The Great Debate: dangerous pilots

Top Gun

Is overconfidence the most dangerous trait?

There has been a lively discussion among Air Facts readers about unsafe pilots and what our responsibility is to stop them. Russell Munson makes a compelling case in his thoughtful article, arguing that we can’t keep quiet when we see something bad about to happen.

But this begs the question: what exactly does it mean to be an “unsafe” pilot? In particular, what is the single most dangerous personality trait in a pilot? Share your opinion below.

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46 Comments

  1. David says:

    It most often depends on the situation. A former F/A-18 pilot would not fly the same way he or she flew an F/A-18 when they are flying with the airlines. Much depends on common sense.

  2. regggie says:

    situation awareness is a big factor in being a pilot. It doesn’t matter if they fly a 172 or a f-22. The pilot who becomes complacent in a environment that is changing is going to be the dangerous pilot, and that includes military or civilian aviation

  3. werner says:

    The biggest problem today I feel is the massive ego some pilots seem to be carrying around with them. Often what goes hand in hand with that is the belief that they are somehow untouchable or bulletproof once they slide in behind a stick or a yoke, and in my opinion anyone getting into an aircraft with that kind of attitude will get themselves killed. I think younger pilots specifically would do very well to observe and learn some of the habits of the old timers.

    • Keith Mendoza says:

      As someone who has been fortunate enough to have heard stories of old timers, I would have to give a word of caution to a new pilot: Be aware that these guys gained their confidence from experience. Not just because you hear a story of what they do to get out of situation X doesn’t mean that’s the right solution for everyone. First, you have to understand what the circumstances of “situation X” is. Second, you need to know how the actually feel about “situation X”; something that makes for a good hangar flying story doesn’t mean they’ll ever let themselves be put in that particular situation again. Third, you have to understand the logic behind their reasoning for doing what they did. Fourth, you have to understand their flight time at this point and the equipment, especially if the person is flying a higher-powered airplane than yours.

  4. Trey Eshleman says:

    Once again as other stated the most dangerous trait pilots and anyone else can show is overconfidence

    • Gary Dell says:

      I totally agree with Trey. Over the years I’ve lost several flying friends that perished due to overconfidence.

  5. twinenginegirl says:

    I’m with werner! It is a pilot’s ego!

    I’ve flown with dozens of people as I have larger aircraft, but don’t fly enough so always have a pro with me. I’m Com ME Inst SIC and do a decent right seat, but have gotten into a couple arguments in the wrong places when someone wouldn’t pay attention to me when I pointed out that our clearance had been to 1500, not 3000 and we needed to go down NOW!

    None of those pilots could pass an ATP check ride, so they have moved on. They are now flying for the airlines.

  6. Wren says:

    “Overconfidence” is much too polite of a term. I believe the correct fault is arrogance and cockiness. Both characteristics are anathema to good, safe piloting.

  7. Peter Graham says:

    Lack of understanding of statistics, and physics.

    As in, just because you got away with it (n) times, is NOT a guarantee of future success. And, you are just as subject to natural laws as every other pilot.

    If you can’t grasp those simple facts, stick to X Plane.

  8. Halldor Hrafnsson says:

    The old applies: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but no old bold pilots.

  9. Drew says:

    Pilots who (like Werner said) have a big ego, and pilots who push bad weather to get the mission done.

  10. Mark C says:

    Learn from others mistakes. Trust me IV made some and i defiantly learned from them. I’m allot more cautious now. Like flying when the weather wasn’t quite nice enough expecting it to improve…NOT or landing at a field just a little shorter than needed thinking i could stop…NOT. Listen to the older pilots mishaps and learn from them before you have to learn from your own.

  11. Bob Dean says:

    I was in europe in the late 50′s and 60′s. Had a lot of air time in a C130. During that period on avg there was 5 Crashes a year, with Air France. We new what was going, but the french were to proud to change their habits. They Paid Dearly with their lives and the lives of the passengers……The french gov’t debated 10ys to solve a problem. We American knew exactly what the problem was. When the crew got there french meal (WINE) a couple even one glass, by the time they were airborne the went with the passengers and crew to their grave yard. After fighting in court, after a deviating chrash w/so call gov’t officials on board, they had no time to say don’t take off till we sober up. All those lives. We tried to tell them and they were to proud.During the court time they did not want the American Pilots to testify…it’s the Booze Dummies. Our American Airline Pilots saved so many as the raise their voice to save lives no WINE.

