Tag: pilot risk management

Loss of Control

When You Ask for Too Much

Article appeared in Flying Magazine April, 2016 by Martha King –

It was the slightest of rumbles.  Both John and I felt it.  John, who was at the controls, eased the control yoke forward slightly and the rumble stopped.  We landed safely and taxied into the ramp.  We had a plane full of pilots, but an after-the-fact survey revealed no one else on the airplane had felt the rumble.  It was the aerodynamic warning of a stall in our old Falcon 10.  With hydraulically-assisted, irreversible controls in this airplane, the pilots don’t get feedback in the controls.  The rumble was the only aerodynamic warning we would get.

Martha King PIlot and John King Pilot land the King Schools Falcon.

The King Schools Falcon 10F on a short-final on Runway 36 at Tullahoma Airport.

Had John reacted differently the aircraft could well have stalled and the aviation community would have racked up one more “loss of control” tragedy.

We had been on our way to Oshkosh for AirVenture.  Ironically, we were diverted to Appleton due to the loss-of-control crash of another jet.  The pilot was on approach to runway 18 at Oshkosh and had been given instructions to slow for traffic on the runway, and keep his approach south of runway 27.  These are the exact circumstances that John and I had escaped some years ago with a go-around.

Our diversion to Appleton left us scrambling.  We quickly briefed our approach, but then at the last minute the tower directed us to another runway.  The rumble occurred during John’s last-minute maneuvering with a steep turn from base to final to get lined up with the new runway.

What these situations have in common is that they were set-ups for loss of control.  The National Transportation Safety Board has loss of control on their most wanted list, and for good reason.  Loss of control is a big deal.  Almost half of all general aviation fatalities are caused by loss of control, and they are almost always fatal.

I confess I have had a hard time getting my brain wrapped around the subject of loss of control.  It has become the safety issue du jour, but it is a huge category.  I mean, you could say there are only two conditions in which an aircraft can crash—either in control or out of control.  I am not sure that learning that a crash happened as a result of loss of control gives us much actionable information.  Plus, I have a tendency to see loss of control as a result rather than a cause.  Having said that, if we as a community could crack the code to eliminating loss-of-control accidents we could save thousands of lives.

Loss of control has occurred anytime the aircraft does something you don’t want it to do.  That can happen whenever you expect too much of either the aircraft or yourself as the pilot–asking one or the other to do something they just can’t do.  For instance, asking an airplane to fly with too much load factor will result in loss of control.  Yet pilots do it on the turn from base to final with regularity.  Pilots frequently ask too much of themselves when landing in crosswinds, or flying in instrument weather conditions without proper preparation.

There are many ways to lose control—pilots can be very creative about it.  What they all seem to have in common is that almost all loss of control accidents occur in repeating scenarios—with perfect hindsight you realize the pilot should have seen them coming.  The idea behind learning the habit of risk management is to turn that perfect hindsight into foresight for pilots when it counts.  It means knowing what’s happening now and what bad thing might happen next if you don’t do something about it.

Looking at it that way, all loss of control accidents are the result of a failure in risk management.  But not everyone looks at it that way.  A flight instructor-friend of ours firmly believes that anything that might distract from stick-and-rudder skills during flight training is doing the learning pilot a disservice.  In fact, he calls these “distractions” “fantasy flight training.”

Truly, there is much to be said for helping learning pilots have the highest level of skills they can attain.  However, all pilots inevitably have some limitation on their skills.  Without risk management, it is possible for any pilot to get themselves into situations that no amount of skill could get them out of.  To paraphrase an old saying, it is wise to use your superior risk management to avoid situations that just might require even more than your superior skills.  A training program that focuses solely on skill, and ignores risk management, will leave pilots unnecessarily vulnerable.

When a pilot does manage to avoid an accident, it is hard to know whether it might have been superior risk management or superior skill that saved the day.  On our approach to runway 18 at Oshkosh, it could be said that I executed a go-around so that I didn’t have to use superior skill, although cleaning up and doing a go-around in a highly wing-loaded, swept-wing jet from low altitude is not without its challenges.

