It's late at night in the pilot's lounge. Outside the windows, the pilot-activated runway and taxi lights are dark, silently awaiting the next airplane although a propeller hasn't turned in several hours. Everyone left quite a while ago; some inquired as to whether I was going, and accepted my "a bit later" before becoming receding taillights. There is but one light, burning low, here in the Lounge. I've been to visit that little room where I put the memories of friends and acquaintances now dead. (It's a blunt, hard, cold word. We won't use euphemisms; they are dead.) There is a special corner in that room for those, fortunately few, who have died in airplanes. In that corner, there is a dark nook for two special pilots. They are special because I was certain they were going to kill themselves in airplanes and, even though I was a flight instructor, I either didn't or couldn't do anything about it. Despite the fact it has been over a year since the second one died, it is still a painful journey to go into that nook, because I cannot help but have the nagging feeling that I could have done more to prevent their deaths. I know the journey is one that more than a few experienced flight instructors take from time to time, usually only very late at night, and when they are alone. They agonize over what more they could have done to prevent a death.
They are the instructors who have a little deeper lines in their faces and who become very quiet from time to time.
Tonight I made my journey because I just tried to prevent a third pilot from joining the other two. I think I have probably lost a friend. I don't know if I made a difference. I don't know if I was too insistent, or vociferous. I don't know if his ego simply prevented him from listening. But I tried and he got angry and I couldn't get past his anger and his ego to get him to take a look at himself and the way he flies.
There are certain things we learn as we spend more and more time around airplanes, particularly if we teach people to fly those airplanes and if we associate with others who teach the lore of flight. One of those truths is that a flight instructor who has been instructing for more than about 400 hours and is worth his or her salt can evaluate a pilot by the time that pilot has gotten into the airplane and fastened the seat belt and shoulder harness. Perhaps it sounds crass to tell pilots that the instructor they just met is evaluating them from the beginning, but it's true. That skill has kept some instructors alive because they knew this new person was going to be trouble and they were ready for it. Flight instructors develop this ability. I have almost never seen it in other pilots, no matter what other ratings they posses. Flight instructors can tell quickly who is a good pilot, who isn't, who is good but merely rusty and who is very good. In their profession, they consciously or unconsciously place pilots on a spectrum of performance, skill and judgment.
Most all instructors also have a line, way over to one side of their pilot spectrum. There are only a very few pilots on the far side of that line, and they have not been put there lightly. For on the other side of that line are those that instructor firmly believes are going to kill themselves in an aircraft.
I had never put anyone on the far side of the line until I had well over 1,000 hours of teaching people about little airplanes. I had come to know a man about my age, who had been a professional pilot, but who was working in an office and flying for business and pleasure. We hit it off. We frequently got together to talk flying. Our families socialized together. I learned that he had a very large ego; however, it did not adversely affect our friendship. We did not happen to fly together until I had known him for a couple of years. When we did fly he took the left seat and I the right. On a predawn takeoff into a low ceiling and fog, he made a serious error, which very nearly killed us. I let things progress a long way before taking any action, being surprised that my friend could be descending rather than climbing, in fog, doing nothing about it and, apparently, not even recognizing that something was amiss. When the situation approached being grave, I spoke up. He did not respond or react. I spoke up again, suggesting he establish a positive rate of climb. Then I reached for the yoke. Before I physically touched it, he lashed out verbally and finally, within a few feet of the ground, began to climb. While back in the '50s Lenny Bruce said no one is shocked anymore, I found that I was an exception. My friend's actions with the airplane and response to a suggestion that he climb were so inappropriate as to be unbelievable. As we climbed out, he chewed me out for daring to speak to him about the way the airplane was flown.
The balance of the trip I sat and watched as he proved unable to fly the airplane with any degree of accuracy and finally made a landing that was at the edge of my personal willingness to keep my hands off the controls. Yet he seemed pleased with his performance and again chastised me for being a chicken after takeoff.
I did not ever fly with him again. I purposefully avoided it, as I had never met anyone with the ratings he had that was quite that bad in an airplane and unable to evaluate his own performance.