  12. Steve Phoenix says:

    Single most important trait? I guess I would put down “lack of patience”. The safe flyers I have observed exhibit the patient/thought skills of a chess player rather than the quick reflex skills of a soccer hero. Most crashes seem to occur when reacting to conditions rather than going from a thought out plan A to plan B.

    • Terry L says:

      Well said Steve. As a newby having just soloed, I still find myself in the “reactionary” camp as I continue to encounter new flight conditions and sensations. Developing that chess player attitude, as you so aptly describe will be a primary goal for me.

  13. Duane Beland says:

    Over confident pilots flying into bad weather because “They have done this before and can handle it”.
    When they discover that they can’t handle it , then it is too late. Their passengers don’t have a choice.

  14. Travelin Brian says:

    I’ve been hangared at two different non-towered airports where some of the locals were very lazy about making radio calls. Just last week I made my call that I was taking runway 9 only to end up looking at a 172 coming at me from the opposite end. He flew over me as I pulled out the throttle to stop. No incident, but that could have been bad. If I knew who he was I’d seek him out and chew him out.

    • duck says:

      Exactly……I don’t know what it is that pilots at uncontrolled fields do not make position and/or intention reports. I’m afraid that it is a “I’m the only one here” syndrome and a sign of the times and severe cases of narcissism.

  15. Ken Peppard says:

    In my 50 years of flying, I’ve seen several and flown with a few pilots who I felt were an accident waiting to happen. Their experience ranged from Student to ATP, some held a CFI, and they covered the entire spectrum of GA, military, and commercial piloting. Regardless of experience, some lacked the skills to operate the machine they were in, while others were overly confident they could handle anything. Unfamiliarity with the machine, the environment, a lack of personal awareness, and an inflated ego were usually present. Some died along the way at their own hand and took a few trusting passengers with them. One story in particular remains in my mind … that of my hangar mate, who came from a well to do family and had the means to buy whatever he wanted.
    He was a relatively new Private pilot and had bought a pristine C152 to learn how to fly, after which he intended to step up to a faster airplane. I’d watched him fly from the ground and his skills on approach and landing were in need of work. Several of us encouraged him to get some more dual from his regular CFI interspersed with practice sessions of what he was learning. He always acknowledged that was an excellent idea and that he’d do that … but often didn’t. He’d reasoned that a better airplane would help him fly better. And he had his eye on a Glasair RG, which no one other than himself thought he was capable of handling.
    Insistent on having a retractable gear airplane, a significant number of local airplane owner tried to talk him into something much more benign like a Piper Arrow or Beech Musketeer to get some experience under his belt and then move up when he’s ready. He thought that an excellent idea and continued to fly the C152 a couple of times a week while he searched for a newer airplane. Finally I opened the hangar one day and there it was: a beautiful Glasair II RG. While it was about as nice as any I’d seen, I felt strongly that he had no business in it.
    A few hours later he showed up at the hangar and we had a discussion about his new airplane. I asked how come he’d settled on it instead of the interim choice of a more moderate performer? He’d learn to fly this one, he said, and everything would be fine. I encouraged him to get lots of dual with a CFI friend of mine who had considerable Glasair experience … and he did. 30 hours’ worth and still the CFI would not clear him to solo in it.
    So what did he do? Why, he changed CFI’s, of course. And three hours later was checked out in it. The trap was set to fly where and when he wanted with a passenger, if he could find one. Those who knew how he flew opted not to go along. The CFI who wouldn’t check him out called the other CFI and told him that he needs more dual in the airplane to be safe and the second CFI said he’d recommend he do that.
    A few months later in April he flew the Glasair to Sun ’N Fun, perhaps with a CFI along. While I’m not sure about who went with him, I do know that while there he got the late Bob Herendeen to fly his Glasair with him aboard and show him what it could do.
    It’s now a beautiful Sunday in late May and I’ve stopped by the airport on my way home. As I drive in, taxiing out in front of me is the Glasair with a female passenger in the right seat. The pilot stops and waves to me, taxis t the runway and departs. I go to the FBO and talk with a few people in the lobby when we hear over the CTAF: “Jesus, oh Jesus, oh, Jesus … ohhh, oooh …” and then its silent. I said “that was ______ [my hangar mate] and he’s just crashed.” We ran outside looking for some evidence of a crash, but see nothing. Still, I’m so sure that was his voice and he’s crashed that I call the State Police to let them know we think an airplane has crashed and, if anyone reports one, we believe it came from here. A few minutes later the State Police call back … they’re responding to a plane crash about 5 miles east of our field.
    I let them know what the plane looks like and the pilot’s name, that there was a woman passenger, that his sports car is here and her purse is in the car. 20 minutes later I’m standing with a State Trooper who is going through the purse and car registration for information on the plane’s occupants. They’re both dead.
    Another pilot flying his biplane nearby was an airborne witness to the crash. What attracted his intention was the Glasair doing a loop. It got near the top, fell out of it, and went into a flat spin all the way to the ground. I went to the crash site and spoke with a woman had been riding a tractor in her field when she heard a whirring sound, looked up, and saw a small, white airplane “coming down like a disc”. It crashed in the field less than 100 feet from her and there was no fire … only a broken airplane with two people inside. She was the one who called 911 and the paramedics responded quickly, but there was nothing they could do. She felt horrible. So did I and so my wife, who was with me throughout.
    As we drove home my wife said: “So that’s it? One minute you’re waving to friends and the next minute someone is going through your belongings to notify your next of kin? Life is over … its ended that quick and you’re gone … forever?”
    “Yes,” I said, “that’s it.”
    Over the years, I’ve thought quite a bit about that day and those leading up to it. What could anyone have said or done differently to have intervened in my hangar mate doing what he did? He’d nod acceptingly when we encouraged him to get more training and experience, and then do what he’d always intended to do. Surely there was something we could have done differently, but what? Could we have reported anything to the FAA? Until that day, he wasn’t reckless in his operation of the airplane, just inexperienced, used questionable judgment, and exhibited a passive-aggressive independence that many of us have seen in other aviators.
    In the end, he was the final decider of his fate. Sadly, not just for him, but also for the woman passenger, and later her husband and their 12-year old son who were visited by the State Police informing them of their loss.
    We expect pilots to exercise due care because of the profound responsibility they have for themselves, their passengers, and the communities over which they fly.
    How do you keep pilots who are unaware of their own dangerous behavior from flying their own airplanes? I wish I knew.

