to begin flying low level aerobatics with the expectation that they will pick up the requisite skills and experience along the way. They must come to the business with fully developed aerobatic skills developed in aerobatic competition, military flying or extensive dual instruction. Know your stuff.

  1. Get the information. 

“The same accidents happen over and over, year after year. It’s a simple thing to know, but so many people plunge in without inquiring,” observes the author.

Most of the recurring lessons of air show safety are written in the blood of pilots who have repeated – sometimes, almost exactly – the same mistakes that caused the death of other air show performers. “Lost wingman” incidents resulting in mid-air collisions. Low-level gyroscopic maneuvers that went awry. Snap rolls on a downline with insufficient altitude to recover at the bottom of the maneuver. Botched Split S or reverse half Cuban maneuvers in warbird aircraft. Low level aileron rolls conducted so low that there is no room for error or miscalculation.

Discussion and analysis of these past accidents is available and accessible. When a performer familiarizes himself with this information, he takes an important step in improving his prospects for surviving the often dangerous environment of low-level air show aerobatics.

  1. Commune with the dead.

“If you could collect the dead around you and sit by the campfire and listen to their tales, you might find yourself in the best survival school of all,” writes Gonzales. “Since you can’t, read the accident reports in your chosen field of recreation.”

This is particularly valuable advice for air show pilots. Indeed, learning from the fatal mistakes of past air show pilots is perhaps the most useful thing that we can do as an industry to improve safety and honor the memories of our deceased air show colleagues.

  1. Be humble.

“Those who gain experience while retaining firm hold on a beginner’s state of mind become long-term survivors,” observes Gonzales. He then cites several examples of individuals who did the opposite…adventurers who became over-confident about their knowledge or experience and paid for that arrogance with their lives.

Informal analysis of 60+ air show accidents during the last 15 years suggests that this is also good advice for air show performers. The air show environment is no less dangerous for veterans than it is for newbies and that fact is demonstrated on a regular basis. The survivors in our business avoid complacency and operate with the understanding that, no matter their experience, they are always a single, small mistake away from tragedy.

  1. When in doubt, bail out. 

Although Gonzales is using the term “bail out” figuratively, the parallels in the air show business are both obvious and especially relevant. Whether it’s deteriorating weather, a mechanical issue or a particular maneuver that isn’t going quite right, it’s important to decide ahead of time that there’s no shame in deciding to abort all or part of a planned performance. In fact, if a performer’s philosophy is that – when faced with a decision – he will always opt for the safer alternative, then the decision to abort/bail out/knock it off will always be the natural selection in potentially dangerous situations.

In the final few pages of this well-written and eerily pertinent book, Gonzales talks about NASA astronauts to help tie together all of the different themes of his book:

“Never has there been a more celebrated group of thrill seekers. Yet they, more than any other single group, understand that their lives are not their own to throw away. They engage in an activity that is predictably lethal, but when they do, we can feel secure in celebrating their lives and the assiduous attention to detail that went into their efforts to come back safely.

“The real heroism of the astronauts is not in the risks that they take (any idiot can throw his life away), but in the much more arduous lengths to which they go to protect themselves from harm. It’s that fine distinction between going forth boldly and going forth blindly, a balance between dedication to the mission and informed caution. It takes real skill to strike that balance, and – at their best – adventurers are both bold and cautious.”

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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.