An accident waiting to happen – when should you speak up?

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.

Radar image
Keep your mouth shut or let the pilot know you’re nervous about the weather?

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.

Pilot in cockpit with instructor
Instructors have a special responsibility to speak up.

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.

44 Comments

  • Ben – Thanks for your interesting post and the question that you pose, re: when to speak up. I approach this issue of what to do when we see a pilot doing something unsafe per the following personal guidelines:

    1) If your butt is sitting onboard the aircraft, then absolutely everything the PIC does or doesn’t do is subject to being questioned IF it poses a significant risk to your butt. That’s up to and including requesting that the flight be terminated, or better yet, not even going wheels-up if it’s a matter of the pilot’s go-no go weather decision or his/her preflight preparations or the airworthiness of the aircraft. There’s been a time or two I didn’t speak up to simply say “no go” and then afterward I kicked myself for not speaking up. If you’re on board, YOU will pay the price of the pilot’s bad decisions.

    However, that doesn’t entitle every passenger to become an unwelcome “back seat driver” or unpaid flight instructor on matters of personal technique, or to constantly harangue the PIC with unsolicited advice and commentary on his or her flying skills. Use common sense and a notion of how you’d like your passengers to treat you, be respectful, and act accordingly.

    2) If you simply see or hear of a pilot doing unsafe things, talk to him or her about it. You cannot make them listen, but if you say something, you’ve done all you can do. Just ask yourself, if you’re making a significant mistake on a matter of flying safety, wouldn’t you want someone else to help you out and avoid a bad outcome? I would.

    3) Do not report other pilots to the FAA simply for violating FARs .. we all violate FARs, it is practically impossible NOT to violate one or a bunch of different FARs every single time we fly.

    4) But if a pilot is doing something that clearly endangers the safety of others or endangers the aviation rights of our fellow pilots, then call it in. For example, if you know a pilot is buzzing homes in the area, call the FAA and report him or her. If he or she crashes and burns it may hurt or kill innocents on the ground, and that pilot definitely creates a very bad public image for all light aircraft pilots, which is the last thing we need when we’re trying to keep our privileges operable and our airports open.

    Some situations are not clear-cut, as in your example of the rusty pilot who had ignored the requirement for a BFR. Rather than reporting him to the FSDO, maybe you could find out the name of a local instructor or flight service at his base airport, or the CFI who previously signed him off, and suggest that he or she give the guy a friendly call to suggest they go flying.

    Maybe the sugar will catch the fly better than the vinegar (“You’re violating the FAR!”).

  • You’re alive to tell about it. If you’d kept your thoughts to yourself we might never know… Thanks. Bruised egos will recover (even if they don’t everyone is still alive).

  • Here’s the key: “After a few minutes, neither the instructor, nor the student mentioned anything of the deteriorating weather.” Two problems in play:
    1. The student hasn’t taken mental possession of being the pilot – s/he’s relying on the presence of the instructor, to ensure safety and to make unspoken in-flight decisions. Silence is interpreted to mean approval.
    2. The instructor either is unaware of this ( ! ) or simply doesn’t think that it’s a problem ( !!!).

    The instructor should be conducting a running dialogue with the student. Example: “What would you estimate our in-flight visibility to be today? How high to you think the cloud bases are over there? How do you come up with your estimates?” (See FARs.) Hopefully ( ? ) the student will realize and verbalize the difference between forecast WX and observed conditions. An explanation of his/her thought process regarding continued/altered flight should be solicited, if it isn’t offered. The instructor can and should offer insights, but the objective should be to analyze the student’s in-flight decision-making process – not to substitute the instructor’s for the student’s. It sounds like there wasn’t much instruction going on up front. THAT’s a problem.

    As a back-seat third party, you fell victim to this unfortunate dynamic – right up to the point where you apparently became uncertain about the instructor’s judgement and abilities in the situation. Then your concern became safety versus etiquette. Another problem.

    ****

    “When I opened his log book, I realized I made a big mistake by not looking through his logbook before the lesson started.” Lesson learned – I hope. Whenever flying with a pilot for the first time, you should start with an assessment of their flying experience and preferences – and their logbook is as good a place as any to start a getting-to-know-you conversation.

    ****

    Regarding some general obligation to speak up… you may be conflating objective with means. If safety is your goal, you need to decide – on a case-by-case basis – what available action on your part will best improve safety. Simply verbalizing your concerns isn’t always the only – or the best – available course of action. Engagement can work wonders, but it doesn’t always come easily. Who knew that instructing could be so hard? 😉

    Congrats of your USAF achievements. Maintaining an appreciation for the differences between professional and amateur pilots will make you a more effective flight instructor. Best wishes!.

