The Confidence Trap: Hubris!

We all need a full dose of confidence to fly sophisticated aircraft in challenging conditions. There is, however, a very fine, but critical line, between confidence and hubris. Risk management is all about saying “no” to a plan or situation where hope or overconfidence would keep us moving forward – caught in the “mission mentality.” These are accidents where the risks are clearly visible with 20/20 hindsight; “what were they thinking?”

Hubris… describes a personality quality of extreme or excessive pride or dangerous overconfidence often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities.

Hubris is clearly a primary causal factor in many aviation accidents where pilots part with reality and ignore all warning signs in pursuit of an unrealistic outcome. Achieving a balance of confidence, called the “Golden Mean” by ancient Greeks, is difficult but critical to safety. There are endless true stories from legends and fables of “heroes” stepping over the line from confidence into hubris and dying in stupid ways. It is essential to self-correct and embrace humility to avoid these tragic endings so common in ASRS and NTSB databases. Danny Miller coined the term Icarus Paradox to describe the ironic (and common) transition from confidence to hubris (and failure) in business. Ironically, the very trait that enables success can also kill you if you don’t know when to quit.

In mythology, Icarus flew toward the sun on wings his father Daedalus crafted of wax and feathers. So enchanted with his newfound freedom and the supernatural power of his wings, Icarus forgot both his father’s warnings and his greatest shortcoming: his own mortality.

On the one hand, we have all seen the overly timid pilot, fumbling and terrified of every operation; this is not successful, efficient, or safe. It takes skill and seasoning – experience and familiarity – to develop and deploy confidence wisely. As educators, 0ne of our primary jobs is fostering “incremental mastery” and building capacity and confidence so tasks can be accomplished efficiently and successfully in the face of challenges. Resilience and confidence are essential to successful piloting. We also need to carefully educate where this path can lead to (stupid) hubris.

It seems almost immediately after confidence, pilots (and some “learners”) can transgress almost naturally into the overconfident (YouTube?) “dude in charge.” Healthy egos can quickly become “self-made legends” in aviation – and digital media seems to fuel these self-anointed “heroes.” The hubris trait is harmful in aviation training and toxic for pilots. Unfortunately, over-confidence in aviation sometimes seems to be everywhere. “Professionals” in any field are very difficult to instruct. Overconfidence makes us blind to our frailties and our personal capacity for errors. Every pilot will stumble into hazardous conditions at some point in our flying. It is essential to know when to badk off and say “no.” Our teenage description of the overconfident mindset was “cruising for a bruising,” the Greek word is “hubris.”  Dr. Bill Rhodes defines this personality as a “Scary Pilot.

One success after another builds greater self-confidence. But in the same way, increased achievement can skew healthy self-confidence into hubris. Hubristic people can easily become hooked on their own egos, so confident in their own self-importance that they assume they can do no wrong. Naturally, the more wins an individual…accumulates, the less open they are to critical feedback: Why would a winner need feedback when they already have the code to success?

One antidote to hubris (before you scare or hurt yourself) is the social element of friends and family, as well as a compassionate pilot community, who buffer hubris with social pressure. Overconfident pilots do not socialize well. In the social context, warning signs are everywhere for the emotionally aware – if we are listening. One great advantage of the WINGS program is the social element where “friends don’t let friends fly stupid!” Unfortunately, this social self-correction does not get translated through the virtual world of Zoom and Facebook. In the virtual environment, every loud and overly confident participant becomes a cyber-bully or self-proclaimed expert. It is essential to remember that we all can be wrong, and we all need external, objective opinions for self-correction from time to time.  This is one reason why mentors (at every level) are so valuable; objective feedback. It is essential to socialize with pilots and listen. Objective outside advice is essential for learning and self-correction.

Another antidote to hubris is continually learning new skills. Being a beginner at anything important is always personally humbling. And embracing lifetime learning is one central element of the Master Instructor program. This program is not about celebrating personal achievement but about continually growing as a pilot and educator; challenging yourself. A participant in this program needs to demonstrate personal growth and continual service to the aviation community to recertify as a master; take a look here.

