by Alexander Robinson, a Flight Safety Australia reader
‘Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any ignorance, carelessness, incapacity or neglect.’—Anonymous pilot
Under my captaincy, we had come within three seconds of spearing my PC-9/A into the ground, because I hadn’t followed a fundamental principle of piloting: aviate-navigate-communicate-administrate.
I landed back at RAAF base Pearce. After taxiing and shutting down, I shakily grabbed two Powerades and went to debrief. I expected to fail the flight.
I was halfway through the Royal Australian Air Force’s Advanced Flying Training syllabus. Based north of Perth, I’d progressed through basic manoeuvring, aerobatics, instrument flying, formation flying, basic navigation, and was now in the latter stages of the low-level navigation module.
It was a hot February day, with a north-easterly desert air blowing in. This, combined with a temperature in the high thirties, would lead to a turbulent, uncomfortable flight. I could see the windsock filling strongly as I taxied the aircraft and felt a few buffets of air on my control surfaces as I rolled to the runway. The preparation, pre-flight, taxi and take-off were uneventful. This was my fourth or fifth low-level flight, and I felt like I had the hang of it. Having progressed from the fundamentals of low-level flying to navigating at low level, I was confident in my knowledge, training and handling.
Perhaps overconfident. I had completed five successful low-level navigation flights and six months on the PC9/A turboprop. After a rough initial training period, during which I had failed a number of flights and was behind the drag curve, I had since found my groove with the hands-and-feet flying developed during formation flying. Low-level flying was about flying a certain speed, timing the flight and checkpoints, and accurately tracking where the aircraft was based on visual features checked against a large-scale kneepad map. Turn points were circled and annotated with a thick pen, and instructions were kept simple and clear: speed, heading, hazards and landmarks. The principle being that low-level flying was about practicing to evade radar and the enemy and avoid being detected. Practically, because of the proximity to the ground, this necessitated looking outside for as much of the flight as possible, with only momentary instrument and kneepad checks. Altitude was always about 100 feet. Close enough to see the heads of cows, the drivers of cars, the birds in the trees, and powerlines.
Each flight could be anywhere between an hour to almost two hours. This one would take about ninety minutes and wasn’t really complicated. A low-level navigation flight, aiming for a time-on-target of plus or minus sixty seconds. This simulated a tactical military mission, whereby we were tracking to reach a designated target within one minute of the planned time. My instructor was in the back seat, probably holding on during the bumps and fighting the queasiness that comes with hot, turbulent, windy days. The climate control was struggling; we had flight suits, G-suits and helmets on; and the sun was cooking us through the canopy. My instructor, a qualified F-111 pilot, was likely listening to the cricket on an AM frequency, while I took us from checkpoint to checkpoint, hand on throttle and eyes outside.
We were nearing a checkpoint, flying thirty metres above the hot, red Western Australian desert. I glanced down at my kneepad map and crosschecked our elapsed time. We were nearing a handful of trees, and there was a small house with a sun-bleached corrugated roof and a slim chimney. I was near a road, surrounded by lots of red and ochre earth, with long, dry yellow grass in patches. I was looking for a feature, maybe a main road, a crossroad, a hill, a lake, something to reference my position against the time of flight. I couldn’t see it. I checked the clock and map briefly again, confirming where I expected to see the feature. It wasn’t there. Another look outside, looking for that feature, and back to the map.
I then committed a cardinal sin of low-level flying.
Instead of following the fundamentals of aviate-navigate-communicate-administrate, I stopped actively flying the aircraft and prioritised navigating. I looked down at my kneepad, right hand still holding the control stick, and my left leafing through the map pages. I brought my head closer to the kneepad, bending my neck down. I studied the page, seeking confirmation for what I was looking at outside. I was reading the map in detail, engrossed. Seconds passed by, and as I studied the page, an alarm sounded in my head. Maybe my inner ear felt the pitch of the aircraft, maybe my hand felt the elevators’ strain against its trimmed position, but I quickly brought my head up and looked forward, through the canopy.
I was pointing towards the upcoming cluster of trees, at a downward vector, only fifteen or twenty metres above the ground. I yanked the control stick towards me, and my aircraft’s red nosecone pointed above the horizon. I was climbing, passing fifty metres, well above the low-level flight levels. I realised that I had been holding my breath. I exhaled, levelled out, and took stock, before steadily bringing my craft back down to low-level.
I had scared myself—my breathing and heartrate were up. My instructor hadn’t intervened, and I don’t think he even realised why there had been a sudden control input from me. We were likely three to seven seconds from flying into the ground, and neither of us had realised.
