Pelican’s Perch #37:
Angry Pilots Are Bad News

Ever gotten steamed at ATC for delaying you, or angry at another pilot who cut you off in the pattern, or hosed at an FBO who forgot to fuel your airplane when you needed to make a quick turn? AVweb's John Deakin points out that you can't be


Pelican's Perch Air rage is big news these days, but it seems to apply only to passengers who act up. Sadly, it occurs in cockpits, too.

There are a small number of pilots who really do need some counseling in anger management, a lot more who could use some of the techniques, and nearly everyone could benefit from a better knowledge of this phenomena – and of themselves.

We all like to think we’re in command of ourselves, but I doubt that any of us see ourselves as others do. That’s unfortunate.

Whining and Bitching …

Pan Am logoSome of the worst cases I’ve ever seen have been by “big iron” pilots, who really should know better. Pan American pilots on the Pacific used to suffer from this syndrome more than most. I can’t count the times I’ve been at the gate in Japan, headed for the USA, and heard Pan Am whining and bitching about the way they thought they were being treated. Let ANY aircraft get cleared ahead of PAA, even for taxi, and you could almost see the red glow emanating from the cockpit.

No matter what the conditions, if PAA called for a clearance, and didn’t get it instantly, they felt they were being discriminated against. If they called for pushback in Tokyo, and it just so happened that Japan Airlines was taxiing behind them, they’d actually grumble on the air, “Yeah, always gotta let JAL go first.”

As an American, it was embarrassing.

JAL logoIt seems one of their major complaints was the way JAL got “preferential treatment.” Some of my airline friends will laugh, but I can make the honest statement that I have NEVER, NOT ONCE, seen a real case of preferential treatment by Japanese controllers. What I HAVE seen is a few clever pilots who knew how to work the system, and this is true anywhere in the world. I’m not referring to “cheating.”

A war story, to illustrate the point:

I had a 747 flight one evening from the old Haneda airport to Honolulu. We got our clearance for our requested route, and Flight Level 330, as filed.

While taxiing out, ground control called us and asked if we could accept 290. My response was something like, “Yes, we can, but would prefer our clearance altitude of 330, may I ask what’s the problem?”

“Pan American out of Osaka, filed at 290, has just asked for 330, about three hours earlier than flight plan, and your courses converge.”

Now look, we ALL used to fight for altitudes across the Pacific, because it was really easy to get “locked down” under other traffic, and spend the whole night between 4,000 and 12,000 feet lower than optimum. But one way to get around this was to ask for the highest possible altitude initially, even well above optimum, to end up “on top of the pack.” I had done that, and really didn’t want to give up that position, for I knew the trick, and played the game. I figured PAA had filed for optimum, then later decided that they wanted higher (for whatever reason), and I was pretty sure they were “showing some attitude,” as they almost always did. By golly, when Pan Am wants higher, they should get it, and RIGHT NOW.

Feeling in a generous mood that night, I said, “Ground, JAL 72 would like to keep 330, but we’ll change our route slightly after we’re airborne, so Pan Am can climb to 330 also.”

The Japanese controller obviously thought that a fine idea, and said “Thank you, maintain 330.”

Sure enough, we no sooner got off and switched to departure control, and we could hear the tirade coming from PAA. “Why can’t we have 330, why are you giving JAL priority?” (As many PAA people did, he was also using “THE Clipper,” which many others just detested.)

(It occurs to me that some readers won’t even remember Pan Am, much less the call sign they used! All PAA flights were “Clipper” followed by the flight number, as “Clipper One,” or “Clipper 435,” etc. JAL is “JapanAir,” followed by the number.)

The Japanese controller was very calm, and simply said, “Clipper, JAL filed for 330, and was cleared for 330 before you asked for it. You’re not even filed for 330 for another hour or two.”

… Raving and Screaming

Pan Am 747Not good enough, PAA was literally raving on the air.

Finally there was a momentary silence, and I said, “Hey Clipper, this is JAL, climbing to 330. If you’ll give me your coordinates tonight, I’ll change our route so that we can both have any altitude we want.”

There was only silence from PAA. I tried again. No response.

