Common Sense and Seaplane Flying

“Common sense is no longer common,” says a veteran pilot talking about training new recruits. I have heard that phrase before but in most cases the person saying it has no idea of what it means or, in this case, how it applies to seaplane flying.

His misconception is the belief that the term “common” means being readily available and everywhere and the term “sense” means sensible. It implies that there is an intuitive norm – a predictable pattern of how events unfold that is easy to understand as long as you have this elusive common sense. But life is not predetermined. There is no destiny or fate, just actions and reactions. Common sense, the ability to predict a successful outcome, can only come about by education, experience and a basic understanding of geography, geology, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, logic and probability theory. Before the age of reasoning and science there was little of what we could call common sense. To explain this further lets start with the common definition of common sense.

John S Goulet

Tugawe Cove Caramoan Philippines. This cove is tucked in beside a deep water channel running between two large islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The dictionary definition of common sense is:

Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.
Source: Common Sense | Definition by Merriam-Webster

Another definition of common sense is “sound judgment in practical matters.”

These definitions beg the question of how common sense works in the first place and leads us to a misunderstand how common sense helps us to make decisions. In life situations common sense is simply:

The ability to distinguish random events from determined processes and use that distinction to make decisions.

Common sense is the sensibility developed by interpreting common patterns, (either repetitive or non-repetitive) remembering (correctly) common outcomes and determining the probability of a generated outcome. In other words, your actions based on your common sense decisions guide events (such as landing on a lake inside a volcano or maneuvering around severe thunderstorms) toward a higher chance of success.

We develop common sense over time when we learn how to determine likely outcomes (probabilities) based on our past experiences. These experiences can be life lessons or learned through training or mentoring. To be able to learn, however, we have to understand how a series of random non-predictable and/or patterned predictable events fool or rule our judgement.

Before I figured out that most people are incapable of determining probabilities, I was continually mystified by university graduates who still believed in god or chem trails, expatriate workers who never learned about local cultures during their “overseas” experiences or pilots who never learned from their repetitive mistakes. But then look at the greater part of mankind. Most people never learn from their mistakes because they don’t realize that what they are doing is wrong in the first place.

By my definition if common sense was common then there would be no religions or reality TV shows about aliens building the Egyptian pyramids or Mayan temples. As for pilots you have to ask, “If their decision-making ability is so corrupted then how can they possibly learn to fly?” To be fair the same should be asked of lawyers, doctors, politicians and the like. How can they do their jobs if they have no common sense?

Belief in any religion, a god or visitors from outer space, is the inability to distinguish random uninitiated events from purposeful patterned events. I watched a History channel TV show the other night and the narrator asked “Is it possible that aliens use the power of earth’s volcanoes to communicate?” And then as if to appeal to our common sense asked, “Is that why so many of earth’s cultures worship and pray to volcanoes?” That is how religious nuts, alien watcher kooks, and reality TV show producers appeal to the common masses. They link random unconnected events to make them seem that one affects the other in a patterned way that to the uninitiated appears logical. “If A=B and B=C then A=C” is logical but “if A appears at the same time as B and B appears near C then A=C” is not logical.

That’s like witnessing a bush burning, hearing voices and then attributing the voices to some miracle or greater power (especially powerful if that bush released hallucinatory chemicals after you lit up.) Would you want your professional pilot using that kind of common sense? Editors note: The inability to distinguish random events from deterministic events – not the hallucinatory chemicals. Obviously.

John S Goulet Cessna Grand Caravan C208B EX

Tugawe Cove Caramoan Philippines

Perceiving random events as if they have meaning and purpose, also called “intuition” and or “superstition” places an unreal biased importance on them where we expect or predict that these same events will influence a future event. For the human brain to recognize patterns is intuitive but to assign meanings to those patterns is not intuition. I usually see the face of Jesus as I am standing in the toilet facing the urinal wall, especially if the walls are sandstone or granite. His little face shows up everywhere. But to assign a meaning to seeing a face (especially a face where there is no photographs or drawn images for at least 325 years after his alleged death on the cross) in a toasted cinnamon bun or on a urinal wall is counter to common sense. Yet so many people believe that seeing the face of Jesus is a sign when in reality evolution programmed us to see faces.

“I see faces.”

I see faces from “Pacific Rim”.

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.
Source: Pacific Rim (2013) – IMDb


So, as pilots, how does common sense help us to make decisions?

To use a compilation example (a compilation made up from actual examples) a professional seaplane pilot flies to a remote island resort location, let’s say an island in Conception Bay east of Busuanga Island, at 15:00 one afternoon and encounters a severe thunderstorm. The pilot has to circle for 30 minutes until the storm passes and then manages to land at the resort in light rain. The storm matures and dissipates and he gets back to the departure airport about 35 minutes later than normal.

