The Buzzkill Argument

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I don’t know about you, but I sometimes grow weary of the self-imposed burden of being an Ambassador for General Aviation. I mean, I’m not gonna bring a crack pipe to the Young Eagles picnic, but I’m sure as hell not going to be the eternal gladhander, either. Other people are better at that sort of thing than I’ll ever be.

On the other hand, I try to conduct myself so as not to do something really stupid or at least get caught at it. So I have a certain inner tension with my role as a writer and analyzer and my innate comfort level with risky things. I once heard the couch rats at an airport I used to fly out of say, “that dude’s kinda crazy.” They were referring to me being enthusiastic about taking my instrument students out into northeastern winter weather. An Aunt Jane I ain’t. Yet today.

Still, I notice something in our comments from time to time that I call the Buzzkill Argument. It’s usually in reaction to some cautionary essay about risk judgment or decision making in accident scenarios. The gist of it is the classic edge-case argument: “Why don’t we just outlaw everything risky?” In other words, the pushback against confronting risk is killing all the fun and we’re wrecking general aviation as a result.

I’ve heard the argument before and I’ve made the argument before because I am, after all, a guy who jumps out of airplanes and rides motorcycles, sometimes on racetracks. The buzzkill argument surfaced most recently in Roy Evans’ blog about accidents in STOL competitions and in my essay about a young woman’s project to fly around the world in an LSA sans instrument equipment or a rating. I could find other examples.

I’ve always thought there is a molecular-thin membrane between understandable and acceptable risk and wild-eyed, mouth-foaming stupidity. And it’s movable, variable by the person making the judgment, by day and the angle of sunlight hitting what minimal facts may be extant to extract a judgment.

When the decision is murky, which it frequently is, the Buzzkill Argument can turn red to green in the name of fun because, after all, we’re all reaching for the gusto, right? We blather on about the phrase “safety culture” but most of us, including me, can’t always accurately define it even if we’re pretty sure we know what it means. Including me. Buzzkill is antagonistic to safety culture because in marginal circumstances, I think it erodes the discipline to say, “I probably could do that, but I’m not going to.”

It can also obscure the wisdom often buried in the routine, traditional and accepted way of doing things. Like safety wiring fasteners, using fire sleeves where you’re supposed to, doing mag inspections, sumping fuel and a long list of mundane tasks that, taken together, form the foundation of survival. When this stuff is ignored or compromised, so goes safety culture, if it was ever there at all. Psychologists even have a phrase for it: normalization of deviance. That’s just fancy talk for the wink and nod we’ve all seen—or done—in our flying careers that says, “yeah, I know this isn’t right, but I think I can get away with it.”

If it goes far enough, you get a crash like the Collings Foundation B-17 fatal at Windsor Locks, Connecticut, in 2019. Ahead of that crash, the Buzzkill Argument was in full flower. We should allow people to fly on 75-year-old warbirds and have their fun, accepting whatever risk they want. So we did and five unsuspecting passengers who surely had no inkling of the risk they were assuming died as a result. Collings had a reasonable safety and oversight program in place—the nuts and bolts of a safety culture that was FAA approved—which it failed to follow, breaking faith with passengers and the public and defining normalization of deviance.

In the context of STOL events, the stakes aren’t nearly so high since passengers aren’t involved and in most cases, we’re talking about bent metal, not broken bodies. Nonetheless, in my view, it’s worth stepping back and asking if we’re normalizing accidents and incidents that could be prevented and if there are things we could do to avoid them. So after the metal is bent, what needs to be done to prevent it happening again? One step is to understand if you normalize a risk that chronically results in incidents or accidents, have you lost the ability to draw the line anywhere?

This happens occasionally in skydiving and it happened to me yesterday. We were doing an ash scattering dive for a pilot and skydiving friend who many of us had known for years. He died earlier this month of natural causes. Ash dives are challenging because so much can go wrong, but getting it right is a sweet tribute to the departed. We got it somewhere in between.

The moment I stepped out of the airplane, I knew we were headed straight for a juicy cumulus cloud that it may have appeared we were going to miss. We didn’t. On the ground later, everyone had a good laugh about it, but my resistance to normalizing it was to suggest the next time we do this—and there will be a next time—we need to put our A-game spotter in the door. She was further forward. Spotting a load isn’t difficult, but at the narrow end of the judgment envelope where the clouds sometimes are, it takes confidence and discipline to put your foot down and take the airplane around for another pass if the situation is even remotely doubtful. Skydivers are the very definition of go fever but sometimes they have to be throttled back. (We’re subject to the same cloud clearance requirement of 91.155 as aircraft are. I don’t like to wink and ignore it.)