Finally, the controller volunteered the coordinates! I ran the numbers, and just requested a one-degree (or was it two?) offset from PAA’s flight plan all the way, asked for the amended route, got it, and ATC immediately cleared PAA to 330. There was not a word of thanks, or any acknowledgement, just a very snotty way of accepting the clearance, as if it was “about time.” There was NO communication between the two of us all night, but I could hear him reporting crossing the same longitudes at just about the same time we did, but 60nm south of us, generally at the same altitude. Worked great.

They were in line in the arrivals hall when my crew and I came in. The captain, a flight attendant, and the copilot were at the back end of the line, which I joined. I asked the group very pleasantly, “Hi, how was the flight, did that work out okay for you?”

To my utter astonishment, the copilot flew into a rage, got all red in the face, and was literally SCREAMING at me about the lousy ATC in Japan, JAL always getting priority, costing them fuel and time, just on and on. Hundreds of passengers turned to see what the commotion was. The flight attendant looked shocked, and was speechless, and the captain just stood in line, with his back to us, saying nothing.

I let him run down a little, and quietly said, “Tell you what, when you grow one more stripe, and a lot more brains, maybe we can talk.”

The flight attendant looked delighted and said, “Well said, sir!” The captain kept his back to us, and the copilot just glowered and turned away. I don’t think the term “Air Rage” had been invented then, but it was a classic case. In my opinion, the man shouldn’t be allowed near an airport, much less an airplane.

That was also the last time I ever gave Pan Am a break, or helped them out. Perhaps that was a little air rage of my own! Can you imagine sharing a cockpit with a guy like this?

When You Act Mad, You Look Stupid

TowerThere are many everyday examples, so let’s bring it a little closer to home. Have you ever gotten steamed at an ATC delay? Angry when someone taxied in front of you, and cut you off? Or cut you off in the pattern? Or made the dreaded straight-in, when you believe that’s the worst sin a pilot can commit (it isn’t). How about complaining on the air when the tower sends you around, long before there’s a conflict, and you can clearly see the conflict will be resolved by the time you get there? The FBO who failed to fuel your airplane, and now you’re going to be even later for something important to you.

There may be good and valid reasons for all those, including simple mistakes by others that you have made yourself in the past. Did they cause real danger? If not, there’s no reason to give them more than a passing thought as you take whatever action necessary to avoid making the event worse.

Let me appeal to your vanity.

Have you ever seen an example of this in another person? What did you think of that person at that time? Did you respect that person more for breaking out in a bout of swearing? Did you feel he was a better pilot for berating a controller on the air? Did you think to yourself, “Wow, I love the way this guy gets mad!”

I thought not.

Now turn this around, and realize, that’s the way others see you, when you get mad!

I remember once taking my initial copilot checkout in a C-47 (military version of the DC-3) in Vientiane, Laos, with the assistant chief pilot there. He was a drunk, a bully, and one of the more marginal pilots I’ve ever known, with some of the dumbest ideas about flying imaginable. He shouted and swore his way through the whole flight, which lasted 2.4 hours – for a copilot check in an airplane in which I was type rated! I remember well his screaming at the Laotian tower operator on the air, and then screaming within the cockpit, “I don’t care if I NEVER hear another *&%$#@@# Asiatic voice on the radio!” As it happens, the tower operator was right, and wasn’t doing all that badly, considering the idiot he had on his hands.

Now, some 38 years later, that is my lasting memory of that person (yes, there are many others). Would YOU like to be remembered that way? I wouldn’t. I’ve tried to curb my temper, in the cockpit and out, ever since. I haven’t always been successful, and knowing what I do now, looking back, every single time I’ve lost it, I’ve later regretted it. It has hurt me, every time. Perhaps not directly, and perhaps not immediately, but there’s always a price.

Finally, I remember one day when I was still working as a line boy, just starting to fly a little charter. I was changing the battery in a Stinson 108 out on the flight line, on a hot summer day in Florida. My good friend Chuck Downs, the first-ever tower operator at the Sarasota-Bradenton airport, was kibitzing. The battery was “resisting,” and I called it a few names. Chuck was obviously offended, and said forthrightly, “I really am not impressed by your language,” and walked away. I sometimes wonder if that incident became his lasting memory of me. I wouldn’t like that.

