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Pilots Who Should Scare Us

Article appeared in Flying Magazine July , 2014 by John King – John_05

If you are ready to deal with the answer, here’s something you can try the next time you are in a room full of pilots. Ask them to hold up their hands if the answer to this question for them is “yes.” “How many here knew someone personally who was killed in an aircraft accident?” When Martha and I do this, we usually see the hands of about three-quarters of the pilots go up. If it is a room full of flight instructors, nearly everyone raises their hand.

The follow-up question is even more shocking. “How many were not surprised to see it happen?” Over half of the hands usually stay up.

What does this tell us? First, it confirms that general aviation is a risky activity. And if the risks are left unmanaged, they are unacceptable. Second, it tells us that in many cases the fatality was predictable. What these pilots saw was subjective and lacked clearly defined parameters, but still, there was something that made them edgy. Even if we can’t define what makes us edgy about certain pilots, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote on another subject, “We know it when we see it.”

Dr. Bill Rhodes, a general aviation pilot, aircraft owner, and former head of the Philosophy Department at the U.S. Air Force Academy, wondered if he could define those things that should scare us about pilots. With funding from the aviation insurance company Avemco, Bill founded Airmanship Education Research Initiative (AERI) and set out to do so.

Bill created thoughtfully-designed scenarios and had pilots fly them in simulators. Some pilots flew the scenarios safely, while other pilots “killed” themselves. What began to emerge is that those pilots who “killed” themselves had certain scary characteristics in common. Superior pilots (as defined by not “killing” themselves in the scenarios) had other non-scary characteristics in common.

Bill isn’t the first person ever to attempt this. After all, FAA literature discusses the “5 hazardous attitudes,” but what Bill has done differently is to create a scientifically valid test and carefully measure and document the results. Out of this he has created an especially insightful vocabulary that will help pilots understand and express themselves well on the subject. Here is my take on what Bill has uncovered so far.

First, it would be no surprise that scary pilots take risks. Flying always involves risk, but these pilots are completely indifferent to managing risks. They are over-optimistic, planning on barely realistic results. They count on full exploitation of their own capabilities, and those of the airplane, with no room for anything going wrong.

Superior pilots, on the other hand, have a habit of leaving margins, space between what they are capable of, and plan to do, for both themselves and the airplane. They are realistic about themselves and the capabilities of the aircraft. They plan well to mitigate risks and to take pressure off of themselves.

By the way, Bill’s study brings up one of general aviation’s biggest issues. As they advance in capability, pilots tend to just get more utility out of their flying rather than expanding their margins. For example, as pilots progress from Private Pilot, to instrument-rated, to multi-engine-rated, their accident rates don’t improve. Of course, utility is one of the great benefits of general aviation, but as Bill’s study shows, there needs to be a better balance between utility and risk management.

The scary pilot is in a hurry. They begrudge the time for planning and preparation, which make up much of the real business of flying. They have to get going quickly. They have to get there fast.

By contrast, the superior pilot has more professional detachment about being on schedule. Like a doctor, they realize that sometimes we need to tell ourselves, and others, things we don’t want to hear. They use professional detachment, and separate the passenger part of themselves from the pilot part of themselves. They are willing to sometimes disappoint the passenger, because they consider their primary job is to keep everyone safe. The philosophy is, “We’ll be late, but we’ll be safe.”

The scary pilot is a “know-it-all.” They ignore the books and mentors and speed through training. They quickly advance to high-performance aircraft. They don’t study, and don’t listen, and blame instructors or the simulator for their own shortcomings.

The superior pilot is committed to the effort it takes to fly and stay alive. They are respectful of the subject matter, their instructors, the aircraft and its requirements, and the system. They are active in their pursuit of excellence. They expect quality of themselves, their instructors, and in the maintenance of their aircraft. They know the real business of flying takes time, devotion and commitment.

The scary pilot is extremely confident of their piloting skills. They brag a lot and show off. They are status-conscious. Their egos are wrapped up in their physical skills. They are willing to “push it” to make an impression. For example, a pilot who was a show-off known for “pushing it” saw an airshow act with a twin-engine airplane doing rolls and other aerobatics. He decided he should try rolling his Baron on the way home from the airshow. He crashed in the attempt, killing all five aboard, including two children. Shortly before the accident, another pilot had observed, “He’s going to kill himself one day.”

Of course, the superior pilot has confidence, too. We need confidence, but the superior pilot has nothing to prove. They don’t need to impress themselves or others with their skills. Their egos are in place. They are realistic about themselves and what they will attempt. They are honest, forthcoming, and willing to admit their limitations.

Because people know that Martha and I are involved in general aviation, we are often asked whether it would be safe for them to fly in such and such a small airplane. Our answer is that airplanes are generally safe, but pilots are questionable.

We ask them what they know about the pilot and how they live the non-aviation part of their life. What is their driving like? How orderly and stable is their life? Do they show up on time? Are they thoughtful and responsible? If they are not thoughtful and responsible generally, they are not all of a sudden going to get that way in an airplane.

These might seem to be unusual questions to ask, but insurance companies have found that these kinds of things, including issues like paying their premiums on time, are definitely related to their risk of loss.

