It’slate at night in the pilot’s lounge. Outside the windows, the pilot-activatedrunway and taxi lights are dark, silently awaiting the next airplane – althougha 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, herein the Lounge. I’ve been to visit that little room where I put the memories offriends and acquaintances now dead. (It’s a blunt, hard, cold word. We won’t useeuphemisms; 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 darknook for two special pilots. They are special because I was certain they weregoing to kill themselves in airplanes and, even though I was a flightinstructor, I either didn’t or couldn’t do anything about it. Despite the factit has been over a year since the second one died, it is still a painful journeyto go into that nook, because I cannot help but have the nagging feeling that Icould have done more to prevent their deaths. I know the journey is one thatmore than a few experienced flight instructors take from time to time, usuallyonly very late at night, and when they are alone. They agonize over what morethey could have done to prevent a death.
They are the instructors who have a little deeper lines in their faces andwho become very quiet from time to time.
Tonight I made my journey because I just tried to prevent a third pilot fromjoining the other two. I think I have probably lost a friend. I don’t know if Imade a difference. I don’t know if I was too insistent, or vociferous. I don’tknow if his ego simply prevented him from listening. But I tried and he gotangry and I couldn’t get past his anger and his ego to get him to take a look athimself and the way he flies.
The Far Side Of The Line
There are certain things we learn as we spend more and more time aroundairplanes, particularly if we teach people to fly those airplanes and if weassociate with others who teach the lore of flight. One of those truths is thata flight instructor who has been instructing for more than about 400 hours andis worth his or her salt can evaluate a pilot by the time that pilot has gotteninto the airplane and fastened the seat belt and shoulder harness. Perhaps itsounds crass to tell pilots that the instructor they just met is evaluating themfrom the beginning, but it’s true. That skill has kept some instructors alivebecause they knew this new person was going to be trouble and they were readyfor it. Flight instructors develop this ability. I have almost never seen it inother pilots, no matter what other ratings they posses. Flight instructors cantell quickly who is a good pilot, who isn’t, who is good but merely rusty andwho is very good. In their profession, they consciously or unconsciously placepilots on a spectrum of performance, skill and judgment.
Most all instructors also have a line, way over to one side of their pilotspectrum. There are only a very few pilots on the far side of that line, andthey have not been put there lightly. For on the other side of that line arethose that instructor firmly believes are going to kill themselves in anaircraft.
A Tale Of Two Pilots
I had never put anyone on the far side of the line until I had well over1,000 hours of teaching people about little airplanes. I had come to know a manabout my age, who had been a professional pilot, but who was working in an officeand flying for business and pleasure. We hit it off. We frequently got togetherto talk flying. Our families socialized together. I learned that he had a verylarge ego; however, it did not adversely affect our friendship. We did nothappen to fly together until I had known him for a couple of years. When we didfly he took the left seat and I the right. On a predawn takeoff into a lowceiling and fog, he made a serious error, which very nearly killed us. I letthings progress a long way before taking any action, being surprised that myfriend could be descending rather than climbing, in fog, doing nothing about itand, apparently, not even recognizing that something was amiss. When thesituation approached being grave, I spoke up. He did not respond or react. Ispoke up again, suggesting he establish a positive rate of climb. Then I reachedfor the yoke. Before I physically touched it, he lashed out verbally andfinally, within a few feet of the ground, began to climb. While back in the ’50sLenny Bruce said no one is shocked anymore, I found that I was an exception. Myfriend’s actions with the airplane and response to a suggestion that he climbwere so inappropriate as to be unbelievable. As we climbed out, he chewed me outfor 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 theairplane with any degree of accuracy and finally made a landing that was at theedge of my personal willingness to keep my hands off the controls. Yet he seemedpleased with his performance and again chastised me for being a chicken aftertakeoff.
I did not ever fly with him again. I purposefully avoided it, as I had nevermet anyone with the ratings he had that was quite that bad in an airplane andunable to evaluate his own performance.
