Is Stupidity An Art, A Skill Or A Talent?

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“Why do you get so mad?” It was my wife, Val, asking the question in that incandescently irritating tone that only long-term spouses can summon because they absolutely already know the answer. We had been stuck in stop-and-go traffic on I-75 for seven hours (really 15 minutes) north of Tampa. The cause of it, when we finally got there, was an SUV rollover in the median which, in Florida, counts for just another version of parallel parking. Three lanes of interstate, two response vehicles in the median, not even on the shoulder; no lane blockage.

Yet everyone was slowing to a near stop to take in the spectacle. “What the &^% is wrong with you people?! Just drive!” Of course, I slowed to get a closer look, too. This is because the urge to view train wrecks was baked into our DNA long before trains were even invented. I’m sure the first homo sapien to bash another with a rock had an audience. And this is why, half a million years later, we write articles about airplane wrecks. Oh, make no mistake, as editors, we’ll use high-minded phrases like “lessons learned” and “raising safety awareness,” but really, accident articles are just SUV rollovers by another name. There has always been and always will be an inexhaustible supply of these essentially because, as Albert Einstein was purported to have said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

Having been both a student of and a participant in stupidity in airplanes, I’ve come to believe it actually requires a certain kind of numb-minded effort to achieve truly stupendous and inspirational acts of sheer idiocy. And here, let’s delineate simple mistakes from what I’ll call stupidity in depth. Everyone, I think, is capable of both, but all of us make simple mistakes on every flight. Let’s say you lose control on a crosswind landing and clip a runway edge light. That’s not stupidity, but a momentary lapse in judgment or skill, unless you fished around in the TAFs looking for a 35-knot crosswind. That would be stupidity in depth, because it requires planning, forethought, cognitive processing and a willful decision to ignore that little voice we all have. Well, most of us.

Another thing we all have in our logbooks, I’m sure, is an example of when we’ve done just that: piled up a bunch of obviously bad decisions into a towering, streaming heap of why-the-hell-did-I-ever do that? I have several and I invite you to share yours. But one stands out. It had everything: denial, ignorance, arrogance, even a barely controllable urge to pee.

This occurred right around the time Garmin introduced the GNS 530. I’d flown our Mooney 201 to Olathe to report on the new box and was homeward bound back to Connecticut against a tight magazine deadline. It was late winter or early spring and part of the forecast was perfect for eastbound flight: about 60 knots of tailwind, I recall. I could non-stop the 1000 miles in a little under five hours with 1:45 in reserve. It doesn’t get any better unless you own a jet.

The rest of the weather was, well, not that great. The entire route was covered in cloud, but the highest tops were only 5000 feet and the lowest bases in the 500-foot range. I’d be in sunshine for the entire cruise portion of the flight. Icing, as always, was in the forecast and there were numerous PIREPs indicating it was there, too. But all of them were trace to light, the little whiskers of frost you expect in cold-weather flying. Like the good scout I am not, I checked METARs, TAFs and PIREPs hourly enroute and conditions sounded stable. I tuned out those inconvenient reports of moderate icing and I’m going to guess I completely missed several tops reports that clearly showed the tops were rising the further east I flew. I know this because after I landed, I examined the PIREPs carefully … a little late, but then isn’t that a requirement for stupidity in depth?

I’d planned to fly at 9000 feet, but over central Pennsylvania, I was already skimming the tops at 11,000 feet and picking up splotches of rime with just a few seconds exposure. At the time, I had a lot of instrument experience in the northeast and had seen plenty of icing in both protected and unprotected airplanes. As long as the layers were thin and I knew I could climb out of it or the bases were high with above-freezing temps on the surface, I didn’t get too rattled.

I asked for and got 13,000 feet and checked the AWOS at my destination, which was Oxford, Connecticut. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but it was something like 300 and a mile, just about at the ILS mins. For the briefest moment, wisdom intruded in the deafening cacophony of bad decisions when I elected to fly past Oxford and land at Bridgeport, 20 miles south. Oxford is on a hill, Bridgeport is on the coast so it often has better weather. And it did. About 1000 and five and 40 degrees on the surface. Piece of cake.

But cake with thick icing, as it turned out. Bless New York Approach which acceded to my request for a pilot’s discretion descent starting around Poughkeepsie, New York, 40 miles out. I was planning on a more or less hair-on-fire dive to the initial approach fix at Bridgeport. To this day, I don’t believe I have ever encountered severe icing, but I’m sure I was in the robust middle of moderate that day. Within a minute or two, the windshield was thickly opaque and the wing leading edges had lost their shape under a thick layer of mixed rime. If you’ve ever encountered this kind of icing, you can actually hear it accrete. It makes a sort of hissing sound.

