Part of the issue–and this probably applies to all emergencies–is that we’ve taken off hundreds of times without a problem. Back about 12 years ago, I took this trip to Scotland. I’d been touring up north, as far as Loch Ness, and was heading back to my room on the Kintyre Peninsula. I pushed my rental car’s fuel to it’s limit–partly because I was doing the trip on a budget, partly because there just weren’t that many gas stations. So it’s Sunday night, but still light and I didn’t notice how late it was getting. I knew I needed gas, but every gas station in every little town I passed through was already closed. The last town was 15 or so miles from where I was staying, and I made a calculated risk: I could spend the night in the parking lot or I’d have a shot at sleeping in my bed. Based on what I knew about the fuel remaining when the light had come on, I figured I had a shot at making it, so off I went. I grew up in Central Texas, but this place redefined rural. Right at about the halfway point, there was this little hill, and halfway up, the car just died. This shouldn’t have been unexpected, but my initial reaction was that something else was wrong. I was convinced that I had the fuel to make it, and I’d never run a car dry, so I had no idea of exactly what to expect. I instinctively just pushed the clutch in and turned the key, and there was a few seconds there where I just didn’t register what was happening. I believed that this stretch of the drive would be the same as every other time I’d set out in the car, and when it didn’t turn out that way, I needed time to process why. I ended up sleeping in the car, surrounded by flocks of sheep, and hitching a ride into town the next morning with some shepherds.
I think the same happens to us as pilots. We come to expect that the pick-up or landing is going to go the same as it’s gone the last hundred times that we’ve done it. When it starts to go bad, you just keep doing what you’re doing, until you’re rolled over or you process what’s happening. I also learned this during my training. In the summertime, the tarmac heats up enough that the skids sink down into it. In fact, you can see impressions from the skid plates all over the ramp. Once, one of the skids stuck enough that we felt just a slight roll, and an instant later the skid broke free. We popped right up into the air and wobbled there for a second. That time I knew what happened, but it went so quick that neither my instructor nor I had the chance to react. Since then, part of my preflight has been taking notice of what surface the skids are sitting on, and whether they might stick on the pick-up. Before starting up, I also started verbalizing this to my instructor (although a better practice would be to verbalize it right before picking up, since your short-term memory isn’t likely to hold this bit of info that long).
If you do decide to check out the lesson, take a second to at least rate it. Always useful information for me and for others who come after you.