Calibrating Confidence

More than 100 people die every day on the US roads in their automobiles.  An active co-conspirator in this carnage is the fact that 90% of drivers believe they are “better than average.” As a species humans are notoriously overconfident! Perhaps this trait keeps us humans forging ahead and accomplishing amazing things but it sure leads to a lot of fatal accidents in mechanized devices. We need to recognize this hazard in flight training and manage it during every preflight assessment. I-M-S-A-F-E-(C)?

Overconfidence is not specifically recognized as a “hazardous attitude,” by the FAA but lies  somewhere between invulnerability and macho (and is also well represented in our pilot population).  Calibrating our confidence is critical in every pre-flight self-assessment. Pilots do some crazy things in planes and seem to just believe/hope it will work out – hope is never a good planning strategy!  Every aviation educator should be alert for overconfidence in their students, it is a sure killer and seems to be increasingly popular (or is that just YouTube making bad judgment manifest?) The well-documented Dunning-Kruger Effect states that “low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence.” We often need an independent analysis to reveal how risky we are being. When you read articles like the accident below,  consider how many endorsements a CFI has to put into this student’s logbook to make this flight remotely legal.

Calibrating confidence is of course a matter of achieving the healthy balance between hubris and doubt. Every pilot must maintain some level of assertiveness and bravery to fly appropriately “in command” because continuous doubt is equally dangerous to safety. Accepting peer review and maintaining objective standards help achieve the proper balance; staying humble and accepting curated advice is essential.

One of my mentors in aviation flew 125 combat missions over Vietnam. And though “you do not walk out to a $16M fighter with your tail between your legs”, his personal flight rules dictate that every mission needs to start by consciously encouraging some fear and doubt.  The “premeditation of evils” sharpens our situational awareness and maintains vigilance. At a minimum, every flight should at least begin in “code yellow.” This is, of course, easier when you are dodging SAMS but not too common in our daily “fun flying.” Complete a full briefing and add some “healthy doubt” to every flight.

Peter Garrison’s “Aftermath” column in Flying Magazine this month is a shocking , over-the-top, tale of misplaced optimism. (App direct link HERE) This article starts almost predictably with the classic VFR pilot caught over a solid overcast; hoping to find a hole. However, deeper examination reveals the “pilot” (in a turbo Saratoga) was not even certificated as a pilot, but just a student with slightly over 2 hours of instruction logged. He just bought an airplane and started flying. The fatal result was pretty predictable and definitely preventable. In cases like this it seems incumbent upon the aviation educator to alert authorities before the inevitable occurs. Both of these pilots could be alive today if someone said something and stopped the process. (See Dr. Bill Rhodes on “Pilots Who Should Scare Us“)

Attitudes are notoriously difficult to shape as an educator. Running a busy flight training operation for 25 years, despite our best efforts, we had to “uninvite” a few people who just could not face the reality of managing risk and were a danger to themselves and the rest of the group. Rick Durden wrote a great article on this dilemma in flying clubs; painful but necessary.

Enjoy spring and visit SAFE at the AOPA Fly-In at Frederick, MD May 9&10. This will be a bigger event celebrating AOPA’s 80th anniversary – we are at booth #52. Fly safely (and often)!


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently flying 135 charter (again)

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