    • SG says:

      Thank you for this account Ken. As a former flight test engineer for a GA aircraft manufacturer I witnessed a professional test pilot, who arguably was one of this country’s best, crash and die as consequence of a flight test gone wrong. This happened in 1996 and I will always be scarred from it. It showed me that in spite of professionalism and careful planning things can go wrong. The chances are only much less than when they are not.

      The incident completely changed my view of aviation and, for a lack of a better term, my more carefree than careful view of it at the time.

      The discussion taking place here is interesting and important because it focuses on a human trait that is very hard to repair. I think that “unsafe” pilots display a combination of the traits that have already been stated here; overconfidence, ignorance of the physics, cockiness, arrogance, A-type personality, and so on. The remedy: I am not sure, but education, experience, and discussion of this nature all go a long way in my view. I am now a university professor who teaches aircraft design to aerospace engineering students and I tell my students about these dangerous pilots in the hope they understand the range of pilots that may fly their creations. I think I will add your anecdote to my list, Ken.

  16. N. King says:

    When you have CFIs who go apoplectic when they see a plane on a slipping base to final turn it’s an indication that those teaching students are not qualified to fly, much less teach. It has been my experience that those most likely to report something or somebody as unsafe cannot fathom the fact that an airplane can be capably flown by a pilot who does not mimic what his autopilot does.

    As far as ego is concerned, the private pilot who reports a Twin Otter pilot for not checking his magnetoes has far more ego than brains.

    You fly your aiplane and quit trying to fly mine!

    • David says:

      The poster child for dangerous attitudes has joined the discussion. Wow!

      Who do you consider worthy to evaluate your abilities as a pilot?

      Why did you find it unnecessary to do a mag check when you were flying that Twin Otter?

    • The reason I as a CFI don’t tell my students to slip to land is because they SHOULD have been flying the approach CORRECTLY in the first place, and if they had to slip, then they obviously weren’t. If you’re so sloppy that you have to slip it in all the time, then I can understand your defensiveness: you don’t want others to “fly your airplane” because you secretly know they’re probably better at it than you are. The good CFIs (the ones you claim “are not qualified to fly, much less teach”) don’t tolerate slop from their students or ignore it by just saying, “Whatever, just slip it in, pretend your approach was acceptable because it got you on the ground, and call it a good landing.” Get it right and you won’t have to slip, and that’s the voice of almost 14,000 hours speaking.

      • N. King says:

        The day that you’ll have to put your airplane into a small cow pasture with a failed engine, you might find that a slip is quite handy. If you’re flying a Stearman, Pitts, Great Lakes, or J-3, you’ll be slipping base to final just so that you can see where you’re going. The slip is a tool to be used when you need it. I won’t need it when I fly the Boeing, but it’s really useful in the Stearmans and Pitts that I fly.