Skydivers like to wish the departed a fond “blue skies” and our friend Steve would have savored the delicious irony of our having deposited his remains inside a cloud. I might too if we hadn’t done it by overlooking something we shouldn’t have.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. I think the problem is too many people accept risk by omission instead of by design.

    I worked for 17 years flying fixed wing aerial fire suppression for a Canadian company. Most people thought it was a risky, even a crazy way to make a living, but I can honestly say I was never scared. There were many times where we had to proactively decide on mitigation actions during a bombing run but the operation had good SOP’s to manage the risks and nobody ever got criticized if they decided a run was unacceptably dangerous and went home.

    What I see in many of the buzz kill arguments is not pilots choosing to accept a risk during a flight, but rather refusing to accept the fact that they can and must manage the risk in an organized way.

  2. What kills the buzz more than safety turtles are smoking holes made by planes, filled with twisted metal and mangled bodies. Pilots aren’t safe anymore because they can’t afford it. Planes cost huge amounts of money to own and operate, so pilots or companies that buy them consider their utility, and not how to keep proficient and trained past the requisite checkouts or authorizations provided by the sellers. Once the ink is dry on those logbook entries, the plane is flown with automation, GPS Direct routes, and little if any subsequent practice. I remember the day after I received my Commercial-Instrument-Multi-Engine rating, I was in the old Aztruck performing transitions, and if the weather cooperated, multiple actual IMC approaches. I never used automation, even when I flew the IFCS-Equipped Cessna T-210s on cross country flights. To me, the ‘buzz’ was most pleasurable after my 4th practice circling approach at minimums, or flying the old T-34 in 40 knot crosswinds doing touch and goes. I lost that buzz when it was ‘killed’ by $200.00 per hour Skyhawk rental rates.

  3. Assuming no intentional buffoonery, there’s room for debate when the risk only involves the pilot. There is NO room for debate when it puts at risk the uninformed, who have put their trust in the PIC, or those not at all involved.

    • And THAT is why whenever someone asks me to take their kids flying, I pull the parent aside and explain to them that I won’t put their whole family in a single engine airplane at one time. And why — internally — I resolve to sacrifice the airplane to keep the passengers on the right side of the grass, IF it becomes necessary.

  4. David Baker makes excellent points on risk management and automation. I don’t use automation either because the autopilot has never worked and it’s too expensive to replace it. (for now at least and that’s been 30 years). Remaining proficient is all aspects of flight ops is essential in my book. Like David, I recently completed a flight in IMC in an aircraft with an ADF (which I am told I should get rid of because its only good for listening to the ball game), an ILS and a fancy IFR LPV approach navigator. The landing runway had two approaches, an RNAV LPV and an ILS. Either would work, but the ILS required ADF. I called for the ILS and ATC cleared me to the locator beacon IAF, I tuned up the old radios and programmed the GPS approach as backup. 4 miles from the fix the GPS said the satellites weren’t talking to it and quit. We continued and flew the published approach using the old stuff while the GPS recycled and magically worked while in the procedure turn. Backups are good, and in this case, when the backup failed at a critical point, primaries are even better. Managing the risk by actually being proficient with the backups/primaries is the best idea of all.

    • Pilots have perishable skills that need polishing, but pulling engines on twins, then flying IAPs while the safety pilot squirms in terror costs lots of money, and lowers engine life. One flight I flew (2.0 hours ETE) with my father as safety pilot was conducted with a hood, a failed artificial horizon, turn coordinator, and a DG that needed constant adjustment. Pilots aren’t doing these types of flights, and we’re seeing what happens when they have to actually handle the controls in IMC, or even VMC. (Who spins a business twin on a VMC approach segment, or one of them fancy carbonated jobs with 300HP?) The latest mishap in San Diego has all the earmarks of automation addiction, and lack of proficiency in hand flying. Pilots don’t want to discuss this matter, because they know they’re eroding their skills with their flying habits, while eschewing proficiency flights.