SAFE is exactly the kind of pilot community that encourages lifetime learning and self-correction because over-confidence is at the heart of many accidents. We are continually retooling our mentor program to provide encouragement, advice (and self-correction) for every pilot and educator. Good friends (and mentors) are courageous enough to step in and offer “helpful advice” when detecting a personality trend or piloting procedure that will lead to harm. Join SAFE and stay connected to a caring community; fly safely (and often)!

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).


Fix the DPE Problem? Start Here!

Our aviation industry is once again trying to solve the persistent “DPE problem.” The highly-publicized FAA ARAC has considered this issue for over a year and generated a report with many good recommendations. There is even a “DPE Symposium” being marketed to potential DPEs to “fix the DPE problem,” like some airline hiring job fair. The central problem is, however, so obvious that everyone is missing it entirely. (And this is only my personal opinion and does not represent my designation as an FAA DPE – every designee represents the FAA administrator in public).

To become a DPE or renew your designation, every examiner is required to sign a remarkably one-sided agreement with the FAA. The DPE process, as well as the daily job, is completely colored by this legal contract. It basically states that every designee is potentially temporary and can be legally removed,  immediately and capriciously, for absolutely no stated reason or cause. This contract is obviously designed to protect the FAA from bad actors without excessive legal costs but offers no trust and security for the DPE.  Instead, it poisons the designation relationship and discourages many qualified individuals from applying. Every DPE serves entirely at the pleasure of their local FSDO and the ax can fall at any time for no reason at all: done – gone, thank you, and goodbye (this is clearly stated and agreed to by every DPE in the guidance)! To be designated or renewed as a DPE, this is (among other things) the required statement in the application:

It is hard to believe that good-hearted, committed professionals would sign onto a “job” where the terms of engagement are so capricious and one-sided (it is technically not “employment” but contract work that often becomes a DPE’s sole income – a problem in itself). What kind of people would be attracted to this kind of contract or career? The FAA obviously did not engage the HR department here; “if you want this ‘job,’ these are the terms.” Yes, it is an honor to serve the FAA as a DPE, but a contract like this is a huge disincentive to attracting committed, compassionate professionals.

There is a huge scarcity of qualified DPEs right now. But every qualified aviation professional I have approached about becoming a DPE cites the horror stories of DPE termination and the “political nature of the job” as primary reasons for not getting involved; there is no trust and security in the system for DPEs. How can a competent, lifetime aviation professional be serious about this occupation, if it literally can go away in a day with a notification from the local FSDO? And if DPEs, are basically treated as temp. workers, how can they be expected to conduct their business professionally and honorably while serving the FAA?  We need to attract committed, compassionate professionals who focus on putting the applicant in a positive testing environment if we are going to grow aviation.  To “fix the DPE problem,” this “employment agreement” should definitely be the primary and immediate focus for positive change. Fly safely out there (and often).

Thanks to everyone that was able to attend #OSH21 and visit our SAFE booth – or attend our amazing “SAFE Gathering!” What a wonderful experience after a year of quarantine. Tune-up your flying chops and join SAFE for more resources and savings (most members save MORE than they pay in dues). Our SAFE Toolkit app is free and brings ideas and tools to your daily flying: “Mastery not Minimums!”

Teaching Safety Margin (and Culture)!

Earlier this week I was conducting a CFI renewal with a very experienced charter pilot getting back into flight instruction. What came up in the discussion was a consensus opinion that 121/135 regs, though burdensome, can provide great cautionary ideas for Part 91 safety. This was seconded later in the week by an Aviation Safety Mag article.  Extra care, extra training, all provide a great buffer from “regulatory minimums.” Unfortunately, many pilots still seem to follow the shocking FAA minimums available in part 91 as “operational guidance.”  Who would do a zero-zero take-off or a “look-see” approach? Demonstrating a margin above minimums (and teaching the same) is critical for safe flying.

The ACS is carefully constructed so flight tests look for exactly this procedure in all pilot candidates. Every applicant must know the FAA minimums but also demonstrate their personal margin of safety above and beyond these minimums. If “one statute mile, clear of clouds” is your personal minimum, you better have some good justification to support your risky behavior.

