Humility (noun, uncountable): the quality of not being proud because you are aware of your own faults and shortcomings.
Hello dear friends, I hope you are doing fine.
This week, I am going to tell you a story that happened to me a very long time ago, just a few months after I started my ATC career.
It was a fresh Monday morning, early autumn, and I was not expecting a lot of traffic on that day, but a few VFR flights were in the air, against all odds. With an overcast ceiling just 1700 feet above ground, it was clearly not a good day to go for long trips.
And yet, there was a VFR flight plan that caught my attention. One aircraft was due to arrive during my shift from a small French airport about 400 miles away. To be honest, I was even expecting the flight plan to be cancelled at some point, but eventually, the light aircraft appeared on our radar display. Even more surprising, it was flying VFR at 4000 feet, and was making good way towards our airport, apparently well above the cloud ceiling.
The explanation came a few minutes later, when the pilot called me, and I felt immediately in his voice, his tone, that something wasn’t right.
With a little bit more than 30 NM to fly until destination, he explained very calmly but very directly that he had started his flight in perfect VMC, but was now flying between two layers of clouds. Visibility was good, almost no wind, but the bigger problem was that nobody on board was qualified to fly IFR, and even worse, that nobody on board was even able to fly IFR. To top things off, the aircraft was also not equipped to do so, and he did not find any opening in the lower cloud layer where the surface could be in sight.
Dear friends, as you may understand, this is a very uncomfortable situation, both for the pilot and the (young) controller that I was back then. We both did not want to “break the rules”, although we both knew what was at stake and that whatever we did, our ultimate goal was to make these people land safely.
Fortunately, I had a little experience as a private pilot, so I started helping out by asking the pilot to descend as low as possible without entering the layer of clouds below him, which he did. He was now maintaining 2200 feet, which meant that there was a layer of approximately 500-foot thick to cross to come in visual contact of the surface. That meant, assuming a rate of descent of 500 feet a minute, 1 minute of IMC flying.
There are these moments in life when you are in front of impossible choices, and both the pilot and I understood that there was no way we could find another solution than fly through clouds.
We then almost did it together, I pulled all the other aircraft away, sent him on a track where he could fly straight and let the aircraft down gently. I explained to the pilot that he had to stay focused on his attitude indicator, or artificial horizon, and kept guiding him little by little, judging by what I saw on the radar display to make sure he stayed as straight as possible, and following the altitude readouts of his mode C transponder.
Finally, when passing through 1800 feet, the pilot reported that the landscape in front was becoming dark, which was in fact good news, it meant the ground was almost in sight.
Once he recovered visual contact with the surface, the rest of the flight was easy and smooth, I gave him successive QDMs to rejoin the airfield, and we were both relieved after a few minutes and a safe landing.
Now, I do know that you are probably thinking the pilot made a mistake, and I was a little bit forced to play along to let him descend and land safely. That is true. If you want to fly VFR without being in sight of the surface, you should be certain that there will be absolutely no risk at all of being trapped between two continuous layers when you need to descend. Absolutely.
But the important fact that I would like to underline in this story is that whilst mistakes do happen, the attitude of the pilot in front of the situation was what actually saved the day. My help was very secondary, merely a facilitation.
Have you ever met or heard an aviation professional saying “I am not a safe pilot/controller”, or “I am not very good”? They are few and far between, aren’t they?
Now, I know and appreciate that aviation is a context in which you do need a reasonable amount of self confidence to be able to operate, but let that just sink in for a little while, dear readers. If we were in a world where more people accept their own shortcomings, a whole other significant number of incidents/accidents would not happen.
“That would never happen to me” is a phrase I never want to hear from anybody. For me, it is the one sign, if any, that maybe an individual is not showing airmanship and does not belong in the aviation community. And that is valid both for controllers and pilots.
Humble pilots and controllers realize that no matter how experienced, well trained, and naturally gifted they are, they can still make mistakes and that they still have much to learn. A humble pilot or controller never assumes total knowledge, relies on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and is willing to listen to the others. In short, a humble pilot/controller is a safe individual.
Until next week my friends, stay safe and humble. We are the best when we admit why we aren’t.