August 31, 2012
On my hot, frustrating, ride in to work today*, I was thinking about the similarities between motorcycling and flying, which I often do. Both require attention to detail, good traffic scanning and knucklehead-anticipation skills, decent manual dexterity, good decision-making, and the list goes on. Both, also, are so inherently enjoyable, that it's easy to get complacent and let your guard down. For some reason, this lead me to think it would be a good idea to write a 'safety article' on the topic. I guess even if no one else reads this or gets anything from it, it's a good exercise for me, so here goes.
Granted, I haven't flown in almost 5 years, but after going for the ride with Em on her birthday, the bug has bitten again, and the venom is strong. I'm ramping up to get back into it, so a lot of the concepts are running through my head as I review regulations, airplane characteristics, route planning, risk management, etc.
For this particular think session, I was mulling over the IM SAFE mnemonic intended as a pilot's pre-flight self-checklist. Before conducting a flight (or motorcycle ride, or really anything remotely hazardous) a pilot should evaluate for:
Most of those are pretty self-explanatory, but I'll run through them. Regarding Illness, a pilot's medical certificate is only as valid as his or her health at that given moment, so any illness which would disqualify you on the day of your exam also disqualifies you today. And I don't personally ride my motorcycle if my head is funky-ill. It's just not worth it. And yes, the standards are a little lower to drive a car, but I'll pull the plug there, too, in extreme cases.
Medication is similar to illness. In the case of flying, some medications (OTC or prescription) are head-wigging no-nos in the eyes of the FAA. And if I can't fly a plane on it, I won't ride a bike on it.
Stress is a major distraction and also clouds judgement - this is not news. In the words of Groundhog Day Bill Murray, "Don't drive angry!" This is a bit of a tricky one, because in many cases a good flight, ride, drive, etc., can actually help reduce stress, but you need to think it through first and if that's your goal, make sure to plan a flight/ride route/etc. with less traffic, workload, rules, and higher odds of fun. If you find yourself yelling "JACKASS!" to people who can't hear you and/or don't care, it might be a better call to turn around and go for a run, hit a punching bag, or blow some stuff up on a video game instead.
Alcohol is obvious but needs saying. The FAA limit is 0.04 B.A.C and NO consumption in the previous 8 hours. When I got my license, I called my wife and she headed out to the airport to help celebrate - I was going to take her for a ride. It was a Saturday and it happened to be one of the days the cozy, friendly Campbell Airport regulars were hanging out in the main hangar with potluck food, games, and, yes, beer. Someone offered me a congratulatory beer, and without thinking, I took the first sip and immediately realized I was grounded for the day. When the missus and the dog showed up for their ride, I had to break the bad news to them. Though the legal limits with regard to riding a motorcycle are considerably less stringent, my personal limits are very similar (and have been even before I started flying). Generally, 99.9% of the time, I don't drink AT ALL if I'm going to be riding. The 0.1% of the time covers cases where I've had drinks a few hours earlier, but am damned certain I'm beyond the "one drink per hour" common guideline for a body processing alcohol. I should be just as stringent when it comes to driving a car, and I have raised my standards quite a bit since Emily has come along, but I'd be lying if I said I was.
Fatigue, similar to stress, can be a tough one to self-assess, but the ill-effects can be just as dangerous as any of the other hazards. There's the phenomenon of "Get-there-itis," in flying, riding, driving, etc., which makes us take stupid risks in order to get to the fun or get home to our own beds just THAT MUCH SOONER. Is it better to push through and get a good night's sleep at home, or wait it out in an airport/rest stop/barn getting crappy sleep now? As a (once and future?) marathoner, I'm keenly aware of my idiot ability to push my body beyond any sense of 'reasonable expectations.' That's not intended as a brag, but as a confession. Older and hopefully wiser, I feel no shame in pulling over for a 20 minute cat-nap on the long, frequent drives to my folks. Luckily I haven't been in many flying situations where I felt compelled to "get there" when tired, but it needs to be assessed every time. Similarly, if I've had a really crappy night's sleep, I'll keep the bike parked at home. I'll still have to drive to work, but again, every activity has its own levels of acceptable risk. In this case, again, the bar is set lower when I'm surrounded by a steel cage - whether it should be or not is another matter.
The "E" is really the thing I was hung up thinking about this morning. When I learned the mnemonic, I learned it as "Everything Else," and took it as a bit of a cop-out to just fill out the acronym. What I realized this morning, though, is that "E" needs more consideration and respect. "E" could stand for "Eyes." Do I have my contacts in or glasses on? If I've driven to the airport, the odds are exceptionally high, but, do I have spares? What if I rub my eye and lose a contact in flight? Do I have my glasses as backup and/or an extra set of contacts? Do I have sunglasses in case glare gets obnoxious? Or am I simply having a "bad eye day?" It may be tied to Illness, Medication, Alcohol, or Fatigue, but it happens, and even in the lower-bar case of the bike, I've skipped a ride 'just because' my eyes were 'tired.'
A google search for "IM SAFE" turned up another thing "E" could stand for, "Eating." I don't know about others, but when I haven't eaten, I get CRABBY. And anxious. And focused on little else besides food. Whether seen as an Illness, Stress, Fatigue, or entirely its own thing, this is a real concern. It's not as much of a risk on the bike as in the air, but it's a good call to pack a Snickers, granola bar, etc. on any but the most local trips.
"E" could also stand for "E.S.P." Strictly speaking, I don't believe in premonition, but I DO believe in self-fulfilling prophecies. I try to listen and at least chalk it up as one Strike** if something in the back of my mind is asking me "Are you sure you should be doing this?"
Edit: Marty Burian chimed in with "Emotion," which I'd heard before but forgotten. Similar to Stress and yet still its own animal. Good call.
I'm sure there are other things "E" could/should stand for. I'm open to suggestions. We all have to set our own limits with regard to the activities we undertake, this is just a glimpse at the things I try to keep in mind every time I buckle in, swing a leg over, strap on a snowboard, step into the water skis, etc.
* This lead me to come up with Mark Murphy's Laws of Motorcycling: If it's above 90F, you will catch all red lights, trains, and construction and will not even be detected by traffic sensors. Corollary: If you have one of those magical 'all-green-lights' days, it's probably below 40F and you wouldn't mind an occasional stop.
** In my flight training, a few instructors and articles have mentioned the 3 Strikes "rule." I though I'd written about it before, but I can't find anything on it. Maybe it was a podcast. Basically, if you have 3 minor things go 'wrong' in your pre-flight/ride/whatever, you should strongly consider calling it a day. This could be as simple as a) leaving your headset in the car b) hitting your head on the wing, and then c) blanking on a commonly used radio frequency. In the case of a motorcycle ride, especially a commute, it could be things like a) running late b) having to go back in the house for something, and c) realizing your'e on fumes and need to stop for gas right away. The idea is less about superstition, and more about your head not being in the right place if these 'little things' are creeping in. Though a 'bad feeling' isn't tangible, I count it as a strike and double-check that my head is cob-web free.Posted by oblivion at August 31, 2012 09:55 PM