Eye of Experience #15:
Hazardous Attitudes Revisited

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Eye Of ExperienceWhen I submitted my original column on the subject of hazardous attitudes, AVweb's editor told me that it was my best column ever. That may or may not be an accurate statement, but in any event my reply was that I would be willing to wager that the column would draw less reader response than others I have written would. My reasoning was that it is extremely difficult to get people interested in the subject of safety. My prediction proved to be accurate. The column drew less than half the responses that did the second least-answered one. Nevertheless, I believe this is a very important subject and one that deserves additional discussion.


Not only is the attitude of the aircraft in its spatial relationship with Mother Earth important, but the attitude of the pilot who is manipulating it through the sky is of least equal importance. Just as the correct attitude of the aircraft is necessary to avoid a mishap, so is the mental and emotional attitude of the pilot essential for safe flight. It is this type of attitude we will be discussing here.

The five hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA are:
  • Invulnerability
  • Anti-authority
  • Impulsivity
  • Mr. Macho
  • Resignation

Just as the FAA responds to advances in technology with new recommendations and regulations, the agency also responds to developments in our knowledge of human factors. The mental mind-set each human being carries with him will frequently determine his reaction to the situation in which he finds himself. In a previous Eye of Experience column I discussed the five hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA that tend toward starting or continuing the chain of events that leads to accidents. It is rarely just one of the five hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA, but rather two or more of them that form links in the accident chain. Additionally, as the activities of a given pilot are observed, frequently there are signs along the way resulting from activity encouraged by one or a combination of these attitudes that lead to the ultimate conclusion.

This time, we will examine some specific cases illustrating just how these attitudes lead to serious trouble.


One case in particular stands out. Several years ago, in addition to running a flight school, I taught a primary ground school in one of the local high school evening adult education programs. One semester, a widower who had been a glider pilot in World War II and had acquired private privileges in single-engine airplanes to go with his commercial glider certificate but who had not flown for several years, enrolled in the class to get current. He brought his 17-year-old son along, thinking aviation was something they could share. Both came to my flight school, the father to get current and the son to undertake primary flight training.

The father was a joy to work with. He quickly regained his flying skill, and after only a couple of hours I was able to solo him in the pattern. The son, who was next up for a lesson, sat with me and watched his dad do a few landings. When he finished, the father parked the airplane and came walking over to where his son and I were sitting. The boy, with perhaps three or four hours of training, leaped up and literally snarled at his father, "Your first one bounced, you landed too long on the second, and you dropped the third one in from two or three feet!" I was aghast. There was really nothing wrong with the guy's landings, but that's beside the point. The total disrespect with which this kid had treated his father left me speechless.

That episode was my real introduction to the arrogant attitude of that smart-mouth kid. It got worse. Every time I flew with him, he wanted to argue with my explanations and he routinely criticized my demonstrations of the primary flight maneuvers. (MR. MACHO)

Fortunately, it didn't last long. Before he was ready to solo, he told me that he wanted to transfer to another flight school where they used trainers "that sort of look like little fighter planes." Boy! Was I ever happy to be rid of him! I called the operator of the other school, a friend of mine, and alerted him to just what he was getting, and I asked that I be kept informed of the kid's progress. A few weeks later I got a call from my friend, who informed me that he had thrown the kid out of his school. Seems that shortly after he had done his first solo in the pattern, he came out at night and totally unauthorized took a friend for an airplane ride in one of the school trainers! (ANTI-AUTHORITY)

Rather than report him to the feds, the operator just kicked him out. I later learned that he had been refused training at two more flight schools.

After about a year, the father came to me and told me the sad story of raising the boy by himself after his wife died, and he literally begged me to complete the boy's training. I broke down and agreed to attempt to do so. I then interviewed the kid and I told him that if he stepped out of line or sassed me back just once I'd, "squish him like a bug!" He agreed to play by the rules and let me be the teacher. This lasted for about two sessions, and then I, too, had to kick him out.