I encountered the freezing level around 4000 feet and the ice stopped building, but by then the airplane was a cotton ball and the wing leading edges were just getting that ram’s head shape that you just never want to see. Ever. It took nearly full power to maintain 100 knots in level flight. Just as I broke out on the ILS, the windshield ice sloughed off in one loud gush and banged against the tail. Much of the wing ice went, too, but I landed with some of it. The runway was water covered and, I’ll never forget this, there were chunks of congealed snow sailing around on the puddles in a stiff crosswind, like little icebergs. And here comes the Titanic with Captain Smith at the helm.  

But I landed OK and made the third turnoff. Didn’t have to retract the flaps since I hadn’t dared use them. When I came to a splashy stop, the tower controller, in a moment of sheer understatement, laconically asked about braking action and any icing on the approach? “Umm … moderate,” I replied. (Perhaps that was post-stupidity stupidity. I think all pilots tend to under-report icing for various reasons, one of which is they don’t want to admit to themselves that they actually willfully flew into it.)

I don’t think another pilot can learn much from my narrative here any more than a passing motorist can learn much about driving from seeing an upended SUV. I place it here merely for edification and entertainment. The experience didn’t scare me away from winter flying, even with ice afoot. But it did remind me to be aware of seeing things in forecasts and reports that aren’t there and of not seeing things that are. Ultimately, that’s what defines stupidity in depth and anyone who claims to be immune to it is practicing something else: self-delusion.

Comments (24)

Got to be talent. Some of us have more talent than others. Ok, I'm for it. Let's enlighten the world by sharing one act of stupidity at a time. Change inane risk management and decision making for the better. Let's fix stupid! Now where did I leave my keys?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 13, 2018 9:57 AM    Report this comment

Early in my Aviation career I was given good advice: When telling a "There I Was" story always add the "5 plus years ago" statement.

When I tell stories about "lessons learned", "raising safety awareness" or just "I won't do that again". The five year statement reminds the listener that I'm not 'stupid' anymore.

Ten years or so ago, there I was.... The dispatch wanted the aircraft in the morning after a marathon engine change. About 10:00 pm in Alaska the sun is still up so I call a pilot in to test fly the fresh install. We both go from tip to tip checking the aircraft out and physically triple checking the engine hoses and controls. Pilot jumps in starts up does a quick run-up for leaks then jumps back out to help me install the cowling. One more walk around and off we go to break the engine in. As we where taxing out we commented to each other how thoroughly we pre-flighted the plane. About 30 minutes of flying at about 7000' just outside the airport airspace and the engine quits. Both of us instinctively reached for the fuel pump and switching tanks. The engine came back then quit. Next tank same thing, four tanks and the pilot and I looked at each other while gliding back to the airport "did you check the fuel?" "I checked the integrity of the tanks, the drains, the spar they attach to even the condition of the fuel caps.

The cool part of the story, the pilot calmly contacted the tower and ask for a landing straight in. Tower at that late hour had no one else around so they just cleared us to land. Then once we touched down and brought the nose up the windmilling engine started and we taxied to the pumps. No one ever knew the wiser.

Note to self: "Always use the checklist".

Posted by: Klaus Marx | January 13, 2018 3:10 PM    Report this comment

Ah. I see Paul B. is back to blogging again. Good stuff. Good stuff!
There is hope!

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 14, 2018 3:40 AM    Report this comment

You're the reason I purchased a subscription to the magazine. Love your writing. Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Richard Katz | January 14, 2018 6:54 AM    Report this comment

On stupidity. I'm reading Fire and Fury. It's filled with zero-zero takeoff stories.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 15, 2018 1:01 AM    Report this comment

When I was doing solo airwork while getting my private my flight instructor (who owned the airplane) was having a tiff with the local FBO and wanted us to buy gas at another nearby airport. When I checked the plane for fuel I figured that I had a 30 minute reserve if I squinted real hard. Off I flew. But it seems I forgot that maybe if you don't lean the engine you will not make book numbers. When I refueled I found out that there was only a couple of gallons left in the plane. I was probably 10-15 minutes away from an off field landing. Made me think. A lot.

Posted by: Nathan Vonada | January 15, 2018 7:06 AM    Report this comment

On statute of limitations. "There actually is one, a federal statute of limitations that bars the "enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture" after five years. However, in a case in which the FAA delayed five years after learning of an alleged violation, the NTSB ruled that the statute did not apply to bar the FAA's prosecution."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 15, 2018 12:12 PM    Report this comment

Is Stupidity an Art, a Skill or a Talent?'

