(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)
It has happened to most of us who have been flying very long. Someone we know, but maybe not all that well, comes to grief in an airplane, along with their passengers. Very often the flight instructors and other pilots who knew the pilot weren’t all that surprised. But the tragic fact is that they hadn’t done anything about it.
Most of us feel uncomfortable about intervening. I know. I used to feel that way too—until I stood by and let another pilot kill himself in an airplane.
I had a student in a ground-school class who troubled me. He was a pillar in his community. He was both a physician and an Episcopalian priest, but he didn’t follow the conventions of a classroom. He came in late, left early, and interrupted the class unnecessarily. I became so concerned that I told the FAA inspector who came to give the test that unless he intervened, this student would kill himself in an airplane. The inspector rightly told me that he could not give someone a lecture just because I said he should. He suggested that I should intervene. I didn’t feel comfortable doing so—and my student killed himself in an airplane crash within two weeks.
The truth is that many of us have been in a similar situation and done nothing. I have resolved that I will no longer stand by and not act, when I see a problem. But even if every one of us makes the same resolve, we still have the problem of what to look for, and after that what, to do about it.
With the support of Avemco Insurance, Bill Rhodes of Aerworthy Consulting has been working on what to look for. Bill has been measuring the risk management performance of pilots in simulators and comparing their performance to some characteristics.
Here are some characteristics that on a preliminary basis Bill has come up with that we should find scary:
- Takes risks
- Knows it all
- Is overconfident
- Is overly optimistic—plans on the unrealistic/ barely realistic
- Is in a hurry
- Advances to high performance aircraft very quickly
- Shows off
- Ignores the books and the mentors
All in all, it is not so much lack of skill that should scare us as lack of humility, ethics and responsibility towards others. In the final analysis, it’s not that we don’t know what to look for. As a Supreme Court justice famously said—“I know it when I see it”.
Recognizing this person is not the hard part. The hard part is screwing up the courage to talk to them, and doing it in a way that gets positive results.
I might have a special perspective on this issue, because when I started flying I was identified as the overly optimistic person described above. I had many people who did talk to me, but I discounted what they had to say.
The way I saw it, these people were trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do, and I took their admonitions as a personal affront. I didn’t have the tools I needed to even know the categories of risks I was taking and the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong as a result of those risks. I was, you might say, unconsciously ignorant—I didn’t know what I didn’t know. All I knew was that people were questioning my skill and judgment and trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do. I have often thought about why these very concerned individuals were unable to get through to me. What could have gotten through to me?
I believe more information and the use of better terminology would have been helpful.
I was told what I was doing wasn’t “safe”. People talked about safety as if safety were an on/off condition. It just didn’t make intellectual sense to me. What I needed was a more thoughtful way of thinking about it. I needed the concepts of risk management and a vocabulary that would have given me the tools to think about the concepts.
It is subtle, but it would have been helpful for me to have focused on risks and probabilities rather than safety. I needed to understand the risks I was taking and the probabilities of things going wrong as a result of the risks I was taking.
So what do I do now? I try to give the person I am talking to information. I explain to them the categories of risk involved in aviation, and what special risks there might be in today’s circumstances and how they can manage them. But whatever I do, if I see a situation that scares me, I talk to them. As flight instructors we should all consider it our sacred duty to do so.