So what makes a scary pilot? Overall, it’s not the lack of skill that we should be concerned about, but the lack of humility, ethics, and responsibility towards others.

What makes a trustworthy pilot? Well, it sounds like the kind of thing Eastern religions talk about—self-knowledge, self-mastery, caring about what’s really important, and giving aviation the time and devotion it and our passengers deserve.

These things sound like they are part of a person’s innate character and cannot be changed. I believe they can be changed. I have seen them change in me. When Martha and I first started flying, I was a young man in a hurry. I wouldn’t let anything slow me down. After a personal bankruptcy and then an airplane crash, I am much more self-aware, thoughtful, and mindful of my responsibilities to others. People might tell you that I still have long way to go, but certainly I have seen a change.

So if you know of a pilot, or you are the pilot, who scares you, all hope is not lost. But it won’t be easy for them or you to change, or in some cases to even understand the need for a change. CFI’s can easily work with a pilot to develop skills, but a scary character is a challenge.

In order for a person to change these basic traits, they are going to have to clearly see the need for change. In my case it took profound business and aviation failures for me to understand that my behaviors were counter-productive. True understanding of the great risk of losing the things that are most precious is a powerful motivation. It won’t be easy to help someone gain that insight, but if that person is you or someone you care about, it is certainly worth the attempt.


  1. Reo Pratt

    Well written. The ‘scary’ thing about this article is how accurately it describes scary pilots. Unfortunately, there have been times when I’ve been that scary pilot. This article provides good material for reflection.

  2. Terry Leap

    I came across a video about 20 years ago “Seventeen Ways to Fall out of the Sky” (or a title close to that) that I thought did an excellent job of describing the various attitudes and mistakes that were discussed in this lesson. I’m sure it has a copyright, but it might be useful if it could be integrated into the CFI refresher.

  3. Frank “Ziggy” Jirik, ATP, DBA, CHP


    I have debated over my years as the Chief of Safety at CAP’s NHQ, to interactions with safety programs at non-aviation related corporations, to our seemingly strong Safety Management Systems at the airlines.

    As a Human Factors professional I’ve seen many tiers of accident root cause analysis. Those tiers apply to all the swim lanes I mentioned above. The behaviors Dr. Rhodes identified above have also been seen in all three swim lanes above. The difference is the level in which they are managed.

    To simplify this, the break down in General Aviation is where the pilot is the CEO, The Director of Safety, The CheckAirman, and the Frontline employee all wrapped up in one. When we talk pilot error, the breakdown was likely in one of those roles. GA doesn’t have multi-level controls in place therefore the willingness to accept risk is more likely in GA. In your training identifying PAVE, CARE, IMSAFE, and other acronyms… the CEO’s, Directors, Evaluators and Employee (Pilots) cannot compromise.

    An article well written. As I add these comments, its my hope that Pilots will realize who they are in the organization, compartmentalize the responsibilities of each of these roles to identify in their planning that it takes two to GO, one to say NO.

    This self-managing philosophy, if used, can be effective.

    Pilots, Please don’t bully yourselves into taking on unnecessary risk. If “watch this”, or “there isn’t regulation that say no”, is in your vocabulary… Then you might want to pause.

    Thanks John. Hope to see you next time you are in town.

    Best Regards ALL! Make Good Decisions

  4. Steven E Drew Sr


    Thank you for the reminder.

    As a CFII over the years I have seen CFI’s not hold student pilots accountable, especially well-to-do persons.

    1. I had a college professor once as a student not complete the ground studies. He just wanted to fly the aircraft. I told him one day that if he didn’t complete the ground studies then I wouldn’t fly with him again. He never came back.

    2. An older wealthy business man bought an airplane and was taking lessons from me to “get back into flying”. On this fateful day he asked me to sign him off for solo, I told him was not ready. His response was “I was flying before you were born!” My response was to say “that may be but today your flying skills are NOT up to par”.

    That day he had his aircraft moved to another airport. I found his aircraft in a local shop for repair. This was a few months later that he had ran his aircraft off the runway into a fence.

    You must have good skills and knowledge in aviation. And you MUST stand your ground as a CFI.

  5. Gary ATP CFII MEI B737 Captain

    “The Superior Pilot uses his Superior Judgment to avoid situations where he must demonstrate his Superior Ability.” An old G.A. saying.

    Also, from the Airlines: “On time departure, on time arrival.” You can not make up time on route, accept the fact that you will be late.

  6. LOU

    Hi John,

    Nicely put, aviation draws into its circle many different characters. We as humans are born or wired with many attributes that make up who we are, plus many of our traits are “learned” from our sphere of influences and life’s experiences.

    Unfortunately, the mishaps in aviation may never change.

    It might be good to point out that maybe general aviation pilots need to have more self analysis tests during the 24 calendar months in addition to our flight review, just maybe.


    Lou DiVentura CFI

  7. cbmd

    This is a very mature and thoughtful reminder to all of those who must take
    risks in their daily living. Be careful, cautious and not in a hurry. Think about
    the project at hand and do NOT cut corners in order to speed things along.
    Great wisdom for all…

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