The diagram below was developed by David Bowden when he was with US Air and was disseminated more widely later when he ran the Rochester FSDO, then FAA Eastern Region. This was 30 years ago and this paradigm (combined with extensive CRM and other operational changes) helped create the amazing safety record in the major airlines over the last 20 years. Demonstrating and teaching safety margins must be part of every flight lesson.

The second half of creating greater safety is bringing everyone into compliance with this viewpoint of “safety culture!” As pilots, we are very protective of personal freedoms. Piots almost religiously defend every other pilot’s right to their own personal methods and standards (and some wild flying is increasingly popular on YouTube). But we have an obligation, when it comes to people potentially hurting themselves and others, to help rehabilitate “rogue pilots,” and bring them around the campfire of “safe operations.” I again cite Dr. Bill Rhodes and his “Scary Pilots” pdf here. The two questions he highlights at seminars make this clear: “Who has lost a friend in a flying accident?” followed by “Who was really surprised this happened” makes clear our obligation. Please spread the safety message… fly safe out there (and often)!

Thanks to everyone that was able to attend #OSH21 and visit our SAFE booth – or attend our amazing “SAFE Gathering!” What a wonderful experience after a year of quarantine. Tune-up your flying chops and join SAFE for more resources and savings (most members save MORE than they pay in dues). Our SAFE Toolkit app is free and brings ideas and tools to your daily flying: “Mastery not Minimums!”

Become a Flight Instructor (At Any Age!)

Aviation needs more dedicated educators, especially mid-life professionals with a personal passion for teaching. Mid-life professionals with some history in aviation, are a perfect fit for GA flight instruction (and the transition to CFI is quicker and easier than most people think). People in this demographic group are usually financially stable and have already acquired the essential “people/life skills” to become effective educators. Some years of experience and diverse flying experience are great backgrounds to share with future students – don’t let the youngsters have all the fun. Mid-life CFIs most often stay in GA and become Master Instructors and DPEs since they are not building hours toward a corporate or an airline piloting career. Many”FAA CFIs of the Year” are in this group too, since they are also experienced “corporate climbers.”

FAA statistics reveal that 2/3 of flight instructors have taught for less than a year and frequently have very little broad aviation knowledge. Many were trained entirely in the limited “hot-house environment” of a flight academy acquiring the minimum number of hours to move on and acquire ratings. When I ran a flight school, I regularly hired young CFIs from academy programs who did not know how to tie down a plane and had never even fueled one; pretty “green!” Though most of these “hour-builders” do a great job teaching and bring great energy into their daily flying, this continual industry flow-through has a damaging effect on our GA flying community. There is often little senior pilot supervision and mentoring in local clubs and flight training operations. Young CFIs disappear at a regular rate into their professional careers. If you are an experienced pilot, financially stable and committed to the GA aviation community, please consider acquiring your CFI certificate. (MCFI Greg Brown wrote a great article in a similar vein here) If you are a CFI already, mentor your experienced aviator friends along the path to aviation educator.

SAFE members are the “movers and shakers of the aviation education community” – Former FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt 

SAFE CFI-PRO™ was created to enable and encourage new and potential CFIs to grow their CFI professionalism. This program provides resources and mentoring, stand-up seminars and on-site training for flight schools and college aviation programs. SAFE has a  long history of mentoring CFIs (Recently reinvigorated with modern online technology). Though getting the CFI certificate is easier than most people think, becoming a really effective aviation educator is a lifetime pursuit (I am a 12X Master Instructor and still learning every day). If you are in this group of hopeful new mid-life CFIs, join our online CFI-PRO community. If you are already well-experienced and want to help mentor, sign up here as a mentor (we need more). SAFE is all about sharing and growing educator professionalism. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Thanks to everyone that was able to attend #OSH21 and visit our SAFE booth – or attend our amazing “SAFE Gathering!” What a wonderful experience after a year of quarantine. Tune-up your flying chops and join SAFE for more resources and savings. Our SAFE Toolkit app is free and brings ideas and tools to your daily flying: “Mastery not Minimums!”