John S Goulet

Thunderstorm maturing over Catanauan on Luzon Island in the Philippines.

The next day the pilot is asked to fly back to the same location at the same time. He refuses saying, “This is the second time I have run into a thunderstorm at this resort at this time of the day. There will be a thunderstorm there today. It is not safe. I might have an accident.”

John S Goulet

Huma Resort in Conception Bay off Busuanga Bay in the Philippines. Calm seas and smooth sailing.

Is that decision based on a simple perception of the situation or facts? Or sound judgment in practical matters?

Did the pilot make that decision based on facts?

  • This is the rainy season so rain is more likely then during the dry season.
  • Convention heating (from the sun beating on land areas cleared by illegal logging of the rain forest) can create cloud buildup over the nearby large island.
  • Convention cloud buildup, with enough latent moisture, can develop into rain showers or even thunderstorms.
  • Since the sun is hotter in the afternoon the island is more likely to have rain showers between 14:00 to 16:00.
  • As the rainstorm matures it may drift with the prevailing winds towards and over Conception Bay.

Note that each of these facts has a probability factor. Rainstorms are more likely to develop during the rainy season but that is not 100% for sure. Not all buildups develop into rain-showers or even thunderstorms. Sometimes they build up in the morning and not in the afternoon. And when they do develop into heavy rain, turbulence and lighting the non-flyable part may only last for 20-30 minutes. So is the pilot’s decision based on facts or presumptions?

John S Goulet

Thunderstorm maturing over the Philippines Islands along the Pacific Rim.

What happened the day before when he ran into a thunderstorm (or any time there is a thunderstorm over the resort) is that a large number of random and varying conditions: moisture, temperature, winds, and maybe even butterflies, came together to produce a thunderstorm. This is the chaos theory in action. A thunderstorm may happen but more likely it will not happen. On the other hand, it is highly likely the plane will arrive about 15:00 that afternoon. Man can make that happen. What is the least likely scenario is that the thunderstorm will happen at the same time the plane arrives. There is no preordained or patterned action that causes a specific thunderstorm to build over a specific location each day at a specific time. Nature can’t make that happen or not happen in any precise or logical fashion.

This is simple mathematics but let’s codify it using the three events of A=aircraft arrival, B=thunderstorm, C=accident, and the law of probability. The likelihood that C happens = the likelihood that A and B will occur simultaneously plus the likelihood that A will happen and B will not happen. This adds up to mean that the likelihood of the plane arrival and the peak of the thunderstorm happening at the same time will not be more likely than the two events happen individually either at different times or in different locations no matter how slight.

In other words, if A happens and B happens that does not make C happen. That conclusion, to me, is common sense developed over years of flying in an and around thunderstorms. The pilot who refused the flight saw a pattern over two days and concluded wrongly, using Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts, that it will happen again the next day and because of that he might have an accident.

John S Goulet

Calm seas and smooth sailing in El Nido Philippines.

If you were to make decisions based on the knowledge of random events and thinking that there is a repeating and linear (one event leads to another in a deterministic process) pattern that can influence the future then you will more than often be wrong. Random events happen by chance and we all know in games of chance without the benefit of multiple returns (more opportunity over a longer period even the odds toward 50/50) the odds are against you. Of course if you perceive a pattern and can predict that pattern then you increase those odds, but that is not how the natural world works for seaplane pilots.

John S Goulet

Thunderstorm developing over El Nido resort near Palawan Island in the Philippines.

If we base our decisions on random events that appear to be patterned and/or linear (but are not) then we are not using common sense. Common sense is learned by observing and recognizing patterns where they occur (certain deterministic conditions will create a thunderstorm) and by understanding that non-repetitive patterns may not reoccur (the thunderstorm will not develop at the same time and place each time). The problem is that most people, professional pilots or otherwise, cannot distinguish between the two. Worse yet most people have a bias toward remembering the negatives and not the positives.

“Every time I turn final for the Boracay lagoon a large boat comes along converging with my landing path and cuts me off.” That is how the pilot remembers it but in truth this might have happened twice in 20 landings. We remember the times we are held up or delayed not the multiple times nothing eventful happened skewing our own view of the statistics. We then make decisions based on the incorrect memory of how many times we ran into thunderstorms or boats cut us off on final.

The real kicker is that a vast majority of the world’s population never develop common sense or use it in their decision making. That includes presidents and prime ministers as well as athletes, actors, singers, film makers, mayors, policemen and everyone else with doctors and lawyers being the worst.