    • Hi Tom,

      Thank you for the comments. You are absolutely right, that second instance with the flight review student taught me a good lesson. I had made a point as always with students to get to know him and discuss his flying experience, etc., but I certainly made a mistake by not also looking through his logbook prior to the lesson. That lesson learned certainly stuck with my throughout the rest of the time I was instructing!

  • Very difficult and of course judgemental in outlook. Of course the priority for the those involved and with whom you discussed the second instance was to preserve a balance but I am not sure of what. It the first example I may have elected to speak to the erstwhile “instructor” one to one without the student present. The judgement the instructor didn’t make in my view merited you speaking up even with only three involved. As to the second there were were vastly more people at risk than the errant pilot. Although you had your employer/employment to consider, I assume you were “at work” when the situation arose. Is it not the case that this guy was a danger to himself and anyone who in his vicinity on the ground and in the air. The reasons he was struggling to find certification went further than breaking a rule he was committing fraud and had dragged you along. I don’t think I would have been sympathetic especially with the way he commented and then climbed aboard his aircraft.

  • Ben,

    Thank you for sharing your story, it’s an important discussion. The comments are spot-on: if your life is at risk, not saying something would be stupid. I’ve finally grown out of worrying what other people think of me when bringing up safety issues that could affect my survival (many taxi drivers will attest to this, ie, “Get OFF the phone!”).

    One time, I was sitting in the back seat while a demo pilot was showing my boss how this new turbocharged airplane could climb to 25,000 feet. He only mentioned that there were just two oxygen masks after we were climbing through 10,000 feet, and that my boss and I could share the masks. I thought about it for a few minutes and finally gathered the courage to tell them that this wasn’t safe and we needed to stay below 12,000 feet. Disappointed, they eventually agreed.

    Part of the problem, of course, is our own willingness to listen when others point out that we’re about to do something stupid. I’m grateful for the far-more-experienced pilot who warned me to stop and rest during a delivery flight westbound through El Paso. I landed in the late afternoon, and was thinking about continuing west to Tucson, but it would have been dark soon, and it was very windy, with big dust clouds obscuring the mountains. Luckily I mentioned my plan out loud, and the experienced pilot who overheard me suggested that this might not be a good idea. I thought about it, and spent the night in El Paso, well rested so I could take off very early in the morning and avoid the ensuing dust storms, which kicked up even earlier that day.

  • Doing the right thing isn’t always easy. The way I approach these situations is to ask myself how I would feel if I didn’t speak up and an incident happened. I would rather not have a friend because he or she took my comments personally or they think I’m a jerk, then not have a friend because they died in an accident. However, discussing the issues with the person is one thing, reporting to a FSDO is an extreme reaction that should be avoided except in the most egregious situations.

    As for the BFR, I have learned the hard way that before accepting to do a BFR with a pilot that I don’t know: “Since I’ve never flown with you before, it may take several flights in varying conditions before I feel comfortable to sign you off. If your not OK with that I don’t think I’m the instructor for you.”

  • The first option should always be to ask the pilot a question, rather than to make an unsolicited statement. This most frequently results in both an answer and a physical response. I realize there are sometimes situations that merit something stronger than a question . . .

    Years ago, I had hired another Alaska commercial pilot to fly one of my clients and me to a remote lake for a caribou hunt. Same day fly-and-shoot was legal in those days.

    After the successful hunt, and after the float-equipped Cessna 180 had been loaded up and warmed up for the takeoff, our pilot, a definitely experienced hand, had made two takeoff runs without becoming airborne. Yes, the Cessna was heavily loaded, but I knew it should make it off the small lake we were on. I also knew that the pilot had made his first two tries with the carburetor heater in the “ON” position. When the third takeoff attempt was started, I just reached up and pushed the carb heat control full in. Neither the pilot nor I made any comment, and the takeoff was completed successfully.

    A few years later, the same pilot flew into the Chugach Mountains during a routine instrument takeoff from Anchorage International Airport. I’ve often wondered what he forget that time ………. ?

  • Ben, your article was a perfectly timed release!

    This past weekend, my buddy was flying left seat as PIC during a NIGHT landing while I was sitting in the right.

    When he was transitioning to flare, I observed his nose-down attitude and increasing descent-rate which would’ve potentially damaged the nose-wheel upon impact with the runway or worse… a prop-strike.

    At supersonic speed, I thought about how to handle a potentially damaging event as we approached the runway’s surface without dissing the PIC.