On John’s approach to Appleton it could be said that John’s slight forward pressure on the control yoke in response to the rumble was a demonstration of superior skill.  But with all due respect to John, it didn’t take all that much skill to apply that slight forward pressure.

The important point in each case is that a successful outcome required the knowledge and risk management habits to recognize a scenario that was a set-up for stall/spin, and also recognize the mitigation needed. Although in times past we sometimes did not demonstrate these qualities, our performance in these instances seems to indicate that over the years we might have developed them.

Then, in addition to knowledge and risk management, skill was required to execute the response.  That’s why the Airman Certification Standards (ACS), which in June will replace the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the Private Pilot and Instrument Rating tests, will require pilots to demonstrate all three.

Pilots have been taught knowledge specific to aviation since the beginning of flight.  We need knowledge to get full utility out of our flying.  But the real reason we need it is to be able to identify and mitigate risks.

The knowledge needed for the Oshkosh and Appleton events was the standard knowledge that everyone learns about stall/spins—the need to manage angle of attack and load factor, and the importance of keeping the nose yawed into the relative wind.  Additionally needed was knowledge of the aerodynamic warnings that our airplane provides for a stall.

Learning risk management, in this case for stall/spin, requires practice at recognizing scenarios that can lead to stall/spins, and coming up with mitigation strategies.  The specific scenario in the traffic pattern that most often leads to loss of control is the very one we had at Appleton—turning from base to final with lots of distractions.  In this case there was also a last-minute runway change requiring maneuvering to get lined up.  Add in a tailwind from base to final, and an overshoot, and it becomes an almost irresistible temptation to steepen the bank and maybe even add some bottom rudder.

Consideration of the skills required for preventing loss of control prompts a call for a return to the basics.  All the skills we learned when we learned to fly are about keeping control of the airplane.  In addition to all the other skills every pilot learns, in stall/spin scenarios it becomes particularly useful to have a well-honed sensitivity to load factor, and to the side loads that tell you when the nose is not yawed into the relative wind.

While learning knowledge and skills has always been fundamental to learning to fly, the recent emphasis on preventing loss of control brings a new understanding that loss of control is at its core a failure in risk management.  Among the many outcomes of poor risk management, loss of control is the most frequent and the most deadly.

The ideal is for pilots to become so practiced at identifying risky scenarios that they develop the ability to “smell” trouble, and not allow themselves to get into situations that might lead them to ask themselves or the airplane to do something they just can’t do.

The problem with any kind of loss of control is that while it may take considerable time for the situation to develop, when it comes to the actual moment of loss of control, it can happen very quickly.  When things have progressed to that point it is very difficult to recover.  The best recovery is not to need one.

Why Some Pilots Are Bad Risk Managers

When Goals Get in the Way of Smart Decision-Making

Article appeared in Flying Magazine December, 2015 by Martha King –Martha_04

“You can’t teach judgment.” “…I’m afraid no amount of ’risk management’ training is going to change your attitude.” These comments were in response to John’s May column “Double Trouble at Denver.” John had revealed our incredible series of risk management failures on a trip in the early 70’s—getting caught in a snowstorm in two separate airplanes with mechanical problems. John then expressed our fond hope that other pilots could learn from our mistakes and practice the habit of risk management.

Then here in the pages of Flying, another columnist opined, “I am rather skeptical about whether risk management (judgment) is something that can be taught and tested…” The readers and the columnist are to be excused. A lot of people confuse risk management with judgment and attitude.

Actually, the practice of risk management, as John and I see it, has two main components. The first is a habit of maintaining situational awareness by systematically thinking about risks. The second is coming up with mitigation strategies for the risks you have thought of. On our trip to Denver John and I clearly failed at both.

Regarding situational awareness, we were in the category of “fat, dumb, and happy.” As we were approaching Denver from the east, the weather was forecast to be good. We didn’t have any concerns.

Suddenly the weather got worse, with abundant snow and ice. We had been caught by the fickle system known as an “upslope condition.” We had never heard of an upslope condition. We were very surprised.