        And that’s 21000 hours speaking.

        • Larry Coleman says:

          Already had to dead-stick to a cornfield. Didn’t have to slip. Instead, I stayed far enough ahead of the airplane that energy management wasn’t a last-second issue. Nonetheless, that’s why I introduce slips to a landing as part of simulated engine outs and that’s the only time I allow them to use them on an approach. If they’re doing work in the pattern and they have to slip, they’re wrong and I tell them that. If they want to pick up sloppy habits after they’ve got their certificate on their own, that’s their concern, but it won’t be because they weren’t taught how to fly an approach correctly during their initial training if they’re with me.

          I never said a slip wasn’t a tool that has its uses, and that isn’t the issue we’re talking about. I said that in most cases, a slip is an attempt to bail oneself out after being sloppy. In trainers, which is what those “unqualified to fly, much less teach” (as you put it) CFIs are in, there is almost never a reason to slip. A good CFI teaches their student to get the approach right in the first place. Believe me, I’ve had to do a lot of clean up work behind instructors who just let slop slide. Their students get frustrated after dozens and dozens of hours still nowhere feeling like they have no idea how to fly because they haven’t been taught to be ahead of the airplane and fly it with consistency. After months of that, many of them give up or they come to us to get it done right. The ones who do manage to muddle through with a sloppy instructor are likely to end up becoming the lazy, marginally-skilled, poorly-trained dangerous pilots this discussion is about.

  17. Pete says:

    I’d say usually it’s arrogance. Someone gets a license and he suddenly thinks he’s Bob Hoover. I knew a guy that made a lot of money then started flying at age 50. It wasn’t long before he was flying a T-6. An example of a wealthy individual that could buy anything. He ended up in a stall/spin too low to recover, killing himself and his passenger in front of a crowd of people.

    I think too that anyone that doesn’t learn to fly before age 30 never quite catches up to those that learned at 18 or 20. They’d be okay in a simple airplane, but not in something fast and slick. It takes time to build experience.

    • Wildfire says:

      Your last paragraph makes me wonder what year you got your degree in psychology and what research you base your statement on?

      There was a time when we didn’t trust anyone over 30!

  18. Mike says:

    Before and after reading the previous comments, I can sum it up (in my mind anyway) in such a way that all the listed reasons noted are included. U. S. airplanes are so reliable that one does not feel that recurrent training is necessary. And I mean more frequently than the mandated Flight Review.

  19. Will says:

    To answer the question, the age you start flying at does not make you a better pilot, traning, experience, personal comitment and attitude all play a significant roll in how good a pilot is. And generally speaking ( yes I said generally ) an older pilot does not usually have the ever burning desire to be a show off. But really its all about professionalism and our attitude towards it.

    • EJ says:

      As an old new pilot (got my private at 49, am 51 now), I think about this a lot. My wife likes to fly with me, and I look at this as a huge responsibility. After worrying about this to point of almost quitting, I can share what I did for what it’s worth. I decided that the answer was to forego some of the fun of traveling and substitute the fun of training. I found a CFI that I enjoy spending time with, got my instrument rating and continue to fly with my CFII at least once per month and usually twice. We specifically look for experience building opportunities such as real IMC, honing instrument procedures, bad crosswinds, and weather flying for business (including several very long cross countries). At my age, this additional training is getting me the experience I need to use my plane safely, and my personal risk profile will hopefully keep me from needing it. Additionally, a regular training program when decoupled from the pressure of working towards a rating or certificate allows us older guys to get the fun and sense of adventure of flying in challenging conditions, without the burden of putting people you care about at risk. Older new pilots may not have the life expectancy to rack up 25k hours, but we can still pack a lot of experience into the hours we do have if we do it intelligently.

      • Art says:

        Fantastic suggestions EJ. I am another “old” pilot in your age range. I started flying when I was a teenager (15), earned my license at 17 and was severely limited in the amount of flying I could do because of economic factors. I will soon reactivate myself and will seriously keep your suggestions in mind when I develop my new routine.

      • Ray L Rivera says:

        Awesome suggestions, EJ. I’m 55 (turning 56 in about a month) and I’m currently pursuing an instrument rating. I’m gonna borrow these tips, if you don’t mind!

      • Ken says:

        Ensuring that training is fun offers an excellent learning experience that’s often overlooked. I’d like to suggest one more that slips through the cracks now and then.
        For many years my wife flew with me as an excellent non-pilot copilot. Her sharp eyes saw traffic and she was adept at handling the charts. She knew how to engage the autopilot, turn on the landing lights, and put the gear down. But a comment she made one day made me realize something was missing: her ability to land the airplane should I become incapacitated. That led to her receiving training from a CFI in landing the airplane safely. From then on, flights were even more fun for the both of us.