Teaching “Thin Air” Operations SAFEly!

Flying is a wonderful adventure, but unfortunately, many of our most important “lessons” come from surprise “experience” after certification  (if we survive the “lesson”). It is critical to remember that all our new pilots are “hot house plants,” raised in a very controlled environment (but their certificate permits them the whole country). Our obligation as educators is to safely expose them to as many potential real-world “surprises” as possible so they have the tools to cope and the awareness to avoid these hidden hazards. “Chalk talk” is great but lacks the power of meaningful demonstrations.  Density altitude operation is a perfect example of an insidious killer that is seldom taught but actually remarkably easy to demonstrate.

Most educators are failing their students here. The ground school discussion does not reveal the true surprises and hazards of high density altitude operations. This environment is easy to demonstrate, even for flatlanders, but must be conducted very with careful preparation to stay safe.

Combine a tailwind take-off with slightly reduced power (carb heat on?) on a long, unobstructed runway to provide the exact same surprise as “Telluride on a hot day.”  At the usual lift-off groundspeed (60K?) in this condition, your plane refuses to fly. This is “the surprise that kills” when a pilot encounters it solo for the first time (cognitive dissonance). In this condition – simulating thin air – a  plane needs another 10-15 knots groundspeed to achieve the indicated airspeed for flight. The combined surprises of the longer take-off roll, faster GS for lift-off, and a pathetic climb angle is what creates accidents.

Just like in Telluride on a hot day, you will be going remarkably fast over the ground before your plane gathers enough air molecules under the wings to go flying. The disparity between groundspeed and airspeed (TAS/IAS in real thin air conditions) is remarkably unsettling the first time you see it. This simulation is even more surprising for experienced pilots with a deeply embedded TLAR (That Looks About Right) sense of performance. If a pilot forces a plane into the air too early, this slow-flight (behind the power curve) demonstration can get “very exciting.” Only by carefully lowering the nose, to reduce induced drag, will your wing get enough air lift to fly (think “soft-field T/O technique).

When demonstrating this maneuver as a CFI, practice carefully solo first, and select a very long runway with no obstacles for an adequate safety margin. Watching a learner mishandle this experience reveals why there are so many craters at the end of high-altitude runways. Be especially vigilant dual because your learner *will* mishandle this simulation. Thoroughly brief the expected operation (and surprise) and proceed with great caution. Brief and practice a positive exchange of controls too. The “reduced power take-off” (POH says “full power?”) might be controversial, but how many pilots comply with preflight regulations (91.103) and calculate their performance on *every* take-off.

Reduced power is important for two reasons  (just pulling carb heat works to drop 200rpm). One is to demonstrate the insidious loss of performance every plane experiences during high/hot operations (expect to use LOTS of runway). The other reason is that this extra power margin will be available when your learner mishandles this simulation (almost guaranteed). It is essential to fly the IAS not just what you see out the window; the angle of climb with a tailwind can be shocking (I own a 7AC Champ though…) Landing with a 10K tailwind is also tricky and can be visually confusing. Every pilot will initially drop in the landing – getting slow from the (TLAR) view out the window. This simulates the high density altitude trap.

This demonstration shows the disparity between take-off and landing “appearance” (TLAR). How fast the plane is actually moving over the ground in both cases is the shocker. You can talk about this all you want, but you have to see it to appreciate it. Reduced climb rate and angle of climb are the second takeaways here. As in all training, acquired humility and respect are important take-aways here. This demonstration also debunks the myth that a high-power machine will fix the density altitude problem (plenty of wrecked Big Cubs litter the high country too). Thin air operations are not (entirely) a power problem. At their root density altitude accidents are a misperception problem (surprise!) followed by a lack of operating experience. A full mountain flying course is recommended for every pilot if you plan real mountain operations. Fly carefully out there (and often)!

Thanks to everyone that was able to attend #OSH21 and visit our SAFE booth – or attend our amazing “SAFE Gathering!” What a wonderful experience after a year of quarantine. Tune-up your flying chops and join SAFE for more resources and savings. Our SAFE Toolkit app is free and brings ideas and tools to your daily flying.

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