I’ve learned something else now, in the most recent decade or two. It is not enough to control anger in the cockpit. The anger must never occur in the first place! Wayne Choo, our chief flight engineer at the LAX base paid me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had: “John, I’ve never seen you get angry, how do you do that?” Now it’s true, we’ve only flown together since about 1994, and basically our only contact is “on the job,” but I was very pleased, nonetheless.

We Can Work It Out

How would YOU like other people to remember you? As the fuming, fussing, pissed-off pilot who makes little problems into big ones, or as the placid professional who tries to calm others down, and tries to solve problems?

Tower cabIs the tower bugging you? Why not visit, and chat about it, or call? In every case where I’ve done that, the tower operator says something at some point that makes me stop and say or think, “Oh. I didn’t realize that,” putting a whole different perspective on whatever was bugging me. In most cases, there is something going on in the tower that you, in the airplane, don’t know about. Perhaps it’s a raging supervisor, with anger problems of his own, fussing at a new controller who is not a pilot, has never seen a cockpit, and doesn’t have the faintest idea what goes on in a cockpit! Think about that for a second, the next time a controller gives you a go-around two miles out, when you KNOW there’s enough room.

How to handle it? Well, how about saying, “We’ll do the go-around, but for training purposes we’d like to do it at the end of the runway, please?” I’ve rarely had that turned down, and in most cases, the tower will come back a bit later and say, “Aircraft is clearing now, you’re cleared to land.” If it doesn’t work out, then I get the pleasure of practicing a go-around, something I don’t get much, for real.

If you can adopt the mindset that there’s always a reason for something, but that you just don’t know what it is, you’ll rarely be wrong, and it makes flying a lot easier.

Say you’re flying one of those stinky, noisy kerosene burners, and you’re sitting at the gate fighting with the ramp crews, maintenance, the FAs, the gate agent, the air conditioning is broke, 400 passengers are suffering air rage of their own, and both your wife and your mistress are on board (each unknown to the other, of course), with both of them unexpectedly pregnant.

Try to find the humor in the situation. Think of the stories you can tell, later (after the divorce). Think of the report you can write to the chief pilot, and how you might inject a little humor into that report. Chief pilots are a humorless lot, and they HATE humor in official reports. That alone should be enough to cheer you up.

This Is a Test

JAL 747Seriously, think of all this as a test. Pay attention, now, this is important. Think of how others will see you, after this problem is all over. Were you the jerk who acted badly, just like all the others, or were you the person with a smile, who maintained an unflagging good humor throughout the ordeal? Did you make others feel better, or worse? By not getting all wrapped around the axle, weren’t YOU able to do YOUR job better?

As for how to handle the two women, both of whom are expecting a romantic interlude at the layover, that is beyond the scope of this column.

Union business has NO PLACE in any cockpit. I know of no subject that is more likely to incur wrath and distraction. The wise pilot will simply put his hand up and say, “Let’s keep that outside the cockpit, please.” The vast majority of airline pilots are unionized, and most of them ardently believe in unions. But within those ranks, there are a large minority who will take very strong positions, and defend them with great heat and anger. Cockpit discipline ALWAYS suffers, if this is allowed to continue more than a few seconds.

I have the very great privilege of being able to jumpseat on several airlines, and while I do not use that privilege very often, I am deeply appreciative of it, and grateful to ALPA and other unions who have made this and many other things possible. But I recall requesting the jumpseat once, and the captain immediately checked a folder full of paper, with many, many names in tiny print. In all innocence, I asked what that was. “It’s the ALPA blacklist,” he said, “I’m just making sure you’re not on it.” I wasn’t, of course, and he made me welcome. But he spent the entire two-hour flight going on and on about his hatred for those on the list, to the point where I was seriously concerned for the safety of the flight.

I’ve had that (checking the blacklist) happen twice since, and both times I just quietly said, “Thanks, I’ll catch the next flight.” I don’t need to ride an airplane flown by an angry man.

Be careful up there!