    I concluded with, DO IT and deal with egos later… so I firmly pulled the yoke rearward forcing a nose up attitude averting a massive maintenance invoice!

    In the end while the airplane was being tied down, I was appreciated by the PIC for my instantaneous intervention. He understood what happened and thanked me.

    If a situation is unraveling and heading to a bad space, especially if you’re strapped into the ride, say something and DO something… I did! From now on, I always will.

    If a pilot’s attitude is so infantile and unable to accept positive intervention or a constructive de-brief, then he/she shouldn’t be flying, driving, sailing, operating heavy-machinery, working with power-tools, etc.

    • Just another…

      Your call was right on. Probably the PIC did not realize the bad situation and you saved him from having an accident in his flying history.

      To sit there while things are going down hill reminds me of the pre-CRM days when everyone in the crew of airliners kept their mouths shut, no matter what. That attitude gave aviation the Tenerife crash.

  • Ben:

    I very much appreciate your article.

    I became very interested in this topic when I ran across an accident report of a C206 that cartwheeled in a landing gone wrong at an private airport in Fremont, Ohio. The 86 year old, commercial and CFII pilot, a very accomplished, well respected member of the community also had advanced wet macular degeneration (and was nearly blind). According to the NTSB Factual report the plane crashed on June 8, 2008, about 1256 eastern daylight time. The pilot was providing rides during a scheduled Lions Club “fly-in breakfast” at the airport at the time of the accident. The pilot and five passengers were fatally injured. See http://www.ntsb.gov, accident report CHI08FA156. In this accident there were plenty of people who were aware of the pilot’s infirmities. A pilot arriving at the airport shortly before the accident complained to others that he experienced a near midair with the accident pilot. The accident pilot employed a radical maneuver he called the “buttonhook turn” known to local pilots and to his family. In the “buttonhook turn” he made a steep, sharp bank immediately over the airport and plunked the plane on the runway. The accident had also been cautioned against driving because of his medical condition and was involved in an accident just weeks prior to his fatal crash when he pulled out onto a highway into traffic. His family said nothing, local pilots said nothing. Even his AME was complicit. Since then I’ve found reports in the NTSB files of pilots flying with the flu, pilots with Alzheimer’s, pilots on drugs, and even pilots with pace makers (the kind that will administer a defibrillation shock if needed). Sadly, all of these reports involved fatalities. Many of the deceased were friends or casual acquaintances who were not aware of the accident pilot’s disease or drug habit.

    I think we do have an obligation to speak up when a serious health issue or other problem that could endanger others is evident. A quiet word to the pilot is a great first step. I guess beyond that, generalizing the ‘best’ approach is tough. It depends on the pilot, the situation, how close we are to the pilot, etc. Again, I think you nailed it: “…pilots DO have the obligation to speak up if we see a hazardous situation developing. It might just save someone’s life.”

  • Good posts…. A pilot (or even a knowledgable passenger) should say something at the very FIRST time of any impending trouble… and that is part of a briefing item…. BEFORE the flight.

    If you don’t want to sound like a jerk, it’s just easy to say. ” how does the weather look to you ahead?”…. or “I’m seeing some reduced visibility up there, what do you think?” Give the pilot a chance to assess the situation and hopefully make a save decision.

    When it becomes life threatening, then you have to get REAL vocal and insist.

    (Assume the above situation didn’t have IFR capabilities, which would have solved the problem).

    As for calling the FEDS, I agree, only as an absolute last resort.

    For the above pilot to fly home, with the info given, he seemed safe… he could handle the plane fine, and there was probably no risk to people below.

    There was no fraud, or lying according to the story, just a FAR violation. And there’s lots of FAR violations that are non issues, like a medical a few months overdue, or a VOR check not done this period, etc. that really don’t contribute to an accident. However, it may show a disregard for regulations, which as much as we often hate, must abide by them.

  • Most comments are addressing the first scenario, which presents a more obvious flight safety risk. Sorry what may seem like a lecture to some, but here are my thoughts on the second “no BFR” scenario.

    We all share an obligation to fly in compliance with established rules and regulations. I don’t think “No matter…We all violate FAR’s” is an acceptable standard, nor is the looks like what could easily become a “FAA/FSDO/FAR’s is just a regrettable bother” attitude. Sorry if those words don’t sum up perfectly or are a bit blunt. Please take the spirit instead of fussing over words.

    Both these views are a slippery slope that does not match the responsibilities of shared air space, and passenger safety. Since when is knowledge of airspace not a flight safety issue?

    At 65 years of age, I have learned that looking the other way and saying nothing is not a sign of a true friendship. Seems that applies to this non-current pilot scenario as well.

