Basically, we stay vigilant because flying is such a gift that we can't imagine losing the privilege or the ability to keep doing it.
So, yes, we read gory details from the near misses and accidents of others. We review NTSB reports, we discuss ASRS Callback information, and we pay attention to the condition of the aircraft we fly.
We do this because when things do go wrong, there isn't much room to screw up. That's how a friend and I who were flying IFR at night managed to survive the precursors to an engine failure without damaging the aircraft or hurting anyone. We caught the rising oil temperature and dropping oil pressure at 4000' over Modena (MXE) VORTAC (west of Philadelphia) and made a proper precautionary landing. It turned out that the number 3 cylinder had cracked, and hot exhaust gasses were blowing right through the oil cooler. I'm not sure how much longer that engine would have kept running, but I'm glad that we caught it when we did.
Aircraft are designed to perform to exact specifications, and it is important to realize that there isn't much margin for screw-ups.
Good point, Elizabeth. This is an instance when the Sherlock Ohms in Jake make a major difference. When he sent in his Sherlock Ohms story, he titled it, "A Sherlock Ohms story that "doesn't suck." He is certainly correct.
Your attention not only to the innerworkings of your plane but also to others' experiences in the field probably saved your life, Jake. It's good that you had a reference point for what you heard when you lifted that fuel cap. It's also a good reminder for anyone flying their own planes to keep up with inspections and maintenance!
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Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.