So how important is common sense for a seaplane pilot? If it is important how do you teach common sense to a new pilot who hasn’t had the experience you have had? Not easy if they do not have the ability to learn the principles of common sense in the first place. Seaplane pilots often don’t know what to expect when going to a new ocean location or even when revisiting a known seaplane landing location. Wind, swells, waves and tides can affect the landing site. Lagoons, bays and beaches can all be so different each time you visit. Clouds, thunderstorms, lightning, shorelines, beaches, islands, volcanoes, rivers, currents, shoals, reefs, waves, swells, winds, tides and much more is all randomly generated and all these things affect a seaplane pilot’s decision making process. So how can we figure this all out and not end up high and dry on a reef or upside down in a lagoon?

Airline pilots know what to expect. Airports, airways, approaches, weather briefings are all purposely prepared to a standard. Airline pilots follow the standards as given to them before and during the flight. Despite the fact that seaplane pilots face an enormous number of variables we can still, like the airlines, establish a set of operational standards known as SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures specific to your geographic region, climate, and aircraft type for the events we can control or predict.

For example, we can predict the estimated size of waves knowing wind speed and direction (using the Beaufort Scale) although we may not be able to predict how the waves are affected by the shoreline or adjacent islands. Over time, like on the B.C. West Coast, where seaplane pilots have been flying since the 1920’s, the community of floatplane companies, harbour masters, tugboat captains, ship pilots, seaplane pilots and fishermen learn how the randomly generated waves and swells develop a non-repetitive pattern that can be predicted with a certain degree of certainty and if, possibly through the coast guard or Transport Canada publications or 40 year veterans, that collective information is passed on in a logical fashion it becomes part of our common sense for west coast seaplane pilots.

Captain John S Goulet

Captain John S Goulet

Starting with Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, we follow the rules, procedures and air laws. We follow before-start, before-takeoff, before-descent and before-landing checklists and to-do and flow pattern start, takeoff, after takeoff, climb, and cruise checks. We really learn our aircraft and learn to really fly the aircraft. We learn to navigate off airways. We learn to read the weather and not just to read weather reports.

When we fly toward a building thunderstorm we avoid it by at least xx miles -the regulations say 20 miles – I give ’em a good 2 miles berth. There is always a way around or a way out. We know not to fly between brewing storms or be suckered by a bright light at the end of the tunnel or be lured into the magenta or around through to the dark side of the radar. (This is starting to sound like training to be a Jedi.)

When landing on water we set up airport style circuits using downwind checks, crosswind shoulder checks and final landing checks before committing to land. When on the water we follow the rules and procedures of marine laws. We learn to read the ocean and the speed and direction of the wind and size of the ensuing waves and swells. We learn to give way to ships, sail boats, speed boats, love boats, kite surfers and most of all personal water craft whose drivers are often asked to turn in their brains when given a key to the jet ski. It lightens their load. Entering harbours we follow the red right returning rule. Red buoy on right and green on left. We don’t tie up to channel markers or enter swimming areas surrounded by white buoys. Anchors buoys are orange or blue. Not yellow. Don’t tie up to yellow buoys. (I am not sure why, I guess its like “Don’t eat the yellow snow” but just don’t.)

We learn to ask the right questions and to communicate with those who may know more about the places we go or how to get in and out of tough locations. We live within and attuned to our environment which is just a fancy way of saying our knuckles are scraped and scabbed, we get sweaty and smelly and our white shirts are black around the collar, yellowed under the arms and grease stained throughout.

As seaplane pilots, and pilots in general, we learn from reading training manuals and pilot operating handbooks, by following standard operating procedures and operational checklists written by experts, through repetitive training and line indoctrination and by sitting in the crew room, drinking coffee or in the bar having a beer, listening to stories from those who have more experience than us. Most of all, we learn by doing. Experience counts.

In fact, when I think about it, I kind of wonder if common sense is really all that important. My experience, as an instructor and training captain, is that common sense is no more of a requirement to becoming a seaplane pilot than it is to be a doctor, a lawyer or a politician. If they don’t need it then why would pilots? Most pilot don’t so I guess it must be OK not to. Looking at the bigger picture I am certain that if we all had common sense there would be no religion, poverty, pollution, wars, extremism, murders, accidents, lifestyle diseases, global warming, lawyers and all the rest. What a boring life this would be.

The difference is that lawyers and doctors don’t kill themselves and take along innocent trusting passengers. Pilots do. Just Google seaplane accidents anytime and you will find recent and startling stories about pilots killing themselves.

What’s left of a Beaver Float Plane

All five passengers and the pilot died when the sightseeing plane came down in a remote area of Quebec province.

Four Britons Confirmed Dead In Seaplane Crash

“These folks face danger on every flight,” a local said of float plane pilots.