    Why not tell the errant non-current pilot in a brief followup…”Flying without a current BFR is unacceptable. Please obtain your BFR within 14 days and send me a scan of the sign off or I will advise the FSDO.”? This is a win-win option. Saves face for the pilot while properly fulfilling the duties as a CFI in the face of an obvious violation.

    You won’t win a popularity contest. But being liked is not the most important virtue in life. If you don’t know, then you have no responsibility for what follows. But once you know, trying to convince yourself that you have no forward responsibilities may work for some, but not for me.

    RMM

    • RM,
      You make a good point regarding FARs. However, they have become so complicated and confusing, there’s just no way a pilot can avoid busing one or several. I really wouldn’t get too anal about compliance with some… as they are just a solution for no problem. (like the flight physical). I had a friend that flew for several years without one, only because of a silly issue that was a non threat, and the bureaucracy one has to go through to get it solved. It’s just nuts. He was more health and sharp that 90% of us. And, no, he didn’t intentionally bust other FARs. There’s hundreds more.

      And, the FAA is NOT our friend. For every good guy there, you’ll find a jerk… maybe more. It’s just that way in government. (and yes, I was one of them at one time, and just could put up with the lying, cheating and the way they totally mistreated their customer, the pilot and mechanic. I quit it was so bad)

      I do agree that we should try to be compliant. But more than that, we should strive for safety. That’s the single most important thing.

      As for your suggestion on dealing with the out of BFR pilot, good one.

    • Great points, RMM. I agree, the “We all violate FARs & FSDOs don’t do anything” attitude is being dismissive.
      *
      In my opinion, the “BFR Buster” wasn’t a flat-tire because of not complying with a “rule”, he was problematic because of his inappropriate attitude in general.
      *
      He was disrespectful to the CFI who was concerned for BFR dude’s safety, inconsiderate of fellow pilots, and ultimately a danger to himself.

      • …and responsibility to his passengers and general aviation. It’s a tough call and even action by the FSDO probably would not change his attitude toward flying safely, knowledgeably and legally. Sad.

    • As the one who wrote above, “don’t report pilots for merely violating FARs … we ALL violate FARs”, I will take great issue with your rebuttal, which is definitely an example of the “holier than thou” or “self-righteous” attitude that I don’t abide by, nor do most folks abide by it here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

      No human being can exist in America today with violating, knowingly or unknowingly, dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of government regulations every year. That goes for pilots too. Acknowledging that our Federal government over-regulates to an extreme degree the practice of flying is to acknowledge reality in America today. Which is why our own Congress has seen fit to start enacting laws that defang at least some of the FAA’s inordinate effort to over-regulate general aviation to its eventual demise.

      I could go into extreme detail here, but just one example will suffice.

      As pilots we are all required by FARs to make ourselves knowledgeable of ALL applicable NOTAMs. Which is an impossible task, as the typical list of NOTAMs for even any single airport can run into many, perhaps a dozen or more NOTAMs, and therefore any cross country flight briefing overflying dozens of airports certainly WILL elicit dozens of mostly useless NOTAMs. We all know that the overload of useless NOTAMs actually discourages pilots from familiarizing themselves with the NOTAMs that actually matter to the safety of their flights. Virtually every general aviation writer and expert and even Congressmen in the GA caucus has noted and bemoaned the totally useless and counterproductive NOTAM system that virtually forces all of us pilots to violate the FAR every time we fly cross-country.

      Indeed, that very situation is what was the proximate cause for the passage of the Pilots Bill of Rights law a few years ago.

      There are many other examples, of course. Whether a pilot has or should have a BFR or not, and whether the BFR makes a hill of beans difference to the safety of any given pilot or not, is a matter of considerable debate and it depends not on the letter of the law but on the particulars of the pilots and their instructors. One hour of flight instruction delivered every two years, which is all too often delivered by a disinterested CFI whose main interest is in getting paid and padding his or her logbook is NOT an aid to our flying safety. Ditto with the third class medical, which is also a huge waste of time and money. I can go on and on.

      I do get a BFR as required, and I look forward to it every time. I value the learning I get from the dual instruction, but I am very selective about the CFI who administers the BFR, and we together are explicit about what we expect to achieve in each session. My last BFR, just a month or so ago, was about double the length of that required by FAR, and not because the government told me to do it, but because I and my hand-selected CFR determined what amount of instruction was appropriate for me at this time.

      Now, if you want to play informer or “snitch” with respect your fellow pilots for their violations of dozens of useless and stupid and oftentimes counter productive over-regulations, without regard to actual safety implications, then that is your right as an American. In that case, then, I hope that someone violates you too because you are guilty of violations too.

