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Breaking the Chain

It's often observed that most aircraft accidents are caused not by a single error but by a chain of compounding errors. The NTSB accident database is filled with examples.

I've experienced this myself, having occasionally made a series of bad decisions that nearly led to grief, such as the harrowing go-around I wrote about last year. In that case, the error chain continued because at each decision point, I felt bound by previous decisions. I couldn't correct my distance from the runway on downwind because I'd committed to fitting into the flow of traffic in a certain way. I couldn't go around when I realized I was too high on final or when I realized I was too fast on short final because I'd committed to landing. It finally took a badly porpoised landing attempt to prompt my go-around, at which point it was nearly too late.

Ever have "one of those days" when everything seems to go wrong? We all have. I think those days are a perfect example of the same kind of error chain that nearly cost me dearly on that late Summer afternoon. For me the key moment on such a day is when I consciously decide "it's one of those days." In that instant I'm resigned to having a bad day. Actually, I'm committed to it. And sure enough, once that happens, I'm pretty much guaranteed a day of misery as I lurch from mishap to mishap, bemoaning my fate. This is what I've come to call the fallacy of continuity, the belief that the past determines the present.

But if I have the presence of mind to be more objective, I can see that past events, no matter how recent, are, well, in the past. They're finished, and while I might be dealing with their consequences in the present, I always have choices about what to do next. I'm not just doomed to repeat history.

By making an honest assessment of my situation, consciously choosing my actions, and paying attention to their results, I can stop "one of those days" in its tracks. It's the Observe-Act-Observe cycle again. Starting fresh in each moment, I can break the error chain—before it breaks me, my passengers, or my airplane.

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