We did continue to socialize frequently. Some time later he indicated he wasconsidering a job offer in which he would go back to flying professionally. Myinitial reaction was that he wouldn’t make it a year; he’d kill himself in anairplane. Because of his ego and my lack of experience, I never confronted himabout the problems I had observed. Instead, I made an argument against goingwith the company he was considering because of its shaky financial position.
He lasted about three months. I got a call from his former secretary tellingme 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 orwas 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 neverflown with, was across my line. He took and spoke openly of insane risks. Offlying when extremely tired, of shooting repeated instrument approaches toairports reported to be below minimums until he got in, of making repairs andmodifications to his airplane despite not being a mechanic nor an engineer. Forthe next two years we spoke and exchanged emails on a number of subjects. Iraised my concerns with his behavior. He did not laugh them off, but explainedbecause of the depth of his experience, he knew what he was doing. He could workall day, get to the airport and discover the alternator on the airplane wasmalfunctioning, remove it, take it apart, repair and reinstall it over the nextseven hours, then make a four-hour flight, arriving at his destination at dawnbecause he was used to doing it. He disagreed politely with me and brushed offmy comments. I never stopped pushing it but I also never confronted himdirectly.
He did not complete one of his late night flights.
First Time, Last Time?
Today I flew with a friend of mine for the first time. He wanted some reviewof instrument procedures and insisted he didn’t need a competency check becausehe was current.
When I give a review to a pilot I have a procedure that I follow at the endof the lesson. The pilot and I separate before we debrief. We each write anevaluation of the flight and then get together and compare them. I feel it helpsthe pilot learn to evaluate his or her skill and judgment, something that isimportant in making the go/no-go decision when the weather or equipment isquestionable. Normally the evaluations track pretty closely. If they don’t, it’sa red flag to me that something is wrong.
I had been more than a little uncomfortable with some things my friend hadsaid and done in the airplane and the cavalier attitude he had toward what Iconsidered to be safety of flight items. This was the first time I’d felt thatway about a pilot’s performance in many years.
When we got back together he said that I probably couldn’t find much to writebecause he was so good. I looked to see if he were joking. He wasn’t. He hadwritten less than half a page. I wrote four pages. As we talked he got more andmore upset. His ego wouldn’t let him hear a comment that was less than a glowingreflection of his abilities. I felt his method of operating the airplanecombined with his judgment placed him very near my personal line (although I didnot put him across it, he was very close). I confronted him on his actions andbehavior. He didn’t like it. He finally stomped out of the office and left skidmarks across the parking lot.
I probably just lost a friend. I am, of course, concerned that I did not readthe situation correctly and overreacted. However, because two friends of mineare no longer making logbook entries due to the fact they were accidents waitingto happen and I felt I should have done more, I would not have done anythingdifferently today. I hope my friend listens. He is very smart, he just has theemotional development of a three-year-old. Perhaps he will reflect on what wetalked about. Maybe he will simply remember the situation as one where the idiotCFI had the gall to disagree and wouldn’t back down when told the truth. I don’tknow. I hope I was professional in the way I dealt with the problems I sawbecause if there is any way he will listen, it will be because I did not raisemy voice, insult his intelligence or argue with him. I hope he thinks about whathappened and we can make some progress.
Right now I am not very optimistic. I feel awful. The beer I went out andbought is sitting on the floor getting warm. I haven’t been able to drink it. Itdoesn’t taste good.
An Instructor’s Obligation
Over the years I have come to believe firmly that flight instructors have aduty to aviation. On those rare times that the experienced instructor gets toknow or flies with someone who is close to that instructor’s personal line onthe pilot spectrum, I believe the instructor has an obligation to raise theissue with the pilot. We instructors may lose a friend or two. We may upset apilot or four, but to not step up and try to reach the person is to shirk theresponsibility 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 orexperience to evaluate another pilot’s behavior. Their input is too often merelymeddling, for too frequently they are the ones who need guidance rather thanoffering it. So, I feel this obligation lies with flight instructors, and itcannot be taken lightly. It can also be very painful to confront a friend orcolleague.
Sometimes instruction is not fun. At those times the measly $40 per hour Icharge 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 thatroom in the back of my mind.
See you next month.