My bush-flying days produced vivid examples of self-deception.
San Cristobal de Las Casas (southern Mexico) lies in a bowl, circled by towering peaks. All the watershed eventually courses down a huge, natural sinkhole at one end of the bowl. From San Cristobal we would fly the Mission Aviation Fellowship plane out to little airstrips all across southern Mexico.
One day, I’m stuffing a missionary family and their belongings into the Cessna 180. They’re traveling from Yaxoquintelá (a jungle training camp for missionaries) back to San Cristobal. But a norther has blown in and clouds lie like damp cotton over the mountains and down the valleys.
As we near San Cristobal, we’re flying at about 8,000 feet altitude in a mountain valley just below a cloud layer, following the Comitan road. The road winds through a narrow pass and then plunges down into the bowl. The afternoon light fades as I eye the narrow pass, blurred by the falling rain.
We could turn around now and head to nearby Tuxla Gutierrez, a large town beyond the mountains with good weather and a large, lighted airport. But I’m wondering if I could possibly stay clear of clouds and sneak through the pass. At this point I know a few things: I know that I’m a good pilot, better than average. But I also know that transiting the cloudy pass is a high-risk operation, especially not knowing the weather conditions at the airport. We could divert and land at Tuxla, but we’d have to find overnight lodging. Not an appealing option.
So, I tell myself a lie—it’s safe enough; I can do it. I tell my passengers, “We’ll try to get through the pass.” We skim over the road, high-jump the pass, and plummet into the bowl.
The San Cristobal airstrip is now only three minutes away, but I see no opening ahead; just a wall of clouds! It would be deadly trying to fly through the clouds with mountains all around, so I must turn around and thread back through the pass. But we’re in a narrow canyon well below the bowl rim, and is the Comitan pass still open behind us? We make a steep left bank—I pull on flaps to shorten the turn.
We scrape up against the mountain wall. But now I’m looking at the Comitan pass above me. Can we climb enough? I raise the nose to reach best angle of climb. The 230 h.p. Continental engine is doing her best. We near the pass, still above us.
We slenderly squeak out, flying so low over the road that the white line looks like a sidewalk. Clearing the pass, we circle the rim of the bowl clockwise, find a crack in the clouds, and descend to land in San Cristobal just at dusk.
Later that evening I sit at home pondering the flight. It’s amazing how your judgment clarifies when you’re sitting in your easy chair. Call it cockpit judgment vs. armchair judgment. I reflect on the irony. When I made a bad decision and forged ahead through the pass, my passengers praised me for my amazing piloting skills. And I felt elated that I’d accomplished the mission. However, if I had made a good decision and diverted to Tuxla, my passengers might have grumbled, and I would have felt like a failure!
My San Cristobal passengers didn’t know I’d made a foolish decision—to continue through a rainy mountain pass in the lambent light of dusk. But I knew it, and I felt guilty. I reminded myself of certain fatality statistics in similar circumstances.
I repented, and vowed never to do that again. But of course I did do similar things again, all with sturdy (flawed) rationales. This is classic self-deception, built on the lie that I can beat the odds. But in truth, the exceptional pilot would have put prudence and passenger safety over convenience. A sage once said that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. I felt the hand of God that day, once again being gracious in spite of my flawed rationales.