      Now, back in the real world, there are indeed unsafe pilots who need to be counseled, and if needed, when they pose a clear danger to themselves and others, we may need to report them to the FAA. Not because of a technical violation of a FAR, but because they are unsafe pilots and endangering others.

      But no, we should NOT violate a fellow pilot for a technical violation of the FARs, such as for being overdue on their BFR.

  • Thanks Steve..
    My focus was fully on safety. But I also urged due care to fundamentals of ADM and potential attitude problems. We do as we are taught. Attitudes are contagious. Busting through a cloud make work for some but not for others.

    I understand the “FAA is not your friend” perspective. But that attitude should never impinge on the safety of others. FAR’s by far and large are there for good reasons. I am sure you agree. That said, we should not conflate FAA personnel with the FAR’s. Self regulation rests with all of us.

    Thanks again.
    Regards
    RMM

    • RMM,
      Very well put, clearly, safety should be the first priority. If the flight can’t be operated safely, or we “think” we can make it… it should be cancelled or diverted. And, I agree, just because a lot of us don’t like the FAA, that is not a reason to diminish safety one bit. And, it’s really a shame that there’s a lot of FAA folks that could give a *hit about safety and are only hell bent on exercising their power and improving their position.

      I also like the comment about briefing safety and when someone should speak up on the flight. A good pilot will encourage input from another pilot. Now, the other pilot could be wrong, but up to the captain to comfortably convince him otherwise, or go to plan B. Same with passengers, at times.

      Now, for a crew member, I’ve always briefed the mantra that if either pilot is concerned about safety, we will go with the most conservative and debrief later. I’ve been in that spot many times, and sometimes it was not necessary to divert, but the one time that prevents an accident is worth all of the false alarms.

      Also, I’m lucky to often fly with my girlfriend, who is also a pilot, and we have a great and comfortable crew concept (in writing and we practice it), and has paid off handsomely with absolutely no issues for many years of flying, even through emergencies. We have never had an incident, been in a severe thunderstorm, carried more ice than we could handle, or ever been scared to the point we weren’t sure about survival. And that’s with over 25000 hours, all over North America, and successful completion of 97%. Good enough for me.

      ( but a still don’t like the FAA)

  • This article hit a nerve with me, recalling past events when I was glad to have spoken out and others where I regretted staying silent. It is always a judgement call but if your life is at risk due to events unfolding before your eyes there really is no debate – speak out early and loudly – better to look foolish than wind up as another statistic. My two notable events: 1) the first was flying as a passenger in a Twin Beech D18S, always a handful even for a sober pilot – the problem was that in this case the pilot was completely smashed, holding onto the mechanic to support him on the way to the plane. With no hesitation, sensing my impending demise, I marched into the airport (Inuvik, NWT) and reported the situation – result was one pilot stripped of his license on the spot and put on the first plane south: 2) again a passenger sitting just behind the pilot in a Twin Otter on wheel skis – we had just departed our ice camp 800 miles from the North Pole. He was considered one of the best bush pilots in the Canadian North, tens of thousands of hours – only this day he had been flying for over 12 hours and was clearly pretty beat. On final I noticed the red warning light on the panel indicating skis in the down position – and we were about to land on a gravel runway bare of snow! For some reason, I elected to say nothing, deferring to his seniority and reputation – the result was the shortest landing roll ever witnessed, from 75 knots to zero in about 100 feet. No major damage done and a somewhat sheepish pilot but it taught me a lesson – don’t be shy!!

  • Thank-you for bringing this very important (but often difficult) subject “out of the closet” in a public forum (great article!) I have been an FAA Safety Counselor (now FAAST) for many years and I end every presentation: “Friends don’t let friends fly stupid!” We owe it to our collective public appearance and future survival as general aviation pilots to police our own brethren and cut down on preventable accidents.

    I believe the nature of our passionate pursuit and respect for personal freedom often keeps pilots from coming forward when a situation may be clearly unsafe and dangerous. I personally brief all my passengers and friends to advocate for safety if they ever see *me* doing something questionable. As a DPE we are thought to have super powers….not! I firmly believe our GA safety record would improve dramatically if we all were more bold and advocated (carefully but firmly) in cases questionable operations. This CRM initiative dramatically improved all two-person crew operations. I would urge all pilots to protect our freedom to fly by pilots to get on board and advocate (gently but firmly) for safety when you see a clear problem.