Floatplane carrying sightseers crashes into remote Alaska cliff, killing nine – The Washington Post

Since 1985, 697 floatplane accidents have killed 258 people across Alaska, the LA Times reported, citing statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board.

More shoulder harnesses, alternate escape routes and improved pilot-monitoring practices were three factors outlined in the national safety agency’s investigation into the fatal float plane crash

TSB blames pilot error, bad weather for deadly B.C. float plane crash – The Globe and Mail

One of the accidents struck closer to home because I had just interviewed the pilot a few months before. Despite the fact that we had similar backgrounds and that he had 38 years and 15,000 hours of bush and seaplane flying, the interview left me feeling uneasy. A few months later he died in a preventable aircraft accident.

Man who died in the plane crash on Sunday was an experienced Canadian pilot | Icelandmag

What left of a Beaver in Iceland.

My point is that no matter how old you are and how many hours you have if you ever find yourself saying “I’ve been flying this way for xx years and I’ve never had an accident” then it’s time to quit. I change and adapt my flying style for each and every different environment and climate and geographic territory. You can’t fly in Africa as if you were in Alaska and you can’t fly in the Maldives as if you were in Canada. You have to constantly learn and adapt to survive. If you do wish to learn to survive, however, you need to learn more about the laws of probability and how they affect common sense decisions.  Start by rereading this blog – I did explain it along the way – and then take the test to see where you stand. Send in your results via the comments section or my emailing john.goulet55@ and I will get back to you.

Here’s a simple test of common sense. Remember your A, B, Cs.

Question One:
On a long flight at 10,000 ft the yellow low fuel pressure light comes on but the auxiliary (armed-in-standby-mode) fuel boost pump does not cut in. The pilot declared an emergency and landed at the nearest airport far from the home base. As an observer second guessing the pilot what conclusion is the most probable? You don’t need to be a C208 pilot to get this right.

A. The pilot was forced to fly around several severe thunder storms and is running out of fuel
B. The low fuel pressure light has failed in the on position.
C. The motive flow pump has failed and your low pressure sensor has failed to initialize the auxiliary fuel boost pump.

Question Two:
When practicing emergency procedures dealing with a possible “failure” the student pilot declares that the imaginary training scenarios is not real. (It=possible failure / Happened=actual failure.) Which of these statements is more probable:

A. Because it has not happened before pretending cannot prepare me for what might happen
B. I have been flying for 30 years and it has not happened before therefore it will never happen
C. If it can happen it will happen.

Question Three:

The regulations state that for any airline captain 60 years of age or older he must have a co-pilot younger than 60. All things being equal and considering all the pilots started commercially flying at the age of 20 which is these statements makes more sense.

A. The older pilot is more likely to drop dead of a heart attack than the younger pilot.
B. The probability of a pilot getting into an accident because of lack of experience is much greater than the probability of a pilot dropping dead during the 4 hours a day period that he flies.
C. Putting the youngest pilot of the company with the oldest will make the flight safer because the pilot’s ages will cancel each other out.

Question Four:

You are flying an amphibian seaplane and are 10 miles out over water on final for Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur the first day of the Cannes Film Festival. The tower says you are first in sequence for landing. Which is these scenarios is most probable.

A. Harrison Ford’s helicopter cuts you off and the tower tells you to orbit to provide spacing. You are now number two in sequence for landing. Once cleared you come in to land and realize during the final landing phase that you forgot to put your gear down.
B. The tower gives you clearance to land so you put your gear down. At five miles your engine quits and you are too low to glide to the runway. As you flare for a power off landing on the water you realize that you forgot your gear down.
C. John Travolta’s B727 cuts you off just as you select the gear down and the turbulence from the wing tip vortices causes your gear to not lock into position. When you land your gear collapses.

Good Luck.

“These folks face danger on every flight. If you take chances, they will eventually catch up with you. There’s an old saying here: ‘There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.’”

Source: Floatplane carrying sightseers crashes into remote Alaska cliff, killing nine – The Washington Post

The last place to find common sense is in the comments on most blogs or internet postings. If you had any common sense you would not post negative comments. For one, it does not make you look clever. If you post negative comments, moreover, you attract other postings and bring attention to an idea you don’t agree with. You have just made sure that idea is well spread and widely read. Common sense says that if you like an article say so, if you don’t…. just ignore it.

About John S Goulet

Air Transport Pilot, consultant, writer, blogger and photographer with 40 years in Professional Aviation.
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One Response to Common Sense and Seaplane Flying

  1. Guy Booth says:

    Excellent writing and photos along with some good points I had not considered before…

Comments are closed.