We had, of course, been taught about counterclockwise circulation around lows (in the Northern Hemisphere) and orographic lift. What we had not been taught was where the topside of a low might combine with rising terrain to create orographic lift with copious snow and ice. That “where” is in eastern Colorado.

Many pilots who get into trouble in their flying are, like us, the most surprised people on earth. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. In many cases regarding risk management, we are sent out the door as we leave flight training with, “Y’all be careful, hear?”, but no systematic training on how to identify and mitigate risks.

An ideal way for a learning pilot to develop the habit of maintaining situational awareness is with scenario-based training during which they develop the habit of active risk identification. Much of our aviation knowledge, like counterclockwise flow around a low (in the Northern Hemisphere) and orographic lift, is an abstraction until we apply it in a practical scenario.

A lot of flight instruction is about learning to develop habits like meticulously inspecting our aircraft before taking it into the air, using checklists, fastening seat belts, and many, many more. Risk management is just another one of those habits that, once learned, will serve us well for the rest of our flying.

These habits are often supported with memory aids and sayings like ”GUMP,” ”CIGAR TIPS,” and “Black square–you’re there.” Pilots find them helpful.

Risk management comes with its own memory aids. There’s PAVE for putting risks into the categories of Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, and External/internal pressures. Plus, there’s C-CARE for Changes, Consequences, Alternatives, Reality, and External/internal pressures.

The cure to the “fat, dumb and happy” status, like John and I were in on the way to Denver, is relatively simple—learn to use habit patterns and tools to help maintain situational awareness and identify risks.

The cure to the risk mitigation component is more complicated. Many pilots are, like John and I previously were, resistant to mitigating the risks.

We’ve all seen pilots who came to grief after continuing in the face of one mounting risk after another. You had to ask, “What were they thinking?” What made them accept risks that, in retrospect at least, were unacceptable to everyone else?

When other pilots see this they tend to call the offending pilot names like “idiot,” “stupid,” “arrogant.” But that response is not an adequate explanation, or helpful in understanding their behavior. The answer, I believe, lies in the last ”E” in both PAVE and C-CARE. It stands for the external and internal pressures that impinge on pilots. Those pressures and how they affect pilots vary with the individual, but they fall into at least two identifiable groups.

The first group is, fortunately, relatively small. It is the Big-Shot/Show-Off/Thrill-Seeker group. They step into risk. Taking risk is a part of the fun of flying for them. This group knows they are taking risks, but are sure they can get away with it.

They think risk-taking makes them look like superior pilots. There is a tendency for these pilots to keep on enjoying risk-taking until they, and their passengers, pay the ultimate price.

A pilot who lost his pilot’s license twice, first for buzzing the Santa Monica Pier and later for illegally selling rides to the public, was eventually killed along with his very unfortunate passenger while attempting to touch his aircraft’s tires on the water to produce a water-skiing effect for a video.

A Baron pilot killed himself and four passengers attempting the aerobatics he saw performed in a Twin-Beech at Sun ‘n Fun. He had attempted to do the same maneuvers on an earlier flight, but a pilot-passenger in the front seat had prevented him.

These show-off pilots see professionals do things and think they can do them too. They fail to understand that the professionals have worked up to a high level after years of very careful training and practice. Plus, professional show pilots are keenly aware of the risks, and see risk mitigation as integral to what they do for a living. The best hope for the show-off/thrill-seeker is for them to realize that to be anything less than equally focused on risk management is a sign of a rank amateur.

The second group potentially includes most pilots including, I believe, John and me in the 70s. We all became pilots because we were willing to take on a very tough challenge over an extended period of time. We studied a body of knowledge and then submitted to a test on it. We learned difficult skills that we weren’t certain, in the beginning, we could master. Nearly every learning pilot says at one time or another, ”You know, I’m not sure I am going to be able to do this.” Then we soloed and took our lives into our own hands thousands of feet above the ground. We persisted, presented ourselves for evaluation, and became certificated pilots.

