License to Learn: Rabbits’ feet and lucky charms (AOPA members only)
Rod Machado, AOPA Pilot, August 2009
Over the years I’ve had several students who demonstrated superstitious behavior. One fellow I knew had to pat the left side of the airplane’s cowling a few times before he’d saddle up for flight. Another wore a lucky shirt, which he seldom washed (which meant it wasn’t my lucky shirt). Call it ritual, magic, or the work of a lucky charm, it’s superstitious behavior and it must produce some positive benefit or we wouldn’t do it. The question is, “What’s the benefit?”
The answer is control, or at least the illusion of it. I believe Lyall Watson expressed this idea best in his book, Lightning Bird, when he wrote, “Ritual…provides very potent relief from anxiety. It resolves tension by focusing attention on some positive and trusted action. When threatened with disaster by some force apparently beyond your control, there are only three things you can do. You can ignore it; you can pray for deliverance; or you can work magic through the performance of an established rite. Prayer helps, but it is no more than a request, which could be refused or ignored. Prayer is certainly more soothing than doing nothing, but magic is the most comforting of all. Magic is guaranteed, as long as you get the ritual right. Everything depends on you.”
Prayers are never refused or ignored, they are unheard. Are you superstitious? Do you benefit from prayer or other superstitions?
I used to value prayer quite a lot. In fact, I continue to wish I could talk to an omnipresent someone who is capable of granting my requests. Oh, well.
What we can do is rely on our preparation, our intellect, and each other. The problem with prayer is that it leads to dangerous complacency.
The double-edged sword results when pilots substitute superstitious behavior for behavior that demands logical action. Three taps on the cowling is no substitute for a thorough preflight, especially when the cowling falls off after the first tap. Hoping that your lucky penny keeps the engine running when you’re low on fuel is no substitute for refueling. Either or all of these behaviors could result in someone starring in an NTSB report. Don’t let that someone be you.
Am I superstitious? Well, I’ve never beaten pots and pans together to bring the sun back after an eclipse (or clanked a despot and panhandler together to cause one). Nor have I had to confront flying an airplane with a call sign of N666 or N1313 either. Do I carry a lucky charm? No. But if I did, I’d carry a big fat one, such as a lucky parachute.