I next heard about him another year later. Seems he had finished his primary training someplace and joined a flying club. He and a friend flew one of the club airplanes to a small island in one of the Great Lakes. On the takeoff attempt for the return trip, he crashed into the lake and was killed. Fortunately, his passenger escaped relatively uninjured, and was quickly picked up by a fishing boat.

In addition to the MR. MACHO and ANTI-AUTHORITY attitudes, he also thought he was INVULNERABLE. The ultimate end to this story was as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. It provides a perfect example of how the attitude(s) of the pilot can lead to disaster, and how more than one of them is often involved.

Experience, A Teacher (Or Not)

When I was a very young boy, my mother explained to me that we all learn from experience, either our own or the experiences of others. And in most cases it is a lot easier to learn from the experience of others. That's one reason why we read and study accident reports so that we won't blunder into the same situation as the poor pilot who was involved in the accident.

We all need to have confidence in our skills, but if we permit overconfidence to creep in, the result will be one of two things: Either we will have an experience from which we learn and vow to never let it happen again, or we will continue to exhibit this attitude (perhaps along with other undesirable ones) until we ultimately encounter disaster.

As an example of the first, I once knew a guy who regularly scud-ran as a VFR-only private pilot. One day, he returned to his home airport in conditions with a ceiling so low that he had to duck under the wires crossing the road at the end of the runway in order to make it in. Then and there he wisely vowed to get himself instrument rated, and he did. Since that day he has been one of the more cautious pilots of my acquaintance. This one provides a perfect example of a pilot who learned from an experience that had scared the daylights out of him.

On the other hand, I knew a guy who because of his MR. MACHO and INVULNERABLE attitudes throughout his flying career kept having little warning signs involving minor mishaps, from which he refused to learn. He carelessly taxied into a ditch. He took off one time under IFR in hard IMC without a chart in the airplane (he'd left them in his case in the office). He was an extremely skilled airplane manipulator, but he was overconfident and every time something went wrong he was sure it was the result of some outside factor it simply could not have been poor judgment on his part. He also thought the rules were for other people. In other words, he consistently displayed the ANTI-AUTHORITY attitude. This guy refused to learn from his numerous experiences, most of which might seem like minor lapses, but instead were clear signs that a change in attitude was required if he was to avoid a major disaster.


And on these subjects, many years ago we had a student, who with some 20 hours of experience, took out a Cessna 150 theoretically to practice maneuvers assigned by his instructor. Instead, he decided to attempt some self-taught aerobatics. He spun and looped the poor little airplane, which was certainly not designed and built to withstand the forces he exerted on it on the back side of a loop. He stressed the pitiful little machine so badly that not only were the control cables stretched, but even the spar had started to yield! Of course, this action terminated his flight training.

In this case we had no warning signs. The guy seemed to be an exceptionally apt student, but his instability showed up not much later when he was sentenced to thirty days as a guest of the county for beating up his wife. I learned that he spent his incarceration at a county work camp right next to the airport where he could see the airplanes come and go on a regular basis. He is a prime example of both the MR. MACHO and ANTI-AUTHORITY attitudes.

The MR. MACHO guy, given a choice, will take the risky way over the sure, safe one. He's sure he can handle any situation into which he has put himself, and he knows no fear. Each successful adventure reinforces his self-image as superman until one day he attempts the really impossible and disaster befalls him. Usually these pilots are excellent airplane manipulators; they have simply become overconfident. They are the "kick the tires, light the fires" kind of aviator who can't be bothered with a checklist: Thorough preflight inspections of the equipment and using checklists are for wimps.