Flying self-selects people who are willing to do all this. They are good at almost everything they do. They are the movers and shakers of every community they belong to. They are hard-wired to complete what they set out to do. This goal-orientation is a wonderful characteristic in almost all of life, but as a pilot it can be a risk factor. It tends to make us want to keep on going when good risk mitigation says we should change our plan.

An Episcopalian priest who took one of our classes in the 70s was also a physician. He died on a solo cross country after being begged by the FBO to come in to talk before he turned around and flew the second leg in worsening weather. He had to get back in time to give a speech to a large crowd.

A friend of ours who owned a ski resort was leaving the resort in the evening in his Cardinal when he became disoriented and flew back into the ground. He was late for a meeting back in town.

And of course John and I continued into worsening weather to maintain our schedule into Denver. We weren’t courting risk or showing off. We were simply hard-wired to complete what we set out to do, and resistant to anything that reduced the utility of our flying.

Like the show-offs, the goal-oriented pilots know they are taking some risk, but they think they can get away with it and they hate to give up on goals.

After we had our subsequent accident, John and I spent considerable time reflecting on what it was that made us in particular resistant to mitigating risk. As a result, we came to terms with the concept that while in GA we don’t want or need to be as rigid as the airlines, we have to accept reasonable limitations on our utility. We consider our introspection on the subject time well spent. We highly recommend it to anyone who flies.

The Most Important Thing We Can Teach

John and Martha King

(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)

As instructors we all want the best for our customers.  We teach them the FAA-required skills and knowledge, and even go beyond those standards.  We warn them about the hazards associated with weather, navigation, performance, aircraft loading, and every other hazard we can think of.  They then are required to pass a knowledge test.  Finally they undergo an evaluation of their ability to put this all together when they take their practical test.

“Nearly everyone…in general aviation knows someone personally who was killed in an airplane accident.”

In spite of our earnest concern on their behalf, the results aren’t all that good.  General aviation fatality rates are an unacceptable 8 times that of cars on a per mile basis.  Nearly everyone who is engaged in general aviation knows someone personally who was killed in an airplane accident.  These people as a rule are not incompetent, nor do they court risk.  In fact, general aviation self-selects capable, achieving people who are leaders in their communities.  In most cases these people and their passengers came to grief because they inadvertently exposed themselves to risk that they didn’t fully understand.

Example with names and places changed
James Jackson was in the ill-fated plane with his wife, MaryAnne, and their two children, David and Alison, flying to a family reunion at Columbia, CA. Witness Brian Daugherty told the Press-Journal that he watched the plane take off and saw the pilot appear to attempt to clear a line of fog. “He was heading toward the coast and tried to climb,” Daugherty said. “From the time he took off he was going too steep, too slow.” All four occupants perished in the crash.

Dealing with Nebulous Risks

We’ve done our best, so why aren’t we getting better results?  Well, first of all flight is a hazardous activity.  Airplanes have to get to a lethal speed just to get airborne.  Additionally, the risks associated with flying are not as intuitive as the risks we normally face.  In fact, they are sneaky and insidious.  Professional risk managers tell us that when the risks are nebulous and hard to quantify, people tend to underestimate them.  In aviation, the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong are particularly hard to judge.  As a result pilots underestimate the risks and overestimate their ability to deal with them.

Since the beginning of aviation the way we have taught risk management is by telling stories, passing along rules, and making up sayings—things like…

  • “The only time you can have too much fuel is when you are on fire.”
  • “The two most useless things in aviation are the runway behind you and the altitude above you.”
  • “You’re a lot better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air, than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.”

These are great sayings, but they are not enough.

“In aviation, the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong are particularly hard to judge.”

In fact, the way most pilots become “experienced” in aviation is they get their certificate and then go out and try stuff. They expose themselves to risk, and then evaluate the result.  If they don’t scare themselves, they place it in the “acceptable” category.  In fact, they may have just been lucky.  But the more times they get away with it, the more acceptable the risk becomes.