  • Ben–

    A line that I have used to get someone’s attention is, “You know, I just don’t feel comfortable with the current situation. I would really prefer to be on the ground.” That puts the onus on me without criticizing. A considerate pilot will accommodate. If he doesn’t, then I can get stronger with my comments. If that does not work, I probably won’t fly with that person again.

  • Good way to make a non-aggressive call to ‘do something different if a passenger or crew member. I agree that’s preferred over confrontation if the soft glove works. Unfortunately, allowing the flight to continue may not be a good option. IMHO, if the flying pilot refuses to address the safety of flight issue it’s a very tense situation, and followup with a fsdo complaint is foregone.

    Fwiw, the pilot of the cartwheeled C206 was a habitual FAR buster. Lying on his medical was just the first stone on the graves of his passengers.

  • Very good article, Ben. It is a tough call, whether to rat on an errant pilot, or just counsel him, or say nothing at all. In your first example, I agree with your speaking up. In your second, I like the suggestion that you might give him a pass but a limited time in which to either have his FR or you would report him, but I doubt I would report him otherwise–but that’s me.

    I’ve always been reticent to contact the FAA, but I have done that twice in 43 years of flying, both times involving pilots who were clearly so unsafe that I could see tragedy in the future. Both were thereafter “invited” for 709 rides; one voluntarily surrendered his certificate (he had sufficiently scared himself) and the other refused, so his certificate was taken–I don’t know whether he tried to contest that.

    But there have been other events, in which I contacted a FAAST counselor to discuss the situation with the pilot:

    One was a Cherokee pilot who had flown from Jackson, WY, at night by following the traffic on highways because he’d forgotten how to use VORs, and because his handheld GPS had quit when its batteries ran out. He and his wife landed at the old Fort Collins Downtown airport with so little gas in the tanks that I could not see any with a flashlight.

    Another was a 15,000 hour airline pilot giving instruction in a 172 who was hot-dogging in the pattern, using an estimated 300′ TPA to shorten the circuit and landing right behind any traffic ahead of him before it had cleared the runway. I first confronted him and told him I thought what he was doing was unsafe. At first he was belligerent and claimed he wasn’t being unsafe or violating any FARs, but he calmed down when I told him I had been known to report unsafe practices to the FAA (the two I mentioned above–I didn’t tell him about them or that there were only those two). That day, he stopped his unsafe flying (I suspect he thought I’d be watching), but I thought it best to contact the FAAST representative anyway, due to the FAR violations I’d seen.

    But most of the time, when I’ve seen potentially unsafe piloting or minor violations of the FARs, I’ve just spoken to the pilot about my concerns, while trying to be diplomatic. That seems to have worked pretty well. Every situation is different, though, and it’s always a tough decision.

    • It strikes me that each of us pilots has an obligation and responsibility to correct bad flying any way that we can. Every crash reflect poorly on us all. Each pilot who flies in violation of regulations or exercises poor judgement risks himself, his passengers and in some cases people on the ground. In industry the axiom is that everyone is a safety officer. We should not and cannot ignore poor, illegal flying.

  • At our airport we had a pilot who flew a new Cirrus for business. He would fly in low-viz comditions, on the verge of VFR, without clearance or an instrument rating; take off downwind without announcing on CTAF, if it was nearer the heading for his destination; and otherwise operate close to the edge. I did not know him very well, and there is a general reluctance for one pilot to criticize another’s flying, so I did nothing for some weeks. Finally, I took him aside and told him I was worried about him and was not alone. I gave particulars. To my pleasure, he thanked me and for six months was more careful. Then, one night, scudrunning in the clag, he flew into a mountain. Fortunately, he was alone.

    Notwithstanding the bad ending, I am glad I spoke up. It is my observation after five decades of flight that at most airports everyone knows who will probably be the next smoking hole, but almost never speak to him. More willingness to do so, in private, and not in an accusatory way, might save lives.

    • You were so right to speak to that pilot and he heard you for a little while. Sadly, some will not avail themselves of the help that surrounds them. Doing what you did took courage, confidence and compassion and demonstrated maturity and your professionalism as a pilot.You did all that you could.

  • A bit tangential, I suppose, but this article and its many comments reminded me of an occasion when I was about to violate an old CAA wallah.

    I had been shooting night landings at Anchorage International Airport when I suddenly lost all electrical power. The flight back to Merrill Field was only six miles, and I wasn’t really much concerned at the moment.

    I had made the standard 45 degree pattern entry and was on a short base leg when a yellow Cessna 180 shot across my nose from left to right. From the nearby city lights, I clearly could see the color of the Cessna, and new it was a BLM aircraft, probably flown by a CAA employee. After I had landed and taxied to the CAA headquarters building, there stood the other pilot, clearly waiting for me.