Despite daily trying to emulate being a stable genius that's, like, really really smart, I'm just unable to see what benefit it would be to know the answer. Which, I concede, makes me really stupid.

Damn. It's not easy being human, er, stupid. Thank you kindly for the prodding reminder, Paul.

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 15, 2018 12:45 PM    Report this comment

"...the NTSB ruled that the statute did not apply to bar the FAA's prosecution...

My understanding is that if the FAA fails to act on an alleged violation after 5 years, that it would be a "stale" case and not subject to further investigation. But that's 5 years from the point that they learn of an alleged violation, and not necessarily 5 years from when the actual alleged violation took place.

Don't ask me how I know, but I know that an alleged violation that has been reported at least a year from when the actual event took place can indeed be investigated. Longer periods may be possible too.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 15, 2018 4:31 PM    Report this comment

Paul:

I hope you didn't forget to knock all the ice off of your aircraft, lest some FAA see it and ask about FIKI.

Best

Vince

Posted by: SV MASSIMINI | January 15, 2018 6:03 PM    Report this comment

More in FAA Statute of Limitations.

Gary Baluha. Go to Order 2150.3B Chapter 4. investigation of Violations (www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Order/FAA_Order_2150_3B_W-Chg_11.pdf) and also AOPA (www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2016/july/pilot/pilot-counsel )

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 15, 2018 10:28 PM    Report this comment

It's not stupidity, it's simply how our ape brains are designed to learn things. We call this "trial and error". It's the basis of evolution and it's the process behind everything we apes have become.

Posted by: Ken Keen | January 16, 2018 7:39 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Raf. The new FAA "compliance philosophy" is a good thing, now that they aren't automatically primed to find fault with an airman and suspend or revoke their certificate(s). Even good pilots can make regulatory mistakes from time to time. One moment of stupidity (which may or may not have anything to do with safety) shouldn't ruin a pilot's aviation life. And to that effect, I think their compliance philosophy is a good thing, because it means less fear in sharing moments of stupidity so we can hopefully learn not to make the same stupid mistakes.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 16, 2018 8:38 AM    Report this comment

On FIKI. Good read.

Flying Into Known Icing -- Is It Legal? (Is it Stupid?) (Is it not amusing?)
By R. Scott Puddy July 10, 2002

Winter weather forecasts often include the threat of icing. But your Bugsmasher II lacks the equipment required for flight in ...

www.avweb.com/news/airman/181877-1.html

This article added to my winter flying safeguards. In my flying experience, extending more than 50 years, I've met pilots ending as victims of their ignorance, inexperience or fatal stupidity. They dared and died.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 16, 2018 12:39 PM    Report this comment

"In my flying experience, extending more than 50 years, I've met pilots ending as victims of their ignorance, inexperience or fatal stupidity. They dared and died."

Quite often, I hear people saying how a Cherokee can: carry a huge load of ice; if you can close the doors, you can take off (i.e. "who needs to do a W&B"); you don't have to worry about carb icing. The thing about icing is, each situation is different, and all you need is just that one time to prove you wrong (except quite often, you take that proof with you to the grave).

Have I ever gotten into icing conditions in a Cherokee? Sure, unintentionally. But each time, I knew where the icing wasn't, and as soon as the icing started, I was escaping it (descend by a couple hundred feet). I prefer not to wait and see how bad it can get before it's really bad.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 16, 2018 12:59 PM    Report this comment

Gary quote: "One moment of stupidity (which may or may not have anything to do with safety) shouldn't ruin a pilot's aviation life. And to that effect, I think their compliance philosophy is a good thing, because it means less fear in sharing moments of stupidity so we can hopefully learn not to make the same stupid mistakes."

I believe your point is a very big factor in the latest airline good safety record. The commercial pilots, crew, mechanics and ground support have regular conversation with each other. Quite often a fellow co-worker will pass by while you're doing something and give a good tip. The first words out of the experienced co-worker usually starts with "Don't be so stupid, who showed you how to do that?"

Anytime I see anyone turning a propeller I will butt in and get involved. The number of times that propellers have jumped out and bit people is way too high. Every situation is different, find out why the propeller is being turned and slow the situation down. Find the best way to proceed with the least risk.