On the other hand, if they scare themselves they add what they did to the list of things they won’t do again.  If they don’t run out of luck, they become an “experienced” pilot.  The problem with experience is that she is a hard teacher.  She gives the test first, and the lesson comes afterward.  Many pilots, and their passengers, never survive to get the lesson.

A Systematic Approach to Risk Management

But even a long list of unacceptable risks doesn’t prepare pilots for risks they’ve never taken or thought of before.  What’s needed is a systematic approach to risk management.  We already employ a systematic approach to conducting a preflight inspection of an airplane.  Just as generations of pilots have been taught since the days of the barnstormers, we very systematically walk around the airplane examining it in great detail—even carefully raising the ailerons to inspect the hinges.  But no such procedure is used to consider in advance the pilot’s risk management of the flight.

“…only a very small percentage of accidents are caused by mechanical failure.”

The problem is that only a very small percentage of accidents are caused by a mechanical failure.  But a very large percentage of accidents are caused by a failure in risk management on the part of the pilot.  The result is that during pre-flight pilots pay very careful attention to things that don’t cause accidents, but spend very little time contemplating the things that do cause accidents.

The reason that pilots spend little time thinking about risk management is we don’t yet have a procedure in place to teach pilots how to do it.  As instructors we have earnestly attempted to tell pilots about all the hazards they might face.  But we will never be able to think of them all and they wouldn’t be able to remember them.

What pilots need is a tool that they can routinely use to anticipate the risks so that they can be managed.  Any systematic, practical procedure to anticipate risks will work, but I suggest the pilots use the PAVE memory aid to “pave” their way to a safe flight.

The letters stand for

  • Pilot
  • Aircraft
  • enVironment
  • External pressures

A Case Study

Let’s take a look at how PAVE might have worked to help James Jackson analyze the risks associated with his flight:


  • Not instrument rated


  • Normal piston-engine climb capability


  • Fog bank to the west
  • Wind from the west

 External Pressures

  • Commitment to attend a family reunion


As a flight instructor you would probably observe that pilots often overestimate their angle of climb capability. The probability that a pilot would inadvertently wind up in the clouds or stalling the airplane while attempting to out-climb the clouds is high.  You would also observe that if a pilot finds themself in this situation, the most important consideration is aircraft control.

You would also note that there was a cross runway and that taking off with a crosswind component might be preferable to attempting to climb over a fog bank.

You might also observe that fog banks often clear up as the day progresses and you might advise delaying the departure to allow the weather to improve.

Risk Management from the First Lesson

So those would probably be your thoughts as a flight instructor.  How do you get the new pilot you are training to have the same thoughts?

The answer is that you employ a risk management analysis from the very first lesson.  You would teach your learning pilot to identify and manage the risks associated with every flight, and relate their plan to you.  From that point on you would no more find it acceptable for them to skip this preflight action than you would for them to go flying without a preflight inspection of the airplane.

With practice, your learning pilot would gain the skill of analyzing the risks and coming up with a mitigation plan for them.

Right now, we are expecting new pilots to learn this on their own after they leave flight training.  It clearly is not working.  As flight instructors we can and must do better for them.

Related Links

Teaching Aviation Citizenship

John and Martha King

(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)

As instructors we have many responsibilities—creating pilots who are great risk managers and truly prepared to be pilot-in-command would be high on the list.  It would seem that teaching good aviation citizenship would come way down this list.  But in my view, teaching aviation citizenship should also be near the top.

Helping pilots move from aviation klutzhood to citizenship is a very simple way to help them greatly reduce the stress and increase the enjoyment of flying, and at the same time, markedly reduce their risk of having an accident.

“Pilots who finally do themselves in often have had a long history of not following the rules, and of self-centered and cavalier behavior.”

Not being a good aviation citizen clearly has its risks.  Pilots who finally do themselves in often have had a long history of not following the rules, and of self-centered and cavalier behavior.  The folks who run aviation insurance companies will tell you that there is one very identifiable group of pilots with a significantly higher than average accident rate.  It is those pilots who don’t pay their premiums on time and argue heatedly about training and currency requirements.

