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Stone Tablet Rules

by Gene Benson

Some things in life require us to follow what I call “Stone Tablet Rules.” These are rules that we will never, ever violate under any circumstances. We all have some of these rules, though we don’t all share the same ones. An example of one of these rules that adults try to instill in children is, “Don’t run with scissors.” The adult setting forth the rule explains the obvious rationale behind the rule and the child appears to be receptive and it is assumed that the rule has been internalized. Then, a short time later, a distractor has worked its magic and the child is observed racing across the room, leading with the pointed end of a pair of scissors. The child has not internalized the rule and a couple of our old friendly cognitive biases, illusory superiority and optimism bias take over. The child’s unconscious mind says, “Those bad things that happen when running with scissors will not happen to me.”

As adults, we might have a few “Stone Tablet Rules.” “I will never drive without wearing my seatbelt.” “I never will text while driving.” “I will never use a power tool without wearing safety glasses.” But then one day, just like the child with the scissors, our cognitive biases influence our unconscious mind to believe that will be okay just this once.

All pilots should, and most pilots do, have “Stone Tablet Rules” regarding their flying. “I will never takeoff without verifying my fuel quantity.” “I will never scud run.” “I will never takeoff with frost or snow on the wings.” But earning a pilot certificate does not negate our humanness. We can still fall prey to our cognitive biases and the influence of our unconscious mind. “I know there is enough fuel, I just fueled it yesterday.” “The low clouds have really rolled in. I only have about twenty more miles to go so I will stay below the clouds and be watchful of terrain and obstacles.” “The frost seems really light and I don’t have anything to use to remove it. The runway should be long enough and my meeting is in an hour. I’m sure it will be fine.”

I would encourage all pilots to take a few minutes to define, in writing, their own aviation “Stone Tablet Rules”. They may not be the same for all pilots and that is fine. Writing them down will help solidify them into memory. Put the list in your flight bag, in the side pocket of the airplane, or somewhere else where it will be noticed prior to each flight. I would suggest making a few copies of the list and placing them in locations where they will be discovered when least expected. Think of that as pre-programmed recurrent training, or what the training industry now calls “drip content.” The more we see the rules, the less influence our cognitive biases and unconscious mind will have over our decisions.

But let me suggest one rule that should be carved in the heaviest granite and anchored with steel-reinforced concrete. Add a few flashing strobes if possible. Instruct the stone carver to inscribe “Part 1: Never exit the airplane while the engine is running and never allow anyone else to exit the airplane while the engine is running. Part 2: If anyone begins to exit the airplane or appears to be approaching the airplane while the engine is running, shut down the engine immediately.” (Try to find a stone carver who does not charge by the letter.) This rule should be paramount and immune from cognitive biases and the unconscious mind.

There is also more to propeller safety, especially regarding hand propping or jump starting. The FAA has done a good job in addressing that subject in the Airplane Flying Handbook in Chapter 2 Page 13. Click here for a link to Chapter 2 on the FAA website.