Complacency: The Silent Killer

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Complacency: The Silent Killer

Let’s face facts, flying can be risky. In spite of statistics that say flying is safer than driving – which are arguable, there are elements of flying that are swiftly unforgiving.

We have done well in recent decades to enhance accident rates in general aviation, but one theme remains; people are still crashing for silly reasons.

Webster defines complacency as: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.


So this differs from other pilot-error type of accidents where poor judgment, skill, or decision-making were the causal factor, but complacency can ‘couple’ to these to our detriment.

A simple example:

A pilot exercises poor judgment by flying a VFR trip with forecast IMC weather and then complacency doesn’t allow him to recognize a rapidly deteriorating situation as it unfolds – the pilot presses on fat, dumb, and happy.

Fatalities per year

Looking at accident records it is easy to see how the insidious nature of complacency plays a role. Causal factors like fuel starvation, inadequate preflight, VFR into IMC, and CFIT (controlled flight into terrain); these could all be influenced or even caused by complacency.

A recent and tragic CFIT accident that occurred in the Phoenix area highlights how dangerous complacency can be. Certainly we shouldn’t speculate on the cause of the accident and there is no doubt many factors, but complacency comes to mind when reading the initial findings. You have a very experienced crew, that is both intimately familiar with the airplane and the terrain in the area and yet they flew right into the side of a mountain – no one survived.

Another type of complacency involves our proficiency as pilots. Sure we have legal currency requirements, but do those really ensure we are safe to fly? What about the type of airplane involved?

It is both poor judgment and complacency that leads a pilot to strap on a high performance aircraft when they do not have the proficiency to do so. In my opinion, this is one of the drivers behind the disparity in experimental aircraft accident rates as compared to the rest of the general aviation population. Often these airplanes are high performance, the pilot has been building and not flying so they aren’t proficient, and you are in a test environment where things go wrong – recipe for disaster.  Of course, the FAA and the insurance companies have made it hard for the experimental community to correct this issue, but that’s another topic for another time.

So what should we do?

  • Follow your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
  • Don’t get into a rut.
  • If you are feeling too comfortable, question it.
  • Keep situational awareness.  This means the airplane, you, and the environment you are operating in.
  • Double check things, query controllers, check your fuel twice. Don’t blindly ‘assume’ things are ok.
  • Don’t  cut corners or get in a hurry.

Think of complacency as the antithesis of safety.

We don’t need to be in a state of constant paranoia, flying should be fun, but we should also remain vigilant.

I left a lot of room for comments, please post them below. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


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