Not long ago I butted in and asked the pilot why he was turning the propeller. He was checking for the magneto impulse coupling snap. The keys where on the dash but he didn't pull the throttle and mixture. I chocked the wheels and proceeded to help the pilot get the plane started. I would've considered myself stupid for not getting involved. Watching another hurt themselves doesn't make you smart.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | January 16, 2018 1:13 PM    Report this comment

My dad use to have a saying "I might be dumb but I am not stupid" which has followed me through life. He was neither and tried his best to keep me from being stupid and acting stupidly. Guess he succeeded as I am still sucking air. However, there are many smart people who are terminally stupid.

Klaus, you are correct in not wanting to watch people hurt themselves. There are some people, however, who while intelligent, consistently act in a stupid manner. In the past, I have had the misfortune to deal with many of these people. I have tried to give counsel and in frustration decided not to have my name some log books. In fact, I was part of a rescue team that removed the worldly remains of one such pilot and his unwitting passenger from a mountainside. When I reached the wreckage, I immediately knew who was involved. Nice guy, just didn't listen. I figured that this was how his flying career would end, unfortunately, it happened in my Fire Department district.

It goes back to the five fatal behavior patterns, Resignation, Anti-Authority, Impulsivity, Invulnerability and Macho. We all have a little of these behavior characteristics. For people who these characteristics are the norm, then the stupid factor kicks in. To answer Paul's initial question, stupid is a way of life for some people. Some survive, others get carried out in a big black plastic bag.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | January 16, 2018 10:28 PM    Report this comment

Good post Klaus.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 16, 2018 11:40 PM    Report this comment

Klaus, one thing I have to add anytime touching a prop is mentioned...Never trust a propellor! I once was propping a Cessna Cardinal, moving the prop to get the best angle to swing it through, the keys were on the panel, and, as I moved the prop just a couple of inches, the engine started. Surprise! Bad P lead. Fortunately I had been told always to handle a prop like it was going to start and for some strange reason I took it to heart.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 17, 2018 7:25 AM    Report this comment

Richard:
Good point about P-leads. I teach my students to do a P-lead/ switch functionality test as a part of their runup magneto checks (quickly, at idle power). Old. School. (Old fart.)

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 17, 2018 8:28 AM    Report this comment

Eureka!

POPULAR CULTURE - JUNE 6, 2004
Why So Many Old People Are Stupid
by Dyske Suematsu

" ... in our old age. Any connections in our brains left unused will eventually fall apart. Seemingly unrelated and irrelevant subjects like calculus could reinforce these unused connections. The science shows that the connections we frequently use can stay strong all our lives, and the aspects of our intelligence that use those parts of our brains could stay razor-sharp even in our old age.
But all this still does not explain why some choose to improve themselves while others let it all go down hill."

Thus, Flight Reviews!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 18, 2018 11:38 AM    Report this comment

If calculus is the key to a sharp mind, I am cursed to be stupid for life! I couldn't understand it very well in my 20s. Actually, flying, like playing a musical instrument is a good way to keep your brain strong. It would be interesting if they could do a brain scan while flying to see which portions of the brain light up.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 18, 2018 11:52 AM    Report this comment

John McNamee, here you go (Sorry YARS).

Now that's autopilot!

Aviators use nothing but their BRAINS to fly a plane - and they do it with 'astonishing accuracy'

* Seven pilots were able to control a flight simulator using just their thought
* They each wore a cap that could read the electrical signals from their brain
* Algorithm was then able to convert those signals into computer commands

'A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people,' said Technical University of Munich's Tim Fricke

By Ellie Zolfagharifard

PUBLISHED: 07:15 EST, 28 May 2014 | UPDATED: 07:37 EST, 28 May 2014

Mind control has reached new heights after a group of pilots were successfully able to fly a plane using nothing but their thoughts.

German scientists showed how seven pilots - some with no previous experience of flying - used mind control to fly with 'astonishing accuracy.'

In a simulation, several of the pilots managed the landing approach under poor visibility, while one was able to land a few metres from the runway's central line.

Read more: www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2641530/Now-thats-autopilot-Aviators-use-MINDS-fly-plane-astonishing-accuracy.html#ixzz54ZDTs0ZJ

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 18, 2018 1:47 PM    Report this comment

I want to thank you Paul for sharing this.

Reading it was like reliving my worst lapse in aeronautical judgement - which, like you, involved moderate icing, the need to get somewhere for work, and a willingness to slant the forecast (and pireps) to justify the flight.

This may constitute "stupidity" but it also represents a trap that can prey on the most experienced among us.

I hope you'll continue writing the occasional blog here.

Posted by: kim hunter | January 18, 2018 10:56 PM    Report this comment

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