We did continue to socialize frequently. Some time later he indicated he was considering a job offer in which he would go back to flying professionally. My initial reaction was that he wouldn't make it a year; he'd kill himself in an airplane. Because of his ego and my lack of experience, I never confronted him about the problems I had observed. Instead, I made an argument against going with the company he was considering because of its shaky financial position.
He lasted about three months. I got a call from his former secretary telling me he had died in an accident. Fortunately, he was alone in the airplane.
I made a promise to myself that if I ever met another pilot who crossed or was close to my personal line, I would confront him on the issue.
Three years ago I realized that a pilot I knew as a friend, but had never flown with, was across my line. He took and spoke openly of insane risks. Of flying when extremely tired, of shooting repeated instrument approaches to airports reported to be below minimums until he got in, of making repairs and modifications to his airplane despite not being a mechanic nor an engineer. For the next two years we spoke and exchanged emails on a number of subjects. I raised my concerns with his behavior. He did not laugh them off, but explained because of the depth of his experience, he knew what he was doing. He could work all day, get to the airport and discover the alternator on the airplane was malfunctioning, remove it, take it apart, repair and reinstall it over the next seven hours, then make a four-hour flight, arriving at his destination at dawn because he was used to doing it. He disagreed politely with me and brushed off my comments. I never stopped pushing it but I also never confronted him directly.
He did not complete one of his late night flights.
Today I flew with a friend of mine for the first time. He wanted some review of instrument procedures and insisted he didn't need a competency check because he was current.
When I give a review to a pilot I have a procedure that I follow at the end of the lesson. The pilot and I separate before we debrief. We each write an evaluation of the flight and then get together and compare them. I feel it helps the pilot learn to evaluate his or her skill and judgment, something that is important in making the go/no-go decision when the weather or equipment is questionable. Normally the evaluations track pretty closely. If they don't, it's a red flag to me that something is wrong.
I had been more than a little uncomfortable with some things my friend had said and done in the airplane and the cavalier attitude he had toward what I considered to be safety of flight items. This was the first time I'd felt that way about a pilot's performance in many years.
When we got back together he said that I probably couldn't find much to write because he was so good. I looked to see if he were joking. He wasn't. He had written less than half a page. I wrote four pages. As we talked he got more and more upset. His ego wouldn't let him hear a comment that was less than a glowing reflection of his abilities. I felt his method of operating the airplane combined with his judgment placed him very near my personal line (although I did not put him across it, he was very close). I confronted him on his actions and behavior. He didn't like it. He finally stomped out of the office and left skid marks across the parking lot.
I probably just lost a friend. I am, of course, concerned that I did not read the situation correctly and overreacted. However, because two friends of mine are no longer making logbook entries due to the fact they were accidents waiting to happen and I felt I should have done more, I would not have done anything differently today. I hope my friend listens. He is very smart, he just has the emotional development of a three-year-old. Perhaps he will reflect on what we talked about. Maybe he will simply remember the situation as one where the idiot CFI had the gall to disagree and wouldn't back down when told the truth. I don't know. I hope I was professional in the way I dealt with the problems I saw because if there is any way he will listen, it will be because I did not raise my voice, insult his intelligence or argue with him. I hope he thinks about what happened and we can make some progress.
Right now I am not very optimistic. I feel awful. The beer I went out and bought is sitting on the floor getting warm. I haven't been able to drink it. It doesn't taste good.
Over the years I have come to believe firmly that flight instructors have a duty to aviation. On those rare times that the experienced instructor gets to know or flies with someone who is close to that instructor's personal line on the pilot spectrum, I believe the instructor has an obligation to raise the issue with the pilot. We instructors may lose a friend or two. We may upset a pilot or four, but to not step up and try to reach the person is to shirk the responsibility we instructors so clearly have.
I do not feel that pilots who are not instructors have such a responsibility. There are pilots who, despite being well meaning, do not have the training or experience to evaluate another pilot's behavior. Their input is too often merely meddling, for too frequently they are the ones who need guidance rather than offering it. So, I feel this obligation lies with flight instructors, and it cannot be taken lightly. It can also be very painful to confront a friend or colleague.
Sometimes instruction is not fun. At those times the measly $40 per hour I charge isn't even close to being enough.
I'm not going home yet.
I just hope I will not be putting a third friend in that little nook in that room in the back of my mind.
See you next month.