  5. Paul, to somehow think that intentional-safety will somehow destroy GA by taking the risky-fun out of flying is laughable. Aviation suffers every time one of the risk-takers sticks the pointy end in the ground. Page back to August 24th accident of the new Vision Jet at KLAN. Another testosterone fueled GA accident from another GA pilot wanting some excitement in his life by departed during a TRW. TRW 1, Vision Jet 0. Mountains 1, Kobe Bryant 0 because of another risk taker. I am pretty sure these risk takers didn’t add to the popularity of GA.

    Female pilots make up 8% of the pilot population but only cause 2% of the accidents….and are never (generally speaking) involved in the risk based accidents such as the Vision Jet at KLAN. Something to think about.

    All accidents are preventable.

    God bless.

    • I think the point being made is that not all risk is objective; some of it is subjective. Compared to flying on a windless CAVU VMC day, flying in IMC in a single-engine piston plane is much riskier and I know of some pilots who can fly IFR but choose not to on those days. For me, flying into grass strips less than 3000 feet long is risky in a PA-28 so I won’t do it, but others have less concern.

      An accident not involving random mechanical failure is simply the result of risk exceeding the pilot’s skills and aircraft capabilities, so it is all relative.

    • The ‘risk’ is most prevalent when pilots don’t push their envelopes. They sit in the left seats of their planes twiddling their thumbs while gizmos do the flying chores, and computers handle navigation functions. Spinning aircraft is now verboten, low level flights are too risky, engine shut downs in flight are for ME training only, and even then, they’re simulated. Since you’re introducing gender on this topic, tell us what happened to your paragons of prop wash in Monterey, or recently in New Mexico? How about that gal flying her Cirrus in Houston, who spun the plane in after her third attempt at landing? (The plane did have a chute, didn’t it?…..)

      • Spinning isn’t required for anything other than the CFI, but that doesn’t meant they’re “verboten” (as long as it’s in an aircraft actually approved for spins). And ME engine shutdowns (especially as part of a Vmc demo) are high-risk maneuvers. There’s a good reason most shutdowns are simulated these days: the accident rate (especially the fatal accident rate) was atrocious until industry and the regs realized that more people were dying from ME shutdown training than actual in-flight shutdowns.

        When the training itself leads to more accidents than it is supposed to prevent, one must examine whether that training is necessary or should be modified to be less risky.

  6. Defining “safety culture” is not difficult; implementing one in a relatively unregulated environment is. Professional flying organizations achieve their impressive safety records almost exclusively with regulation. Regulation strictly mandates pro-pilot health, experience, training, operation, etc., etc., etc. Most of the important go/no-go decisions GA pilots make every time they fly are already made for professional pilots by dint of the regulatory environment they operate within. Professional pilots are told what to do, how to do it, and then are monitored to ensure they actually do what they’re told. And crucially, unlike general aviation, “fun” is not a factor in decision-making for commercial aviation.

    That kind of control over GA pilots comes from only one place: the individual pilot. The best way I’ve found to emulate the pros is by defining and strictly adhering to personal minimums. But as Paul pointed out, the kind of activities GA pilots engage in are so diverse it’s nearly impossible for an individual to develop a risk mitigation scheme that covers them all.

    I use a personal stop gap for decision-making on those operations that don’t fall within already established personal guidelines. After looking at the big picture (the aircraft, weather, and me) I ask myself two questions:

    1. How will this decision be viewed by accident investigators if I crash?
    2. Would I take my grandchildren on this flight?

    I’m not saying the answers to these questions should determine a go/no-go decision. I’m saying they should serve to help clarify and define your risk mitigation efforts. Risk is inherent in every decision, but understanding and mitigating them to the maximum extent possible ensures that “fun” never ranks higher on your decision matrix than “safety.”

    • My thoughts exactly. Whenever I encounter a pilot in my flying club who refuses to use the autopilot, I try to dissuade them of the idea that it somehow makes them less of a pilot. It’s obviously important to be able to hand fly the aircraft in all situations, but it’s also foolish to ignore a resource and tool that is free to use.

      • Paul,

        What is the difference between a 19 year, low time pilot attempting to fly around the world and a 72 year old fighter pilot with over 11,000 hours and 1,200 carrier landings going on a hamburger run?

        Those making the “buzzkill argument” don’t want to see another smoking hole. Don’t want to see another fatality. However, we have acknowledged the inherent risk in aviation.