As instructors we need teach pilots to manage what they care about.  It is what pilots care about that causes or prevents accidents.  Pilots who care about saving money on fuel will press on to an airport with cheaper fuel even at the risk of running out of fuel on the way. It is my contention that the habit of thoughtful aviation citizenship and what pilots care about can be trained, and that it will carry over into all of the pilot’s flying.

“Unless you take special effort to think about how you are affecting others, it won’t come to mind.”

Now the truth is, being a good aviation citizen isn’t all that easy.  When you are in an aircraft you are busy.  Your attention is focused on what you are doing.  Unless you take special effort to think about how you are affecting others, it won’t come to mind.

Historically, thoughtful citizenship has not normally been included in the flight instruction program.  In fact, occasionally pilots have been trained to do something that has an unnecessarily negative impact on others.  For example, instead of being trained to fly quietly on approach, pilots are often told to increase propeller RPM early on a constant-speed prop to be ready for a go-around.

I had never thought much about how my flying was affecting folks on the ground until I attended a series of neighborhood meetings about a proposed runway extension at our local airport.  Some of the meetings had over a thousand attendees—and most had showed up to let everyone know how much the noise from airplanes bothered them.  The number and intensity of these folks was a great surprise to me.  For the first time I realized that if we wanted to keep our airport, we were going to have to be more considerate of our neighbors.

“There are a few little things we can teach pilots to do that will make a big difference.”

There are a few little things we can teach pilots to do that will make a big difference.  For instance, climbing at best angle-of-climb speed right after takeoff not only multiplies their alternatives in the event of an engine failure, but it reduces their noise impact to the neighborhood geometrically as they gain altitude.

Since much of the noise made by airplanes is caused by the speed of the propeller blade tips, teaching them to keep prop RPM low anytime they are over a populated area will make a huge difference.  Most manufacturers approve RPMs as low as 1800.  Many pilots with constant-speed props are afraid of operating their engines at that low an RPM, because they were erroneously taught never to operate over-square (with manifold pressure in inches greater than RPM in hundreds).  So consequently, they needlessly fly over neighborhoods with their props screaming away.

You can also reduce neighborhood noise by teaching pilots to keep their pattern tight and delay their descent in the pattern until they are on a normal descent path to the runway.  Unless taught otherwise, lots of pilots tend to start their descent abeam the landing point regardless of how extended the traffic pattern has become, and wind up flying an extended pattern at low altitude over neighborhood homes.

The alternative is to teach pilots that when the pattern becomes extended they should to hold their altitude, slow down, keep the airplane to follow in sight, and turn base when they pass abeam you on final.  This keeps their noise footprint closer to the airport and has the safety advantage of making it easier for everybody to keep pattern traffic in sight.

The traffic pattern is one place where exercising courtesy and civility is especially critical to safety.  Regardless of how big or fast an airplane they are flying, at an uncontrolled airport it is the pilot’s responsibility to monitor the frequency. It is disrespectful, dangerous, and contrary to the Aeronautical Information Manual for pilots to assume that they are exempt from the obligation to monitor the frequency and say, “All traffic please advise”.  The likely result is everybody talking at once.  This is a real setup for a midair collision.

“Flying something big or fast…is not an excuse to make a straight-in approach to a crowded pattern.”

Flying something big or fast, even when on an IFR flight plan, is not an excuse to make a straight-in approach to a crowded pattern.  I make it a policy to always fly the pattern, even in a jet, unless I am certain that I won’t interfere with pattern traffic, and weather conditions would make circling risky.  We should teach all our customers to do the same thing.

Aviation citizenship is important on the ground too.

Even the smallest plane can blow things around a hangar or fill it with dust, just by turning the wrong direction.  You can teach pilots to avoid this by something as simple as taxiing past an open hangar before they start a turn.

