Optimism Versus Complacency


Although he’ll probably thump for me saying it, the well-known aviation raconteur and instructor, John King, has the same thin patience with aviation psychobabble that I do. I can’t recall the context, but a few years ago, we were discussing the hackneyed five dangerous attitudes aviators are supposed to be alert to. You know the list: anti-authority, impulsivity, macho, invulnerability and resignation. Mr. King acidly observed that you need at least three of those attitudes to even want to become a pilot. (Pick any three, but if you’re going own an airplane, resignation will need to be on the list.)

To the five, let me add a sixth: optimism. The fresh context here is an email I got from a reader a few months ago. He had a relation, a nephew, I think, who was about to embark upon pilot training. Cheers for that. But he was concerned that the lad was a tad too optimistic in the sense that he was a little too willing to believe that no matter what, everything would turn out all right. The reader was asking if such an attitude could be a bad one for a pilot to have.

It’s probably a bad idea for anyone to have because although they emerge from different bloodlines, optimism and complacency are definitely cousins to be wary of in any high-risk activity where the slightest oversight can be fatal. My pious example of this is a trip I took about 10 years ago from Florida to the Southwest. We stopped in Baton Rouge for fuel at night in a driving rainstorm. Once comfortably back in the airplane, we realized neither of us had sumped the tanks. It was the classic tug between optimism and complacency. Optimistically, the probability of meaningful water in the gas was minimal and perhaps suppressed further by the chore of getting soaked to check anyway. Complacency lost; I got out, got soaked and found no water. I later told my friend I did it just to prove my survival instinct hadn’t been dulled by 30 years of accident-free flying.

Readers of this blog who have survived the experience will have honed their ability to grasp the metaphorical doorjambs as a defense against being drawn into my swirling vortex of dread. That’s another way of saying no one would mistake me for an optimist. Yet, yet … anyone in GA has, by definition, at least a strain of this virus. If not, how could you look downrange at declining sales, dwindling flight activity and metastasizing regulation and yet still be willing to step off the curb? You want the definition of optimism? That would be a young student at one of the flight academies about to spend six figures to land a job paying $20,000 on the eve of robots taking over the whole damn thing. On second consideration, optimism is probably too weak to describe it.

But optimism isn’t a single thing, but rather the proverbial double-bladed axe. Swing it one way to get into this business in the first place when every rational neuron in your brain is screaming to take up archery or golf instead; but watch the rebound when you start to assume that just because you’ve never had an engine failure this won’t be the time either or that you’ll be able to stop on that icy runway because you always have.

Still, I think optimism is a good thing, if you survive it by stringing together a series of minor calamities into a whole of awareness to guard against profoundly stupid mistakes. We’ve all had these. I have a list, some experienced directly, some vicariously. A friend I once flew charters with had a crash one morning before dawn—lost control of a piston twin on landing and basically went over a cliff. He survived and walked away. When I asked him about it, what he most remembered was a s*&tstorm of stuff flying around the cabin—Jepp binders, soft drink cans, ice from the passenger cooler. To this day, because of his experience, I never leave stuff unsecured in a cabin if I can avoid it.

So I guess the best we can do for the starry-eyed optimist whose aura of unrestrained joy can’t be smudged by mere instruction is to say: welcome aboard. You’re probably no crazier than the rest of us.