The Wrong Knob

Oops!As an example of the IMPULSIVITY attitude, I can cite the case of the pilot who took off from a large general aviation airport located in the middle of a city. There were two pilots aboard, one instrument-rated and one not. They had filed an IFR flight plan for a 300-mile trip. On the climb, right after takeoff (200 to 300 feet in the air) they entered cloud. The engine began to run rough and the instrument-rated pilot, in the left seat, panicked and grabbed the first knob in front of him. Unfortunately, it was the mixture control instead of the carburetor heat control knob. He gave it a good healthy yank and the engine quit. The airplane crashed, appropriately enough, in a cemetery a quarter-mile off the departure end of the runway and both pilots were killed. The reason we know what happened is because the pilot flying the plane was found with the mixture control knob in his hand. He had pulled it so hard the cable came right out.

Had this guy remained calm and applied the antidote to the IMPULSIVITY attitude the outcome would no doubt have been different. The antidote, as pointed out in my previous column, is to simply pause and think put your brain in gear before taking action. If one does this, the odds are that the action taken will be the appropriate one. Again, nothing's happenin' so fast that you have to panic!

The urge to do something immediately without deliberate consideration of all the available options is what causes people to make an instant response to a situation, and often it is the wrong response. When the heart comes up into the throat, the adrenaline starts pumping and the sweat starts pouring, some pilots are inclined to grab the first knob or control at hand and move it, just to be doing something, anything, and to do it immediately. What action they take is frequently the wrong response and real trouble ensues, as illustrated by the above true story.

This is also what caused a highly experienced pilot to feather the wrong prop when he suffered a power loss on takeoff in a twin, causing the airplane to crash and killing the lone occupant of the airplane.

More Than One

The files of the National Transportation Safety Board are replete with case history after case history, accident report after accident report directly attributable to the fact that the pilot had one or more of these hazardous attitudes within him. And it is frequently more than one. It seems that the individual who is confident to the point of overconfidence, cockiness, is also likely to be the MR. MACHO type, and certain to hold ANTI-AUTHORITY feelings as well. I'm sure everyone knows people like that. I know I do.

I have in mind one particular pilot, an absolutely outstanding airplane manipulator. He was superb insofar as flying the airplane was concerned, but he was convinced that he was better than he actually was. He was certain he was INVULNERABLE. He was so good that nothing bad could ever happen to him. He didn't walk; he strutted. He was also above the rules. The regulations were for other, lesser people. He was a perfect example of defiance of authority. He violated every regulation every time he had a chance to get away with it

Therefore, this guy suffered from at least three of the hazardous attitudes we've been discussing. He was MR. MACHO, he was INVULNERABLE, and he carried with him the ANTI-AUTHORITY attitude. He was also no doubt IMPULSIVE. He provides an excellent example of the fact than when one of these factors is present, one or more of the others usually accompanies it. The single exception to this multiple hazardous attitude concept is the RESIGNATION attitude. It usually stands alone.

An example of this is a case in which I was training a man of the cloth. He did okay until we started serious landing work. Every time we got close to the ground he simply let go and permitted the airplane to fly itself. When I asked him what that was all about, he replied, "God can take over now!" I explained that God surely wanted him to do it himself and that seemed to straighten him out.

Another example of RESIGNATION at work is the case of the pilot with very little experience in the complex twin he was flying who flew right into the side of a mountain, killing himself and his entire family. This guy just let go and let fate take over. His philosophy was "Whatever will be, will be." This is different from the situation in which a person freezes with terror. In that case, the emotion of fear has taken charge and when the emotions take over, logic goes out the window.

The Risk-Taker

From time to time we are all placed in a position where we are forced to take a calculated risk, but most of us do this after careful consideration of all available options. However, there are some people who take unnecessary risks for the sake of showing off.

I once knew a guy who flew a CE-310 and who was a big-time showoff. On all his takeoffs, he would select "gear up" prior to starting the takeoff roll, counting on the squat switch to keep the wheels under him until he lifted off. It made for spectacular takeoffs because just as he broke ground, the wheels would start up. Then, as soon as he lifted off, this guy would bank so steeply that it frequently appeared that he would dig a wingtip into the ground, and at a steep climb angle he would bend around the tower (which is located about midfield) and be on his way.

