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).


Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

5 thoughts on “The Confidence Trap: Hubris!”

  1. I’ve seen this in all areas I’ve worked in… it never ends up good.
    Sometimes it is even harder to say ‘NO’. I personally lost my job with the FAA when I said ‘NO’.
    Safety was more important to me then the job. I did pay dearly for my ‘NO’.

  2. Seen the “Top Gun” guys far too many times in my 41 years as a pro and CFI. They are almost impossible to deal with. Blinders and ear plugs firmly in place. One of my former colleagues crashed his airplane when he ducked through a hole on approach and hit a light stanchion. Killed him and his co. His wife was quoted in the article as saying something like, “he always had close calls before but always got out of them”. I have all the sympathy in the world for her, but not him.

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