The burning question in aviation safety is why pilots who know the “right thing” choose to ignore conventional wisdom (SOPs) and operate recklessly. Frequently, pilots involved in accidents are simply contrarians who think they know better than everyone else or can somehow defy the laws of physics. Adding overconfidence and a “hurry up” attitude to this personality creates a toxic cocktail leading directly to another (predictable) accident.
In an extensive study, funded by Avemco and other sponsors, Dr. Bill Rhodes carefully examined these “scary pilot” personality types. As a result, “red flags” determine who gets aviation insurance and what they must pay. These “red flags” should be known warning signs for all pilots, educators, and DPEs to correct and/or avoid in aviation. Some highly intelligent and seemingly sane people can accept instruction, performing to a standard during evaluation, but then operate completely contrary to training. Here are the warning signs:
1) Failing to calibrate risk and draw a reasonable line.
Scary pilots seem to embrace and increase risk for the sake of excitement and adventure; “how close can we get to the fire?” Instead, safe flying needs to define, control and calibrate risks (control the “inner child!”) Scary pilots seem to “push the edge” going well beyond accepted norms for adventure, utility, and perceived efficiency (and YouTube viewers). This behavior normalizes some crazy procedures contrary to common sense and even regulatory guidance.
2) Know it All
Scary pilots resist instruction, hurry through lessons, often refuse to study and listen, and blame their equipment or conditions for any failures. Refusing to admit errors and accept responsibility are clear “red flags” of scary pilots. These people often brag, exaggerating skills and experience – very status conscious. These pilots need the “last word” in every conversation and want to be the smartest person in the room.
Over-rating personal skills or capabilities when facing challenges is a hallmark of scary pilots. An unrealistic assessment of their personal piloting abilities or of their airplane’s capability fuels the “accident chain.” (see “magical thinking.“)
4) Always in a hurry
Rushing to get through training and being excessively competitive are common traits of scary pilots. They value the superficial goals – certificates – rather than deeper knowledge and skill – “looking good” is essential. These people miss important threats and fail to accomplish critical details; rushing is a huge “red flag” in safety.
Pilots need a proper balance of confidence to fly safely. Too little confidence can prevent any activity and compromise safety. But scary pilots are way overconfident, compromising their evaluation skills and decision-making abilities. Safety is the “science of limits!”
6) Advancing Too Quickly
This trait is often associated with “too much money,” the lack of which usually tempers progress and builds experience. Solid skills, comprehensive knowledge and caution, require hours and experience – often stated as “marinating” or “seasoning” by master instructors. Experience also provides the necessary personal caution. Understanding possible threats – visualizing all that might go wrong – increases safety. Insurance companies carefully monitor this “too much plane for the pilot” syndrome.
7) Show Off/ hotdogging
Scary pilots have a great need for attention. The “look at me” syndrome, often leads to doing something edgy or outright scary. This personality trait includes “look at my fancy equipment” and stems from an ego-driven need for attention.
8) Ignoring mentors and knowledge
Scary pilots are anti-authoritarians spurning advice and industry “best practices.” This often includes an active dislike for the FAA and NTSB. These pilots lack humility and appreciation for others’ accomplishments and often do not socialize well.
Most of these documented weaknesses among scary pilots are driven by low self-image and a lack of emotional intelligence (argh, those “soft skills”). The root of many aviation accidents is personality disorders that need counseling more than flight training. This is why great CFIs often are “practical psychologists” emphasizing “head work” more than amazing skills. But changing attitudes is notoriously difficult and seems to require a good scare to straighten out.
Ironically, not being scared enough is what can make pilots scary. Caution and respect applied to the learning process seem to create the best pilots. Both Bob Hoover and Sean Tucker developed into amazing pilots to overcome initial paralyzing fear. Adequate self-knowledge, self-mastery, and humility are key ingredients in safety. Please intervene if you see some “crazy pilot stuff” (time to “take the keys?”) Intervention is painful (but necessary) to keep our aviation system safe and avoid negative public perception. Fly often (and safely)!
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