This was another guy who was an absolutely superb airplane manipulator, but what he had in skill, he lacked in mature judgment. He was consistently an unnecessary risk-taker. In addition to being MR. MACHO and feeling INVULNERABLE, he also had the ANTI-AUTHORITY attitude, because when he died he was descending through a cloud deck without an instrument clearance (although he was instrument-rated and could have easily called for a clearance) and flew right into the side of a mountain.

This individual was known around the airport as an excellent pilot because of his skill at controlling an airplane, so nobody felt comfortable attempting to counsel him regarding his taking chances. I seriously doubt if it would have done any good had anyone tried to explain the danger of his reckless maneuvers because this sort of person is likely to be incapable of accepting criticism.

One Last Example

A final case involved a very prominent businessman in his early 50s who lived in a small town in the Midwest and who owned a pressurized twin. A professional pilot who was also a CFI flew the airplane for him. This man was the leading citizen in his hometown, which is the county seat and has a small county-owned airport with one paved runway. He owned a manufacturing plant that was the county's largest employer but he was not too well-liked since he had a reputation for being overbearing and was known for throwing his not inconsiderable weight around. All in all, he presented a very intimidating persona.

A Beech Baron Model 58This high-powered guy had a second home in Florida to which he regularly flew in his professionally operated pressurized twin. He had, however, started taking flight training in a two-place trainer. On occasion, when in Florida, he and his pilot would rent a four-place trainer from a local FBO and he would continue his training. When they traveled in the twin, the professional pilot would sometimes permit his boss to push the pedals and twist the yoke. Between his training at home and in Florida, the high-powered businessman student pilot had accumulated about 30 hours of dual instruction but had not yet soloed. This training was spread out over more than a year.

One fine spring day, he showed up at the county airport where he had been training, announced that here he was, ready to go, and demanded an instructor to serve him. This was his habit; no appointment, merely show up and demand service. He was used to getting his way in all his relationships, so why not with respect to his flight training? The operator employed one full-time instructor who just happened to be available. This CFI was recently certificated and had not flown with this particular student previously. The overbearing student informed the CFI in his intimidating manner that he was ready to solo and they would go out and do a few landings so he could get on with it. Reviewing the guy's logbook, the CFI determined that all the required pre-solo maneuvers had been signed off by either the professional pilot employee or by the previous CFI at the FBO.

After about an hour and a half of takeoffs and landings, the CFI was ready to solo the student, but this had to be delayed since the student didn't have his student certificate with him at the time, and the CFI wouldn't let him go without first signing the certificate. A couple of days later, the student showed up with his certificate in hand, but this time the CFI was working with another student, reviewing cross-country planning. The big shot demanded immediate attention, as was his wont, and since conditions were perfect, the CFI dispatched him with instructions to make two touch-and-go landings, a full-stop landing and then return to the office, anticipating that he would by then have completed what he was doing and be able to devote his attention to the guy.

Another oops.Instead of doing what he was instructed to do, the guy made two touch-and-goes (very good ones as attested to by witnesses at the airport) and departed the pattern. He flew over to his home where he had told his wife to be on the upstairs porch with a camera to photograph the event. He proceeded to buzz his home, making several low passes over and around his house. He then flew over to his daughter's home, about a mile away, where he repeated the process. On the pull-up from his final low pass he stalled and plunged to earth under full power, killing himself instantly.

This is a classic example of a combination of the attitudes identified as INVULNERABILITY. He just knows it can't happen to him. He also displayed the MR. MACHO attitude plus ANTI-AUTHORITY. Put this deadly combination together and the result is bound to be disaster. This one was clearly predictable. You could see it coming. Given enough exposure, any pilot with that kind of attitude is bound to get bitten. If he's lucky, he will scare himself badly and change his attitude, but that's really the only way in which such an individual can be made to change. If such a pilot has a really close call, perhaps he will realize that it can, indeed, happen to him.

Don't let it happen to you.

Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.