        You’ve chocked the tires, tied the tail down, double checked the throttle and hand prop the cub. There is no chance that cub is getting away from you, right? No chance for an accident here, right? You’ve done absolute everting to reduce the risk!

        No, you haven’t. There are still a hundred or more steps you could perform to reduce risk. Why don’t you?(you know, for the sake of aviation and all). Ostensibly, you can get that risk down to zero, if you perform one simple operation. However, you acknowledge the inherent risk and decide not to stay home and go flying anyway.

        Yes, stick the tanks. Yes, do a proper and thorough preflight. Check the weather. Do everything you’re supposed to do before, during and after a flight. But even then, someone is going to flagrantly violate 91.155 and bust through some clouds.

        So, instead of berating the young lady who wants to fly around the world, encourage her to do it safely.

  7. Reflecting on my human factors studies. ‘The human accepts risk proportional to the gain’. Of course the gain is measurable but perception of risk can be skewed and laced in ignorance. Gain is the clear bit and tempting. Risk though to many is a dark art. Why do so many put money on a horse or gamble in other ways when it is almost certain they will lose. It is the excitement of it. Its almost magic. Training, skill and experience is second for some.

    I’ve seen so many take enormous risks and die from attempting a personal challenge or bravado: unskilled low level aerobatics, taking off into poor weather and one during the delivering of an aircraft, which was known to be in very poor condition and unairworthy, to engineers elsewhere.

    When I first worked with movie stuntmen I was impressed with the aversion to risk. Every stunt was carefully worked out, risk eliminated and always with get out of trouble planning. Their major skill was safely producing an illusion. The fool however seeks to turn the illusion unwittingly into a reality. Ignorance allows much more freedom (sic).

  8. I’m not sure how the photo used to illustrate this article relates to the content. N9534Q was the C152 I soloed in many years ago. After decades of student use and abuse, it was finally taken out by a pickup truck that failed to negotiate a curve, jumped the curb, plowed through an iron fence, ultimately coming to rest as the photo shows. I’m not sure how one can mitigate that particular sort of risk. But I agree with the sentiment. There is a fundamental difference between managed risk and, “Hold my beer!”

  9. Paul–your comment about “inadvertent IFR as a skydiver”. “Back in the day”–I had a similar experience–getting to the door in the Queen Air, when I made the exit, I found we were alongside and about to enter a towering cumulus. It was surreal–headed toward the column of cloud–then in it–then cold–then warm in the rising air–then VERY wet (at least it was on the underside of my jump suit–proof I was not falling inverted!).

    I nervously watched the altimeter–hoping that it was working as I had no idea of the passage of time–then looked at the stopwatch on top of the front-mounted reserve (mandated at the time by Minnesota state regulations)–a case of “partial panel IFR” backup to the altimeter. Even with altimeter AND stopwatch, I was nervous–there were 7 other skydivers out there somewhere, so I opened high while still in cloud and was VFR at 3500 feet. Everyone else waited and opened lower. They asked why I opened high–I told them “I’m the only one on this load that is instrument rated!” (smile)

    One of those “NEVER AGAIN!” moments

    • Because “fake news” creeps in everywhere.

      The bottom line here is that as technology makes life safer, we all (every one of us) adjust our concept of “unacceptable risk” to include the techno fixes and capabilities. IOW… Risk homeostasis takes over and we cheerfully enter situations that in the past were certain to kill us. Buzzkill is just a nifty term that, like safety, is a moving needle on a shifting target.

  10. I thought the article of risk normalization conflated two very different events, simply because they appeal to the same segment of aviation (e.g. Flying Cowboys). The risks associated with a prop strike on a geared Rotax are very different than tapping the prop on a direct drive Continental or Lycoming. A race that never gets above 50′ and, as you mention, is more likely to bend metal than people should not be unjustly compared. A contest involving actual approaches by amateur pilots to short fields is a different animal. The Valdez competition gets it right by keeping it simple.

    Another way to filter / high-grade an event is to have proof of successful participation in (easier) qualifying events. Like many other skill-based competitions outside aviation.

    I guess I took umbrage at finding fault without proposing improvements.

  11. We have a problem in our culture telling the overly cautious yet quite out spoken to sit. This then causes real problems when a proper analysis of risk and safety cannot be had. The end result is people testing the limits, and often learning bad habits which later cause injury or death.

    Of course, your flight can always be postponed. Always.