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Gut Check: Caution Vs “Courage!”

Confidence is a necessary pilot attribute and timidity can be a hazard. If we did not dream big and overcome reasonable challenges, we would never succeed in aviation. But carrying this too far is often the root cause of accidents. “Over-reaching” our skills creates operations whose success depends on luck. The correct balance of caution and confidence goes back to the ancient Greek “Golden Mean.” Please listen to this brief YouTube audio and tell me honestly if you have never “bit off more than you can chew?” in terms of your perceived and actual abilities? Without honest reflection and revision, we all can slide down the slope of normalizing these dangerous activities. “Experience” is often defined as “learning that occurs when the test comes before the training.” But just because we survived does not validate your (sometimes overconfident) decision.

How can we more reliably achieve the correct balance of confidence and caution? Can we even accurately assess our own skills without the assessment of others? Maybe this is the primary reason crewed flights are 8X  safer than solo flights and pro pilots require recurrent training? Skill obviously plays a big role and accident data reveals we all could use more practice in the landing phase of flight:

The first necessary step when facing a challenging situation is the calming ability to say “no” to impulsivity and create a pause between action and reaction. Once we have stopped the impulsive inner child, we must honestly appraise and reflect on all options and consequences, weighing the risks. Merely visualizing the worst outcomes (the stoic philosophy) sometimes is all that is needed to move more slowly and choose sensibly in a better direction. Two huge forces in aviation that actively collide with fight safety are perceived time savings (efficiency)  and pilot ego; “how will I be perceived by others.”  Getting past these psychological barriers immediately makes every pilot safer.

The reasonable “sounding board” of a trusted advisor is a sure way to add safety to any decision and one reason Part 135 and 121 usually require two pilots. So if it’s a tight decision, expand your resources and solicit some advice from a trusted pilot friend. A worthy motto, borrowed from MADD, is “friends don’t let friends fly stupid.” This requires both seeking and listening to the opinion of others but also advocating to prevent “the accident waiting to happen.” As pilots, we are often so reticent to intervene we allow others to unnecessarily come to peril.

Let’s agree to work together cooperatively and prevent accidents; “safety culture.” The pilot above ignored the wise counsel of ATC; “how about a different field with less wind and a more favorable alignment?”  It takes more humility and less “courage” to fly safely but that way we will be around to enjoy more flights!


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Author: David St. George

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

3 thoughts on “Gut Check: Caution Vs “Courage!””

  1. David – Very thought provoking post! Wind is a tough one because it is different than nonlinear hazards like thunderstorms and 0/0 Fog. Wind is a sliding scale and where it becomes impossible is hard to say. I started using this technique years ago as a flight instructor; a front came through when we were airborne and we had few options. My instrument student asked what we should do. I said; Plan A is to fly down to a rejected landing point, and then go around. Plan B is to continue below the go around point, if we are in full control, aligned with the runway heading and straddling the center line – without full deflection of any control surface. If any of these conditions cannot be maintained while executing plan B, we will revert to plan A.

    And, oh, yeah, we padded our airspeed for the gust factor, and flew a zero flap approach with appropriate speed adjustment. This worked out well on this and other days.

    One oddity about wind, and I’m sure you have seen this as DPE, is that some people can do a great job with really extreme winds, and some can’t handle a 12 knot quartering crosswind. The difference, by and large, is those in the first group have excellent attitude flying skills using outside visual references. Those in the second group generally don’t grock the concept of “Attitude Control for Aircraft Control”.

    1. Wind is also unique since it seems to >require< confidence to enter the game (rather than run away). At some point the new pilot has to face it alone and the concepts you mentioned (margin and go-around point need to be ingrained) As a CFI it is also the closest I have come to disaster. It is all working until suddenly it is NOT!

  2. Human ego is one of the biggest factors contributing to aircraft accidents. Just like the article said; ” How will I be perceived by others”.

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