    As I stepped down, he directed me to follow him into the CAA building, saying he was about to violate me for flying at night with no lights and no radio.

    Once inside and at the counter, he asked for the necessary paperwork to file his violation. I asked to two copies, as I was going to file against him as well.

    Surprised, he asked, “For what !?”

    I told him that he had clearly flown more than a twenty-mile straight-in approach, and that I had just lost all electrical systems, making me an airplane in distress. That clearly gave me the right-of-way, and I intended to cost him his job for breaking the CAA Regulations!

    That settled things down a bit, we shook hands, and departed friends. Still, it was just one of those awkward situations that occasionally, though rarely, do occur.

    Frankly, it made my day, and perhaps his as well . . .

  • All I would like to say about this is tell you about an experience where a beautiful girl died because I did not speak up and I have to live with that forever.
    I was doing a king air rating for a girl that was a flight instructor on cirrus aircraft in South Africa. I could see that see was complacent on the aircraft, probably because she was upgrading to the king air. The night before when I left I said to her they (her and a student) should be careful on a night flight. She said ‘don’t worry it’s a cirrus!’ I wondered if I should have a talk to her and just mumbled ‘you must still use your mind’ and walked out. The next day she and a student to did a touch and go and forgot to retract the flaps and we are unsure what happened next but it appears the chute was pulled too low. They were both killed. If I had that talk to her it might have turned out different. Have wisdom on when to talk, but do it if to u feel you should.

  • Hendrik, that’s a very, very sad story. Still, I don’t think you should carry that burden forever. It’s doubtful that you could have in any way altered her attitude . . .

  • Speaking of “speaking up”….For some on this thread, this article may be of help.
    Covers the 2014 Gulfstream IV fatal takeoff crash in Bedford, Mass.

    http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2015/12/07/the-normalization-of-deviance/

    The author specifically addresses attitude issues with this statement…

    “There are several factors which tend to sprout normalization of deviance:
    First and foremost is the attitude that rules are stupid and/or inefficient. Pilots, who tend to be independent Type A personalities anyway, often develop shortcuts or workarounds when the checklist, regulation, training, or professional standard seems inefficient.”

    RMM

  • RMM, you’re basically correct. But, before you chisel your opinion in stone, walk a mile in an Alaska bush pilot’s shoes. By necessity, those guys all violate their planes’ POHs and, it follows, some of the FARs. As an example, Piper’s Super Cub is placarded for a maximum of 50 pounds of baggage. Alaska’s big game guides, and all of their chartered pilots, will stuff an entire moose carcass behind the pilot’s seat. That can mean a load of 600 to 700 pounds. In addition, they will often secure the 100+ pound horns to a jury strut.

    I agree that those guys are independent. Still, if they refuse to carry such loads, the next bush plot will, and the guy who refused the loads will soon find himself out of work. Sorry that it’s so, but there it is. They just soon learn to be comfortable right up against the edge of performance and ability. Is it right? Is it wise? Certainly not, but it is commonplace.

  • Mort..
    I understand. But there is a world of difference between your example and a “FAR’s are a problem” attitude. Like your earlier story of the pilot who did not methodically check carb heat status on take off and later killed himself. Bet those bush pilots you mention consider carefully. Details matter. Attitude matters.
    RMM

  • FWIW, Alaska is a bit different, and legal increases in gross weight limitations are possible with some aircraft. When I was a student pilot there in 1972-73, I met a fellow with a modified Super Cub, capable of carrying 3 people and a whole lot more baggage than the ordinary SC. I don’t know if he was putting me on, but I didn’t think so–he said that all those mods were covered by various STCs. Although at the time I hadn’t any idea what an STC was, I got the message that it was legal to be modified the way it was.

    So while how they fly may very well “violate” the language of their POHs, if they stay within the terms of any modifying STC, they’re OK. As the owner of a very much modified P172D, I can tell you that while I can’t ignore most of the POH, there are parts of it which simply don’t apply due to the STC’d modifications and field approvals my IA has obtained for my airplane.

  • You’re right, of course. Still, that FAR Part 91 modification for Alaska flying was only a fifteen percent load increase. On paper, that meant that a Super Cub might now be eligible for a baggage load increase of seven and one-half pounds. What is that – – – one gallon of milk? If a Super Cub is allowed only a 57.5 pound baggage or freight load, that isn’t much of a consolation to Alaska bush pilots. Unfortunately . . .

