“Scary Pilots” Determine *Your* Insurance!

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.

3) Superman/woman

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.

5) Overconfidence

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)!


Join SAFE and get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) This supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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). Talk to Victoria (a CFI) about your insurance needs.

Trust Not Trauma: “Student Lockup!”

A recent poll in the SAFE eNews revealed that a shocking 65% of CFIs, at some point, had to physically take control from a student who “locked up” on the flight controls. That is an astonishing frequency of student “fear paralysis” during training. Obviously, we are doing something dramatically wrong in flight training if this number of incidents are occurring. Fear activates the “freeze/fight/flight” circuitry in the human brain and causes startle and lockup. The higher brain functions become unavailable to the pilot in this condition, preventing rational conversation and necessitating physical intervention to assure safety. We need to create trust not trauma in flight training.

The second question in this quick poll indicated that the majority of flight instructors also had never been advised or trained about the possibility of a student “locking up” or “freezing.” Most CFIs were never educated on how to deal with this kind of situation; sad and dangerous. A previous blog described the “CFI Ninja Move” to recover from a frozen student and reduce the angle of attack. Every CFI should have training here and a plan to keep every flight training adventure safe.

Another important contributing factor in student “fear paralysis” is that many recent CFIs were trained when stalls were recovered at “first indication” and are not fully trained in high AOA flight; they are scared too! Their fear is transmitted to new students so both are on edge practicing stalls. SAFE created the CFI-PRO™ program promoting Extended Envelope Training for CFIs (and their students). This program develops proficiency in the entire flight envelope (required for airline pilots). We need more comfort for all pilots in high AOA flight to inoculate them from startle incapacitation.

Never Scare Them!

The first order of business in preventing a dangerous situation is to simply work very hard to establish a trusting relationship with your learner and never scare them. The brain shuts down and  *no learning* occurs when there is fear. Build slowly into the areas known to alarm new pilots (nose high flight attitudes and stalls). Give every new learner enough time to get comfortable and achieve confident control before introducing stalls. “Let me know if you feel uncomfortable (queasy) or scared.” Create a trusting environment of sharing and communication. Rushing into stalls is just going to terrify your students; creating an unsafe situation and possibly causing them to drop out quietly over time (“I thought this was supposed to be fun?”)

A Diamond A/C doesn’t “bend” but interesting article…

Stalls should be much further back in the syllabus than the usual 141 dogma dictates; at least after ground reference maneuvers.  These added hours before radical maneuvers allow every new flight student more time in the cockpit to become comfortable and competent. It also provides more opportunities to build rapport and trust. Additional practice on the controls allows for independent student mastery of basic coordination, making for safer (and less exciting) stall practice too. Try to remember what your first exposure was like.

When introduced, stalls should be demonstrated and practiced very gently in a power-off descending (clean) configuration (every learner is different here). The nose only has to be raised a little to “normal level” to achieve an excessive AOA and trigger the stall (and the break is gentle). Recovery should be made without power, building the “unload” move as a reflexive action (and also emphasizing AOA). This keeps the first exposure simple and understandable and NOT scary. Build gently into the more extreme variations. I used to regularly see logbooks with spins demonstrated on lesson one or two from a local flying club (old school “weed them out” version of flight training). To repeat; creating predictable terror in flight training is potentially unsafe and causing student dropout  – are we having FUN yet?

But just in case, every CFI should have training to handle student lock-up. Successful techniques for regaining control need to be discussed and practiced with your senior instructors. Since lock-up most typically happens at the edge of the flight envelope, quick and decisive action is necessary to immediately regain control. A previous blog revealed how your foot on the yoke bar under the front panel (primarily in Cessnas) can easily overpower any student pulling inappropriate backpressure. Find this bar and practice so you are ready. Diamonds and most Piper products do not have access to this yoke connection. An easy way to overpower and break a student’s grip is an upward movement of your clasped hands between their arms. This will quickly remove their hands from the controls without harming them. Stating simultaneously in a loud voice “I have the flight controls” might help prevent and further dispute of control. Who said every day as a flight instructor would be fun? Fly safe out there and often (and stay vigilant)!

“But, My CFI Told Me…”

AOPA CFItoCFI Newsletter

CFI guidance can sometimes be wrong. Either you learned it wrong or your CFI taught it wrong – but either way, it’s a mistake. As a result, amazing errors and weird techniques often get demonstrated in flight tests or during flight reviews. The “probable cause” in NTSB accident reports often reveals ingrained bad habits that were personal SOPs. Pilots fly for years committing errors because their initial training was flawed. The supporting explanation or justification provided by the pilot flying often begins with “but my CFI told me…”

There are two obvious pathways to these errors. The first cause is benign, resulting from faulty communication/transmission. Your CFI never really did say this, you just misunderstood it. This happens; even in an undistracted environment, human communication is only 25% efficient!  The unfortunate result is that an erroneous or dangerous fact or technique was accepted as “true or usable.” The antidote for CFIs is making absolutely certain your instruction is properly heard and replicated. Insist on consistent feedback/readback of facts and repeated demonstration of skills conveyed during training.

The antidote for every pilot (at every level) needs to be an “on guard attitude” for spurious information coming from every source and channel. The aviation world is full of “instant experts” with dubious experience and credentials. Exciting, sexy websites promote all kinds of crap online. Once we accept something as “true” it is imported into our daily operating system like a virus. It is vital to check all your facts and verify every technique; your life depends on it.

Not all flight instruction is good. Not all flight instructors are sharing beneficial information. Not every flight school is acting in your best interest. Jamie Beckett

The second reason these non-standard techniques or weird “facts” get spread is from CFI with “personal techniques” they transmit as “valuable and true.” These CFIs obviously think they know better than the accepted FAA Handbooks and industry wisdom. They have developed (and are spreading) their own version of “safe and efficient flight” based on personal experiences (see the recent blog on luck reinforcing errors).  This happens more often than you would like to believe. In the absence of reflective analysis, this is how humans learn and adapt. And when any group of aviators adopts an unsafe behavior it can easily get “normalized” as “acceptable” and safe. New trends in aviation are not always positive developments.

What both of these pathways point out is the vital importance of assuring accurate learning when you are teaching or learning. For the learner, there is a responsibility to verify the data and techniques you are presented – even from your CFI. After years of flying, every pilot has discovered some facts or techniques that were improper or needed adjustment, even from the most conscientious CFIs.

Then there are just bad CFIs. Sometimes these are the people who took the “instant expert” course and did not learn thoroughly. In other cases, unchecked “adaptation” leads to a downward spiral of shortcuts and noncompliance. (See The Rogue Pilot by Tony Kern for some scary examples)

Canadian CFIs are required to go through mandatory mentoring before teaching on their own; but not in the US. Out the door with a new FAA CFI temporary and you are an “expert!” And at every level there are short-cuts available for pilots looking for “faster, cheaper, easier.” Only personal integrity will prevent a learner (at every level) from cutting corners in flight training. Do you value your life and the lives of your family and friends? Learn well and thoroughly and pursue excellence in aviation; it can be terribly unforgiving. Join a positive safety culture and test your knowledge with reliable mentors and a solid base of resources. With the right attitude, you will learn something new every day. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Join SAFE and get great benefits like 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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)