I got myself back on track, waiting to hear from the instructor at some point on what had happened, and expecting to fail the flight due to the nature of the safety breach. He must never have realised, but it taught me a few key lessons that are true for aviation and beyond.
- Aviate, aviate, aviate. The aviate-navigate-communicate-administrate (ANCA) model exists for reasons learned over a hundred years of pilots living and dying. The first priority should always be to keep control of the aircraft. No pilot has ever struck terrain while flying straight and level. Many pilots, however, have crashed as a result of prioritising checklists, radio calls, map-reading, cockpit indicators, or other non-critical tasks, over flying their aircraft.
- Distractions can be deadly. Taking focus away from what can kill you, whether it’s the flightpath, road, or even a level crossing or seemingly trivial task, can be deadly.
- Complacency kills. I was comfortable and confident for this flight, progressing through the training syllabus, and I felt I had the low-level module under control. Aviation can always throw surprises at you, so never expect a standard flight: confidence breeds complacency, which is dangerous. Know the fundamentals and adopt a lifelong attitude of learning by complementing that knowledge with additional information and training.
- Trust in your training and your skills. While being comfortable and confident, I wasn’t sure if I was correct in how I was flying the mission. I was the captain of the aircraft, but I didn’t fly like I was in command. I needed to trust my plan and trust my flying.
In retrospect, I was never off track. I was checking and rechecking, and maybe because the consequences of being off-track were negative (mission not achieved, flight failed), I frequently doubted whether I was right. What I should have done was trust my planning, trust my flying and stay on track and on time. Had I done so, I would have reached the checkpoint as planned; the landmark I had been searching for appeared not long after the incident.
‘In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.’—Wilbur Wright, September 1900
Hmmmmm, somewhat interesting but really that story itself although very real is not practical for 99% of pilots, very few of us get that level of training & it’s illegal (mostly) to be down that low during cruise anyway. The writer is actually incorrect in some places for one, he mentioned “no pilot has ever struck terrain while flying straight & level”, shame these writers don’t really think outside the square! Plenty have flown a fully serviceable plane into terrain whilst level! Mt Erebus ring any bells?
Flying is risky, we each make our own risk levels! All the feel good stories wont stop the next pilot to do it, just a fact of life!
Thank you for reading, and for your feedback (original author here – Alexander Robinson).
In recounting this event a decade after the fact, I’m sure I got a few details wrong (I may even have the prescribed 100′ AGL wrong, it could have been higher SOP / unit authorisation; but it was legal for military). As for the “no pilot has ever struck terrain while flying straight & level,” you bring up a good point regarding Mt Erebus and Air NZ. Perhaps I should have followed this statement with “while above MSL,” which was my intended meaning.
The main point that I wanted to convey through this close call was to reiterate the prioritisation of Aviating over Navigating, Communicating, and Administration. The low-level near-incident scared me, and even flying a decade later, it’s a useful and regular prompt for me to reflect on in terms of my own piloting and airmanship. I hope that in retelling my close call story it prompts other pilots to reflect on their own first-hand events and their own piloting and airmanship, as primary reflections are often more powerful than reading someone else’s story.
PS. I feel I should defend the RAAF Qualified Flying Instructor that was in the back seat, as my writing may misconstrue the professionalism of the Air Force.
I am sure his situational awareness was focused on my flying and the safety of the aircraft, and that he was on top of things. In speaking with QFIs and RAAF pilots, I believe my instructor was within his own instructor limits, and that I acted and recovered from my incident before breaching his own comfort and authority limits. I sincerely doubt he was listening to 774, as he would have been listening to my radio calls.
The reporters story does have relevance. I’ve seen it plenty of times teaching students who are learning to fly. Just because they are not at 100ft doesn’t remove the lesson the reporter is conveying, they still forget the ANCA, rule, and lose focus on flying to think about the navigation. I also find myself saying it to newer co-pilots in the jet aircraft at work.
Very interesting story Alex, thanks. Don’t worry about Walter, he just likes talking. We do low level flying every time we take off and land. Distraction turning final, traffic on the runway at the last moment, engine cough. They all need to follow the same principle as you stated.
I have seen a similar incident but from the instructor point of view. The student was descending to low level for a clock hack at gate out. He found gate out and pointed at it. His focus was then drawn towards the clock and was obsessed with getting a perfect hack overhead. I let it go down to my own limit before making a 5G pullout to relevel at 2000ft AGL. It scared the student but taught him a very valuable lesson to always aviate first. It became even more abundantly clear when I asked whether a 1/2 a second hack error would make much difference over a hand flown hour long low level nav.