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Pilots Who Should Scare Us—And What To Do About Them

(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.


To help people understand risk management in flying I like to use the PAVE checklist:

  • Pilot
  • Aircraft
  • environment
  • External Pressures

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.


To help maintain situational awareness I recommend the CARE attention scan:

  • Consequesnces (of changes)
  • Alternatives
  • Reality
  • External Pressures

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.

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  1. dave


    Great article. I recall you have an article (or a it may be a video story) about an accident you and Martha had many years ago (in a P-210?) when caught enroute in a snow snowstorm. The take away as I recall it was ensuring your aircraft capabilities with the type of flying you are doing. Is this article available on your website or online via another source? I thought of it when recently discussing another pilot’s interest in purchasing a plane that may not be up to the all weather flying they intend to do…

    Thank you,

    • John and Martha

      Dave, you have a great memory. You can hear the story in the following video, during a Practical Risk Management seminar at the 2009 Fun ‘n Sun on Youtube [John and Martha King on Practical Risk Management 2009 Sun ‘n Fun] The story begins at 18:49 in the video.

  2. Robert Tompkins CFI/CFII

    Dear John,

    I think that pilots should fly “scared” and not “scary”. What I mean is that every pilot should have an extremely healthy respect for what can go wrong. When they get in any aircraft as PIC, they should be ready for the unexpected. Complacency is at least as dangerous as bravado. The day when I no longer have some healthy fear when I get in the aircraft is the day I hang up my wings. Regarding “knowledge”, the same principle applies. My motto is “the more you learn, the safer you fly”. After attaining my CFI/CFII/MEI qualifications for the FAA, I have embarked on a conversion of all these qualifications to JAR (EASA). The amount of material that was new to me is truly voluminous. When the day comes that there is no more to learn, that is the end of my flying career. Fortunately, as you and Martha know, the amount to learn about aviation is without bounds. It simply takes a desire to go the extra mile while still flying “scared”.

    Robert Tompkins

  3. Paul Vesely

    We as safe pilots are at the mercy of pilots who think they do not have to abide by the rules. We can be very safety conscious but all it takes is one knucklehead who decides to take off in IFR conditions to get through that 1000 foot overcast layer without contacting ARTCC to ruin your day, your life. I know pilots that are that cavalier about their abilities.

  4. Thomas Vaillencourt

    I’m curious too, about the fine line between a lack of confidence and over-confidence… We all know both can kill you, but how much confidence is “just” enough? I often see pilots on some of the newly popular aviation based reality shows, doing things that I would never even think of doing. Mostly regarding the weather or long flights over uninhabited terrain, etc. Everything they are doing is – as far as i see – legal, but I often see them fly through weather that would turn me around…watching these guys makes me wonder sometimes, do I have “what it takes”? But because of this I also wonder, if I don’t, how do I know? I have an Instrument rating I will never use on my Commercial Helicopter Rating, and A Private ASEL, But I do wonder If I added on my Instrument in Airplanes, would I even want to use it? I’m not too sure. I don’t think I have a potentially deadly or debilitating lack of confidence, but I might be unecessarily reserved.

  5. Akin

    I am not a flight instructor but when a “pilot” attempts a barrel roll in a Baron I don’t think there is anything anyone could have said or done, short of not allowing him near any airport, to have saved him from himself.

  6. Nick

    Good lessons learned story…At our flight school, when in doubt, we get a second opinion. And then talk with the pilot in question about what we think is best in the interest of his/her safety. We usually loose the client…but that is OK.

    • Terry Anderson

      The problem is that they just go somewhere else and finish up. In my 7 years instructing I have fired as I call two students. They both ended up getting their pilots certificate. One crashed doing a barrel roll in a beech Barron and the other made an off airport landing after experiencing engine problems at 8000. He tried to make it to his home airport bypassing one 6000 foot paved airport and 6 grass strips. I called the FAA on the Barron pilot but they could not do anything on my word alone.
      What we need as instructors is a way to pass on the information about students we fire so that the next instructor at least knows our concerns.

  7. virgil dahlstrom

    My friend and fellow pilot, Richard, could fly “anything….. and better. He fit the criteria in your article to the letter.
    He had accumulated over 9000 hours. His “luck” ran out when he crashed his new (16 hours) 185 Cessna on Edo floats… killing himself and his wife.
    Your article “Scary pilots” is right on, but too late for Richard.
    Thank you and Martha for your fine contributions to aviation.

  8. ahoffberg

    To continue, information is the key. Sometimes one obtains incorrect information — and this is where the rub lies. I imagine gut instuct plays an important role, if one recognizes it in time, to obtain more information to validate/invalidate what you already know.

  9. ahoffberg

    Your words are very true. I have a tendency to “Knows it all,”
    “Is overconfident,” and “optimistic” — but I know it, and take measures to counteract the these characteristics. One can discuss past and potentional “situations” with those having more experience and reading/participating (books, forums, seminars).

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Finally, a professional group has said it right. Well done Kings! The airlines had to make thier folks go to CRM school because the egos were so out of whack!
    I applaude you for” Scarey”pilot article.
    Dan Kennedy

  11. John

    I certainly hope I can choose an instructor who embodies this principle. I obtained the Practical Risk Management Course through the “Get it All” Package and I’m very glad I did. I am a project manager by trade so I know a little something about Risk Management. It was the first DVD I watch, and I review it frequently. I have yet to take my first flight lesson but I feel I am well armed and well served by the extra care that has gone into King courses. Again, I sure hope I can find an instructor who embodies these principles. I’m a NASA checklist kind of guy.


    The list mighit also include a pilot who appears excessively nervous, for example going to full carburetor heat on climbout and constantly fiddling with other cockpit elements. I flew only once with a lifelong friend who had recently earned his PPL. Upon landing, I told him that it was clear he was not comfortable with flying, and that I was sorry to tell him that I would never again fly with him. I predicted to him that he would one day kill himself if he couldn’t learn to be comfortable in the air.

    He did . . . . . but he had rightfully earned his license, and there was little I could do about his lack of confidence beyond telling him about it.

  13. Thomas Beattie


    I, too, have had ground school students who I personnaly felt were not going to make good, safe, and “smart” pilots.

    I did not endorse their log book for the written test.



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