    • Ace says:

      For the most part, I find the older student’s maturity level usually make them a better pilot than their younger counter parts….especially if they are primary students

  20. Charles says:

    I have my check ride on Monday and am 37. I’ve been told by the instructors here that I’m a pleasure to fly with because they don’t worry about what I’m going to do. I’ve been told this is because of my age and maturity as compared to some of the younger students. This maybe true or it could be the fact that I’ve seen combat and understand how to mitigate the risks in activities. I love my life and while I love adventure, I know my limits and understand how fast your life can end. Is it a risky pilot that will die or is it one that is complacent? Risks can be taken as long as they are calculated but a complacent pilot (or scuba diver, motorcycle rider, etc) won’t take the time or make the effort to apply the control measure to increase their safety margin. I am active in all of the above activities and more but I make a plan, have the PROPER training and stay within my limits. This something that came with age and an understanding of mortality.

  21. Liz White says:

    I agree a complacent pilot is dangerous no matter what age they are. I think a older pilot brings maturity and wisdom which a younger person might not have yet.

  22. Jack says:

    I flew with a friend several times many years ago when he needed a pilot in the light jet he flew. He was new in the aircraft and I was experienced in the specific aircraft at the time. This aircraft was his first type rating and in my opinion, he was very weak in CRM, procedures and overall jet operation skills. He had been hired because he already worked for and was good friends with the principal who owned the aircraft. He was an A&P and had his pilot ratings.

    I was concerned about his skills. Busting altitudes seemed routine with him for he had no procedures to verify altitudes and clearances. Long story short, after the second altitude bust in two flights and the accompanying NASA reports, I refused to fly with him anymore. His lackadaisical attitude after the second bust and not incorporating any recommended procedures to insure both pilots agreed with the altitude assigned, seal the deal for me.

    Fast forward a couple of years, the jet is gone and his company now has a pressurized cabin, piston twin. The flying is few an far between and after a several month break in the flying, he runs out of gas and kills himself and two passengers.

    I wonder many times if I had said more and had been more proactive if the results would have been different. However, at the time neither he nor his boss was interested in what I had to say.

    So what made him a dangerous pilot? The main thing is, he didn’t know, that he didn’t know, that he didn’t know what he was doing. He really wasn’t a true professional in the sense of the word. It was a part time endeavor for him, and I don’t think he took his responsibility serious. He was by no means malicious in what he did. I don’t think he was arrogant. He meant good, he just didn’t have ears to hear the truth.

  23. Paul Richardson says:

    Great discussion with lots of good points.
    If a person’s world view is that there is no magic and that reality must be imbraced at every level, then that person will be a safe pilot.

  24. Ace says:

    I don’t have a BIG EGO!!! I know I’m the best pilot!

    • Ken says:

      They sort pilots using ego. Those with the biggest become fighter pilots, those with a little less ego fly bombers, tankers, and airlift. The reasoning is that the fighter pilot didn’t need any affirmation he was the best. And he told us so over and over and …

  25. Ace says:

    Funny video of a helicopter pilot making fun of his fighter pilot buddies. Kinda follows the theme of Big Egos.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BzU1sYPjzo

  26. Bill says:

    I read an old Flying article describing the grossly errant inputs that supposedly result in the deadly pattern stall/spin. It seemed impossible to me that anyone was so far removed from what was my training and even more; common sense. So I asked a newly minted private pilot co-worker, “what do you do for a left wing dip near a stall?” He said, “right aileron, quickly!” I’m not a CFI but I promptly took him up in my Super Decathlon and after demonstrating the folly of his response, made him fly around near the stall with his hands above his head for a while. We also flew several spins using those errant inputs. He said it was far removed from his training and was a completely different element of flying and is forever changed. I think we have a lot of bad training getting recycled out there.

  27. John says:

    Thanks for the account. This reminds me of a C206 accident a few years ago in the midwest. A very experienced pilot (and a former State legislator, WW2 fighter pilot, entrepeneur, airport developer, and all around alpha Male) refused to acknowledge his time to stop flying had arrived. He loaded up five passengers for a short sight seeing flight around his private airport, and upon his return cartwheeled killing everyone in a ball of fire. Prior to the crash he had several auto accidents because his vision was going fast. Wet macular degeneration shows no mercy. In his case it was known that he was unfit to fly. But no one said anything. Not his family, his friends, or other pilots. Very sad. The youngest of his victims was just 2 or 3 years old.