A Lesson in Complacency

Several years back I wrote about a very valuable lesson I learned in complacency during my time in Navy boot camp. The story is here in my blog, and I think about it from time to time. I don’t think I have a bigger fear in my life than the fear of my own complacency. I’ve done things in my life that I would now consider fearless feats when I look back on those events, but the one fear I’ve always harbored is the fear of complacency. If you’ve never read the story “The Marching Party”, it’s here in my blog under the “Sea Stories” section and if you read it before reading this entry, this will make more sense. Here’s a link below if you want to check it out.


Sometimes I wonder how my life will end. I don’t dwell on it, but at times I wonder. I’m sure ya’ll have done the same. Will it be peacefully in my sleep or something else. I used to think about it during my time in the Navy and working around the jets. I always feared making a mistake that would turn out to be my last mistake. I tried to envision my last moments and what that might look like. I always would come back to the same conclusion every time; my last seconds would probably be filled with a cuss word or two when I recognized that I made the ultimate mistake.

Around a year ago a very legendary pilot was killed in Idaho during a routine flight. His name was Dale Snodgrass, and he was a retired Navy Captain who went on to perform at airshows flying various aircraft. He was a legend in the F-14 Tomcat community and if I’m not mistaken, it was he who was flying the aircraft in the picture above. I believe he had logged more flight hours in the F-14 Tomcat than any other pilot and his accomplishments were amazing. He had a list of accomplishments a mile long and some say that the character “Maverick” in the movie “Top Gun” was fashioned after Dale Snodgrass. Our paths never crossed during our time in the Navy and I really didn’t know much about him until I read about his aircraft accident and started reading his biography. The guy was incredible and had flying skills like no other. I can say this from my experience while working in the Tomcat community, you have to be tough to fly or maintain that aircraft. You have to respect the Tomcat and if you fly it long enough you’ve probably experienced a few flight emergencies at the minimum. The guy had to be tough as nails.

One of the most basic functions of a pilot and something that every pilot does before flying an aircraft is a “Preflight Inspection”. It is a requirement that has been in place for years and every pilot, from the smallest Cessna to the biggest commercial aircraft, every pilot is required to do a preflight inspection. Most aircraft have a preflight card or in the case of the Navy, a pocket NATOPS manual with step-by-step instructions for a preflight inspection. I have spent hours of my Navy career walking around the aircraft with pilots while they performed their required preflight inspection. In the Navy a lot of the rules and procedures were written in blood and over time, usually a short period of time, you recognize that in the Navy and you learn very quickly not to take shortcuts for ANYTHING.

In the case of Dale Snodgrass, he was at a small airport in Lewiston, Idaho when he climbed into his Marchetti SM.109 aircraft to take off. Shortly after his take-off the aircraft he was flying took an un-commanded roll to the left and subsequently crashed into the ground killing Dale Snodgrass instantly. It was a jolt to the aviation community. I’m sure there were a lot of folks just wondering what had happened to the aircraft. Was it a mechanical failure? A lot of questions. Just a few weeks ago the results of the accident investigation came out and it came down to a flight control lock that was still in place, locking the flight controls from being moved and basically rendering the pilot useless in the cockpit. What amazes me is the fact that the aircraft was actually in a takeoff configuration with the lock installed. The flight control lock is placed on the aircraft to prevent the flight controls being moved inadvertently and preventing the aircraft from flight. I’d almost bet the FAA has fixed that glitch in the system and like most, another fixed glitch was written in blood.

The official listing for the cause of the accident was “Pilot Error” as it was found that the pilot had failed to remove the flight control lock before flight. I recently read the results of the accident report and I also read a description of the cockpit voice recorder in another article. In the article it had described the last words spoken in the recording, and the description was of one or more curse words. When I read that, I thought to myself that it would have more than likely been my last words also. I would like to think that my last words would be more of a biblical nature but when I realized that I had overlooked one little step in the process, the reaction would warrant the words in frustration.

Dale Snodgrass was 72 years old and had over 50 years flying aircraft. He had spent a very long time defying the laws of gravity while Murphy’s Law was slowly creeping into his life. Just the fact that he spent 50 years flying various aircraft for thousands of hours is a testament to attention to detail and his own fear of complacency. I can still remember the words of my old Company Commander when he was lecturing me in boot camp. He said: “You know Farmer, in the Navy complacency can get you killed, or even worse, you’ll get the people around you killed. I want you to remember that“. He made very sure I remembered his point and he was right, I never forgot it. From that point on I had a fear of letting my guard down and forgetting something.

I no longer work around the jets, so complacency is now less of a concern that it used to be, but it doesn’t have to just be aviation for complacency, I see it every day out on the lake in boats. Boats are big and they go fast, just like the jets. I really need to be aware out on the lake and my biggest fear is getting complacent out there on the water nowadays. The story of Dale Snodgrass is an inspiration to us all and it’s also a lesson in respect and complacency whether it’s in the air, on the road or on the water.

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