I have been flying for the last ten years, and have always been a big fan of reading material such as what is found in Air Facts. I just discovered this website a couple weeks ago, and since then have been reading articles from the site every day. One article I came across that brought back a few memories was from November 2011: “The Great Debate: An Accident Waiting to Happen.” This article posed the question of whether we, as pilots, have a responsibility to call out others for their dangerous actions, especially if we do not know them. I think this is a difficult subject to address, partly because most pilots I know seem to have different personal interpretations of what their responsibility is to try to put a stop to a dangerous situation they see developing.
The first time I found myself in such a situation was six years ago while I was prepping for my CFI checkride. I worked for the flight school I trained with as a line attendant, so I became good friends with the instructors and the students. Occasionally, I would sit in on ground and flight lessons to learn more about instructor techniques.
The flight was to be a night cross country lesson for a private pilot student on a February night. The student happened to be a friend of mine from high school, so he had no problem with my sitting in the back of the 172 to observe his instructor.
The weather forecast (if I remember correctly) did not seem at all menacing for our route of flight from the Denver area to Colorado Springs. Like many other times in Colorado, the real picture was a bit different than the forecast. As we passed the South edge of Denver and approached Monument Pass, we started flying through light snow. The visibility dropped as expected, and it became clear that the clouds were quite a bit lower than forecast. After a few minutes, neither the instructor, nor the student mentioned anything of the deteriorating weather.
I didn’t want to speak up right away (I didn’t want to undermine the instructor, or speak up before my buddy did), but finally the worsening weather became too much of a concern to keep quiet. I told them that the weather was clearly deteriorating, and that it did not look like a safe option to continue to Colorado Springs. The instructor did not respond to me for a few minutes, so I spoke up again. About three minutes later, he agreed to turn around and head back home.
The next day at work, some of the employees seemed to think that I should have just kept my mouth shut. They reasoned that I probably did not know as much about the weather as the instructor, and that I did the wrong thing by appearing to undermine the authority of the CFI. The only person who seemed to agree with me, at least in private, was the student. After my CFI checkride, I asked the examiner what he would have done. He said, “Ben, I don’t usually like to answer a question by asking a question, but think about this: when are you ever NOT a flight instructor?” His point was that no matter the role, pilots (and especially instructors) should feel a sense of moral obligation to speak up if something hazardous is unfolding.
The next case happened about four months later, when I was now a very young instructor with just a few hours of dual given. A pilot stopped by the FBO to see if anyone could give him a flight review. I of course jumped at every opportunity I could to put my new CFI license to use, and we set up a time for the flight review about a week later. I had never met the pilot before, as he based his airplane at another nearby airport. He agreed to fly his airplane to the airport where I was based for the flight review.
During the ground portion of the review, it was apparent that this pilot was rusty. Our airports both are underneath the outer shelf of the Denver Class B, and he did not even know that this airspace was designated as Class B. We eventually did end up flying, and he was much better with regard to flying than the aeronautical knowledge displayed during the ground lesson. During the debrief, I asked him to self-critique his performance. He acknowledged that he needed to study more and brush up on some things he clearly hadn’t thought about for a few years. I agreed, and told him that we would have to do some more ground instruction before I would sign off the flight review.
When I opened his log book, I realized I made a big mistake by not looking through his logbook before the lesson started. He had not completed a flight review for roughly four years, and had been flying frequently for the past two years without a current flight review. I asked him if he was legal to be flying without a current flight review and he answered “no,” but that he was flying anyway. I told him that this was unacceptable, and that we certainly would need to do much more training before I would feel safe that he would not be flying around violating other regulations. I told him that he should call someone to get a ride back to his home airport, and to leave his airplane tied down at our airport. He told me that he did not want to continue any training with me, then he hopped in his airplane and flew back to his home base.
As a young instructor, I wasn’t quite sure how to handle this situation. Should I call the FSDO and report him? The company owner, the chief pilot, two other CFIs, and I discussed the situation for a few hours. The group consensus was that I should not call the FSDO. One CFI friend of mine said that we, as instructors don’t need to act as whistle-blowers. The owner mentioned how in the past he had reported pilots to the FSDO who were blatantly violating rules, and that nothing ever came of it. I made it very clear to the student that his ADM was unacceptable, and they reasoned that this was really all that I could do. To this day, I still don’t know if I made the right choice.
It is tough to call out others when we see a potentially hazardous situation unfolding. I believe pilots need a certain amount of ego to have the required self-confidence and assertiveness to fly safely. I also strongly believe this ego and pride can get in the way of listening to another pilot call you out on something they see that is wrong. Most folks don’t enjoy being told they need to stop and reconsider what they are about to do, especially if it is related to flying.
At the end of the day, I have to agree with my CFI examiner, that pilots DO have the obligation to speak up if we see a hazardous situation developing. It might just save someone’s life.