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Safety Is A Tough Sell
The Proficient Pilot
Barry Schiff

(Editor's Note: While this column deals with pilots and aviation, it is equally applicable for every endeavor where safety and survival preparations should be considered and addressed.)

(This "Proficient Pilot" column, authored by award-winning journalist and author Barry Schiff, originally ran in the July, 1996 issue of AOPA PILOT. Re-published here by permission of the author. © 1996 Barry Schiff - All rights reserved.)

Safety is a tough sell. Ask anyone who manufactures or markets fire extinguishers, survival equipment, first-aid kits, life jackets, and so forth. One such salesman lamented to me about how pilots spend thousands on new avionics and other gadgets, but seldom equip themselves or their aircraft with inexpensive safety items that could save their lives.

I found this difficult to believe, until we tallied the results of an informal survey taken at my local airport a few years ago. The salesman and I spent three hours interviewing 37 pilots found preflighting their aircraft. Only five of them had first-aid kits, seven had minimal survival equipment (of whom only three had complete kits), 13 had fire extinguishers, and only one carried life jackets. (Three other pilots were preparing to depart on overwater flights to Catalina Island.)

The salesman proved his point and claimed that although our informal survey might not have been statistically valid, experience told him that our results were not unusual.

Most of these pilots apparently did not seriously consider the possibility, as improbable as it might have seemed, of not arriving at the flight-planned destination.

Although I never experienced an in-flight fire, for example, I have came close. This was many years ago during my first trip as a charter pilot. This was many years ago during my first trip as a charter pilot. It was well past midnight as the Bonanza droned sonorously above the desert floor between Phoenix and the Colorado River. Without asking, the passenger in the right rear seat opened her window (an emergency exit) to toss out a cigarette. A sudden rush of air and a cloud of sparks in the cabin shattered my calm.

"My God," she shrieked. "My cigarette went between the seats." She pointed to an area that was inaccessible. I did not have a fire extinguisher. I did, however, have a thermos bottle full of coffee, and I quickly emptied it on the upholstery.

Others have experienced fire that they did not survive. One was my good friend, Ed Grant. Observers on the ground saw his airplane trailing smoke and approaching to land at very high speed. Grant lost control and killed himself in the cartwheeling airplane. No, he didn't have fire-fighting equipment on board either.

The pilot of a Cessna Skylane was crossing one end of Lake Erie at night. Unable to glide to land following fuel exhaustion, he handed each passenger a sealed life jacket. But none aboard knew what to do with it, and all but one drowned after an otherwise successful ditching.

Last April's edition of Pilot carried an article, "Prepared to Survive," in which Douglas Ritter took great pains to detail the equipment needed to be prepared for a survival situation. It made me wonder how many took his advice and purchased survival kits. Pitifully few, I fear. Safety is a tough sell.

During the survey of 37 pilots, we also discovered that only two were carrying a supply of water even though seven were heading for destinations in or across part of the Mojave Desert.

Dehydration is one of the most agonizingly painful forms of death, but it is one of the easiest to avoid, and the equipment required is the least expensive. In an age when it is fashionable for people to tote a bottle of designer water wherever they go, it boggles the mind that a pilot would embark on a flight across the desert with his family and friends and not load up with a generous supply of water.

Are those who do not fly across the desert exempt from the threat of dehydration? Not at all. People have died of thirst in all parts of the country. All that is necessary is sufficient heat, sufficient time, and insufficient water. I once read about a driver, for example, who had a single-car accident only 100 yards from a stream. He was pinned behind the wheel and died of thirst. A pilot and his passengers can become similarly incapacitated and helpless following a forced landing (with virtually no chance of being rescued by a passerby).

Some years ago, I saw a memorable short subject that was screened in a movie theater prior to the feature-length film. (I also remember when they showed newsreels, cartoons, and serials.) The short began by showing a man crawling across an endless expanse of desert under a searing sun. He obviously was suffering from dehydration and exposure. As the man reached the top of a sand dune, he saw a lone Coke machine standing in the distance. It was a mirage, he thought. But with no place else to go, he crawled toward the machine with hopeful anticipation.

When he finally got there, he discovered that the machine was not a mirage. Did he have the correct change? In a frenzy, he went through his pockets and found his only coin: the needed quarter. In his excitement, the man dropped the coin. He dug into the sand frantically and finally retrieved the quarter. He slipped it into the slot, and the machine stirred to life. The camera zoomed in on the dispenser. The audience saw that the cup had failed to drop, and the precious Coke flowed quickly into the drain before the man had a chance to collect any of it. Fade to black.

Obviously it is better to carry a supply of drinking water than to rely on luck to find a Coke machine in the desert. Why, then, are so many pilots better equipped with quarters than quarts?

Safety is a tough sell.

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Article authored by Barry Schiff
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
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Revision: 002 March 30, 1997
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© 1996 Barry Schiff - All rights reserved.
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