Confessions of a timid pilot

Intelligence vs. judgment

I consider myself to be a timid pilot. While not a newbie, at just over 500 hours total time, I certainly don’t consider myself to be “seasoned” either, because much of that time was spent getting every rating under the sun under the watchful eye of my trusted instructor. A little better than a year and a half ago, after my 14th year of flying, I bought my first airplane. It wasn’t that I thought I was going to fly any more for owning one but, having exercised the local rental fleet, I decided that, because I am timid, I wanted to know what airplane I’m in, every time I’m in it. I wanted reliable prior history, so that I could be confidently safe when I flew my family to the beach.

I found that exact airplane in November 2014: a 1979 Cessna 182RG. I had had dozens of hours in the same year make and model that was owned by a close family friend. She was in beautiful shape, comfortable, quick, efficient, and, while I didn’t know the prior owner, I did know his instructors. They were mine as well, so I learned through them that he was just the pilot I wanted to be. SOLD! My flying life would never be the same again.

Cessna 182RG
A Cessna 182RG is a solid airplane, but a little timidity can still pay off.

Recently prior to a flight, I found myself performing my preflight next to a notorious “doctor killer” or so I thought. So as I circled my airplane in a counter-clockwise direction, I pondered that term; after all, I thought doctors must be pretty intelligent if they can get through medical school. Truthfully, we all must have some root intellectual high water mark to get a pilot’s license to begin with, right? It was an expensive airplane so only doctors could afford it? But I’ve read that article by Richard Collins that proved it was no more a “killer” than anything any of the rest of us common folk fly. And then it struck me.

“Baggage Door – CHECK”

“Rudder Gust Lock – REMOVE”

“Tail Tie-Down – “DISCONNECT”

Control Surfaces – “CHECK”

This was 1979 speak, but if I’d been texting this to you in 2016, you’d scold me for yelling at you. None of these things take any advanced intelligence to determine. Sure, they are capitalized for emphasis I guess, to MAKE you look, but in the end, the baggage door is either open or closed; the tail rope is either tied or not. A preflight is pretty binary by nature. You’ve either got eight quarts of oil or not. It’s pretty simple. So, that’s not what’s killing pilots.

What’s killing us is poor judgment.

Obviously a whole bunch of intelligent pilots have died as a result of poor judgment. There are probably a ton of geniuses in prison who just exercised poor judgment. Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) is supposed to be the catch-all phrase that presents the roadmap to prevent poor judgment. But is it really working?

I continued my preflight as the other pilot smiled and waved, then taxied out and departed Runway 32 and turned to the southeast. Had I been going to the beach that day, I would have done the same thing, but I sat at the yoke with the doors open on a hot and perfectly blue day, and decided not to go. Why? Because I was timid.

The current weather at Richmond International Airport (RIC) was clear below 12,000, but my iPad showed that the METARs at Dare County Regional Airport (MQI), while still VFR and overcast at 6000, were showing a consistently lowering overcast over the last four reports: 10,000, 8000, 7000, 6000. Would it be VFR by the time I got there? Maybe… maybe not. Sure I’m instrument current, but is that good enough? Maybe… maybe not. It’s legal, but legal isn’t always smart. So, with full tanks I taxied back to the hangar and, after some light ribbing from my flip-flop-wearing buddy who questioned my judgment on such a perfect day, we heaved her back into the hangar and went to Hardee’s up the street.

About an hour later, we came back to the airport to get our stuff out of the plane and head home. As the security gate closed behind us and I drove toward my hangar, I was surprised to find that same airplane that had left ahead of us coming up the hangar row next to ours. He shut down, climbed out, shook his head at us, and walked back into his hangar to open the door. Overcome with curiosity I had to ask, so I drove down to him, hopped out, and offered to help push his airplane back.

“Where were you headed?” I asked.

“First Flight [Airport],” he responded.

“Oh yeah? We were going to Manteo. We were going to fish tonight, but I…” I started.

“But we bailed out,” my partner offered.

“Good thing,” he replied. “There’s a wall of clouds just southeast of Richmond, all the way to the ground, so I turned around. At least you saved the gas.”

I winked at my buddy.

Instrument approach from cockpit
You’re legal to fly instrument approaches, but are you comfortable?

Part of being timid for me has always been that it has never been hard to talk myself out of a flight, and exceptionally hard to talk myself into one. Because I don’t fly that much, those parameters are pretty firm. At this point, I’m not afraid of a little IMC between a VFR departure and VFR arrival. I always file an instrument flight plan regardless of the weather on the off chance that this would happen.

As we’ve moved more into summer and my flight hours pick up, I’ll fly in good-to-marginal weather if, and only if, I’m flying from what might be considered marginal into weather that’s good at the other end. The last level for me is to fly IMC the whole route and shoot a decent approach at the other end, but I honestly have never amassed enough consistent flying hours to make that happen, at least not in my own personal judgment. My own personal minimums tell me that if, during the course of a year, I’m flying so little that I am not legal to carry VFR passengers by day, the whole clock starts over. I’m going for a voluntary Flight Review and IPC. Night flying is another story, simply because it’s so difficult to maintain night currency with my life as a single dad.

Since that day it’s done nothing but rain here in Virginia. I’m still current, but not particularly comfortable, so I read the AIM, watch YouTube videos on how to land an airplane, re-read my POH, whatever it takes to keep my head in the game until I can pull her out of the hangar again. I see it as a way to keep polishing my gem of good judgment.