  • As an aside: I once watched a demonstration pilot for an Anchorage, Alaska, Piper distributor showing the USAF the abilities of a new Super Cub for their SAR operations. He made five takeoffs and landings in a single run down Merrill Field’s then 4,000 foot length. And he did it with a 2,500 pound load of plumbers’ bagged lead shot. At rest, the Cub even sagged in the middle of its long fuselage, but it addressed the load nicely.

    The widest interior point in a Super Cub is only 24″, and that’s at the forward edge of the pilot’s little seat cushion. That 3-souls STC probably covered a lighter passenger located aft. Certainly two passengers can’t sit side-by-side in a Super Cub (neither legally nor comfortably).

  • Yeah, I remember it being 3 in tandem (not quite the right word). They’d have to be a lot narrower than I am to sit side by side!

    Another Super Cub story, which was before I was even a student pilot, but looked to me like an accident waiting to happen. We belonged to a local RV club, and to camp with our rigs in the winter with snow on the ground, we used various plowed parking lots. I don’t recall where this was or the exact month of the Fall, but where we were camped was a parking lot next to a lake. There were a couple feet of snow on the ground, but the lake was open.

    A Super Cub on floats landed on the lake and taxied to where we were. A flat bed truck pulled up, with a load of lumber. The truck driver and the pilot then started stacking lumber along the floats of the Super Cub. They appeared to be careful about the positioning so as to keep it within reasonable balance, but they continued to load it until the tails of the floats were under water. Then the pilot lashed it all together to the float struts, pushed off, and took off, climbing to no more than a few feet off the water. Pretty soon he was back again, and more wood was loaded. This event repeated several times before the truck was empty.

    In the meanwhile I had chatted with the truck driver, who told me that the pilot was building a cabin, and this was the quickest way to get the materials to the building site.

    As a very neophyte float flyer now (just got my SES in July 2014), and with my memory dimmed by the 43 years that have elapsed, I can’t be sure, but that operation struck me then and still strikes me as a very chancy thing, with an overloaded airplane being used when a barge would have been a whole lot safer, if perhaps slower. Of course, as someone with no training at all at the time, I was in no position to say anything to the pilot, but I suspect today I’d have something to say.

  • If your memory is correct, that was either a very capable pilot, or his Super Cub had a pretty big engine. Most of us knew that if the rear decks of the floats were flooded, the load wouldn’t come off the water.

    I once loaded aboard 15 sled dogs, two steel crates, two large canvas sheets, three bundles of dried salmon fillets, and two additional handlers, plus tying one dog sled to the right float. of a Cessna-206 float plane. I used the full eight mile length of Big Lake in Alaska for the takeoff. Not a smart thing to do, but necessary at the time.

  • Speak up, if you are just uncomfortable and I will safely terminate the flight.
    That’s what I expect my students to learn and practice as pilots regardless of part 91 or for hire. A good pre- flight preparation should include all the potential encounters.
    Flight review.
    Have a friendly conversation with the applicants and learn everything possible about them.
    I ask every pilot if they participate in the:https://www.faasafety.gov/WINGS/pub/learn_more.aspx
    I want them to know what is expected and why we all need to have FRs.
    https://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/media/flight_review.pdf
    I encourage Safety Culture and Pilot Proficiency with continuing education.
    Here,the pilot had a week to review the above link and remind himself of what is expected .
    I don’t think he would have flown in to see you at all… he just wanted a signature.
    If a pilot is not interested in safety culture, I am not interested to be their instructor.

  • The Alaska stories are interesting and they show that there are situations where the “keep your mouth” shut ethic is probably the only way these folks can do business as described, carrying giant loads and cramming in too many passengers. In any of these cases I would not have boarded as a passenger and I certainly wouldn’t have made the decision or flown the flight. But…. who knows how I’d react after flying around with these bent rules for a while. I’m guessing I’d probably learn to accept a different, lower bar for what constitutes safety in small planes. Today, that threshold is pretty much down the sweet spot of the FARs and no accidents ever in GA (I wish). But it’s easy to see how that can change due to Mother Nature, economic necessity and a culture of independence.

  • I have seen enough to write a screen play and probably will. Between operator’s being bounced around between FISDO’s instead of shut down, for monetary reasons- to good pilots being thrown under the bus for bad MX. From overly ambitious safety inspectors to the truly devil may care commercial PIC. The truth is that the system can’t avert the next accident, and diverges more so from it’s ability to do so, with every new FAA “innovation” and “improvement”. And as for GA if a CFI in OSH thinks he can drop in and plug and play with an outfit out of PGA HWD or BED- he is misinformed. Beware of money and lawyers
    in aviation….entertainment lawyers too for that matter- they share a lot.

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