You may be wondering why I’m such a timid pilot after all. Well, the answer to that is hidden on my hard drive someplace. It’s a letter to Richard Collins I never sent, but my life in aviation, unlike probably anyone else’s, began on June 23, 2000, as the result of poor judgment; not mine, but I was a close-up witness to someone else’s. And while my buddy had to change out of his flip flops that morning, I’d quietly submit that he’s unknowingly happier for it. While yes, I’m intelligent enough to fly the plane, in the end, he benefitted from my better judgment.

15 Comments

  • I never understood people who fly like this. Surely there has to be a happy medium between being timid and overly bold? Could you tell us more about what happened and the somebody-else bad judgement?

  • This is doggone well written. Despite being a CFII MEL, this describes me to a T. I have RARELY been in a sticky situation- that is not an accident. I’ve seen others takeoff and return fine when I wouldn’t go, but I’m still here with a clean record.

  • Charles, you may be timid but you are still alive, your bird is in one piece, and you still fly it when you are comfortable. Some could say the same about me because my wife and I have decided to stay VFR only and have committed to it. You are actually in a better position than me because you have the IFR rating and can use it when you want.

    I have a suggestion for you if you are interested. I read somewhere an article about keeping IFR current and the idea was to intentionally seek out IMC weather that meets the criteria for VFR landings, then fly a round robin IFR in IMC conditions. If the ceiling is stable at 1500 feet or so in your area, you could safely drop out of IMC weather as a backup if you need to. When you become more comfortable look for ceilings at 1000 feet go again and fly the approaches. Then drop the ceiling to 800, then 600, then 500.
    Here in Virginia we have plenty of days that could meet your criteria what ever it might be.

    Have FUN! Fly SAFE! And don’t apologize for being timid!

  • Nicely written. I, too, am a timid pilot. In contrast to my partner, who would go anywhere at the drop of a hat. Too bad, I’m the one who’s current and he’s not, so he only goes when I’m ready to. A recent job change has increased my flying frequency, and has raised my personal minimums, but I still make the conservitive choice when given the option. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.

  • When I was flying the Aeronca Chief, I scrubbed a flight one day for weather reasons. A lineman commented that “You only fly in perfect weather.” My response was, “Yep. I fly for fun. When weather threatens to make it into work, I go do something else.” A 900 lb airplane without instrument capability is not the machine to take up on a 20 knot wind day, or when ceilings are low and variable. Charles, I think “timid” is not the right term for you. The timid never get a pilot’s license, fly solo, or buy airplanes! But there are degrees of carefulness among pilots, and you lie on the side of “more careful.” We all have our tales of what can happen to the “less careful.”

  • Being the timid type pilot is no shame. Flying as described on an IFR flight plan in good weather is probably about the safest flying currently possible; the only way to be safer would be to ride the airlines or sit in a library and read about flying. However, if one is willing to ratchet the risk lever up a bit, there is much satisfaction that can be had. Flying through some weather and seeing the runway appear, as advertised, for the completion of a needed trip does fill one with a sense of satisfaction that can only be had by actually doing it. But everyone has their own acceptable risk levels and it shouldn’t be any other way.

  • You have obviously heard, and benefit from, the old saw, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. My definition of a bold pilot is one who flies into a condition (any condition; not just a weather condition) that he shouldn’t. There are so many ways for you or your passengers to end up injured or dead on a flight that we must be constantly alert to ourselves (e.g., how do I feel today), the airplane (everything working?), the demands the flight will put on the pilot and the passengers (a screaming passenger is not a good thing), the weather, and probably several other things. So, good for you being “timid”. Just realize it applies to more than just the weather.

  • I still disagree with the premise but perhaps it is just his wording. Cautious is avoiding risk. Timid is lacking self-confidence as a result of lack of competence. Perhaps this should be “confessions of a cautious pilot” which is great. Cautious pilots are excellent, “timid” pilots should just stay on the ground and not be celebrated.

    To the article writer – did one of your friends die in a crash? Can you tell us more about the roots of the timidness?

  • I would have done differently than the author in this circumstance. Heck, if the weather is OK at the departure airport, and the purpose of the flight was recreational anyway, the airplane was ready to fly. Never waste a trip to the airport, in my opinion. So take off and do a little local flying clost to the airport, do some slow flight, do a few stalls and steep turns. Go back to the airport and do some touch’n goes and some spot landing practice, try landings in various configurations of flaps, or cross wind landings. That’s all good stuff to do, which all too many pilots never do it except during a biennial, and it makes one a better pilot.

    “Timidity” is not a good thing in pilots or much of anything in life. Being careful, of course, is good. Better yet is making informed risk management decisions.

    Even if you arrive at the airport and the local weather is bad, spend a little TLC on your airplane, doing something that you’ve been putting off for too long.

    And never waste a trip to the airport!

  • Thats not “timid”, that’s smart, it’s not every pilot who realizes their own abilities, and choses not to go…kudos to you!! We need more pilots out there like you…

  • But let’s then call it what it is, good judgment. I just don’t think we need to celebrate somebody NOT being able to do something, like fly an approach despite being instrument rated and current, and a commercial pilot at that. That is probably too timid. Not trying to be mean and very respectfully but please ask yourself why you feel so unconfident if you are cancelling a lot? I certainly would ask myself that!

  • This is probably not politically correct to say, but a friend of mine once told me, “You fly like an old woman.” Sadly, and shortly after making that statement, he was killed, taking someone with him, while flying low-level aerobatics in a 150 aerobat. He had completed a 5-hour course in basic aerobatics, and was over confident. I still fly “like an old woman,” but I’m still here, over 20 years later. Still flying; still cautious. Caution, and knowing your own limitations, is essential.

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