The other day we were sitting at an airport restaurant wondering when the guy sitting on the ramp with his engine blaring away was ever going to move away from us.  Part of the problem was that the pilot was running his engine much harder than he needed to.  He just hadn’t been taught to reduce RPM to idle after startup.  We should teach pilots to whenever possible copy ATIS and get their clearance before they start up and then move the airplane away from the restaurant area, or any other populated area, right after start up.

“…anyone waiting for an IFR clearance should pull out of the way, if possible, to allow other aircraft access to the runway…”

The other day a couple of professional pilots in a Citation pulled up to the hold line and blocked everyone else from taking off.  As it worked out the airspace in the direction they wanted go was saturated, but the airspace in other directions would allow immediate take-offs.  No one could move, however, because they had blocked the path to the runway.  When tower asked if they could move out of the way, they said they didn’t have room to move, and added that turbine aircraft were always entitled to taxi directly to the hold line.

We should teach pilots that anyone waiting for an IFR clearance should pull out of the way, if possible, to allow other aircraft access to the runway—even if they are otherwise ready to go.  Many times a faster aircraft or one going another direction can go out ahead of them.  It will cost them virtually nothing in the way of time and it will save others a lot.

We should teach pilots to think kindly towards ATC.  We pilots can often be an anti-authority crowd.  I remember in my early days of flying, I’d be taking off VFR and the controller would say, “Say your destination”.  This would annoy me because I thought of controllers as being part of the federal government.  My reaction was, “What business is it of the government where I am going?”  The fact was, the controller just wanted to know which direction I was flying so he could help get me on my way.

“After having flown internationally, I have come to greatly appreciate our ATC system.”

I also used to have a chip on my shoulder about ATC when I didn’t get an altitude or route as quickly as I thought I should have.  After we got a traffic awareness system that let us see the airplanes around us, I realized that the controllers were giving us the clearances we wanted just as soon as it was possible.  Now I realize that they are working every day trying to solve a giant puzzle in the sky to get everybody on their way efficiently.

After having flown internationally, I have come to greatly appreciate our ATC system. I now realize that we have a magnificent system that accommodates general aviation better than anyplace  else in the world.  I see the relationship with Air Traffic Control as a beautiful dance in which each partner plays a cooperative role.  In those cases in which a controller makes a mistake or is impatient, I remind myself that through the years I have caused controllers much more trouble than they have ever caused me.

We should teach our pilots that it they ever do feel that they have a grievance with a controller, the thing to do is call a supervisor on the phone after they land.  The radio is never the place to air grievances.

We should also teach pilots to appreciate FBOs.  Flying a general aviation aircraft internationally has led me to appreciate FBOs.  Most of the rest of the world doesn’t have them in the way we do, and when there are FBOs, they are much, much more expensive than ours.

In most parts of the world fuel is supplied by a roving tank truck that serves the airliners first and general aviation only when there is spare time available.  It is not uncommon to wait hours for fuel.  By the same token, since there is no FBO, there is no place to park your airplane or rent a car.  When you arrive at an FBO in the U.S. people usually come to greet you to ask what services you’d like.  In other parts of the world, when they run up to you as you arrive, they say, “You can’t park here.”  You have to beg permission to park on someone’s property and figure a way to schlep your luggage through the security gate.

We should also teach pilots to appreciate business jets.  It is very difficult even in the U.S. for an FBO to make it based solely on business from piston-powered aircraft.  Yet FBOs often accommodate us in pistons with the same service they give jets—even though jets take on 10 to 20 times the fuel.  We should teach pilots to develop the habit of buying at least some fuel every time they use an FBO and of saying to FBOs, “Thanks for being here, and thanks for the service you provide.”  Our aviation life wouldn’t be the same without them.

“We often fail to think about the flight from the passengers’ view point instead of our own.”

We should also teach pilots to understand their enormous responsibility to passengers.  Passengers trustingly put their lives completely in our hands.  They have a right to expect us to identify and manage the risks of every flight.  We often fail to think about the flight from the passengers’ view point instead of our own.  I can’t tell you how many folks have been lost to the aviation community because a new pilot wanted to show them stalls.  Clearly the pilot was thinking of their own needs—not their passengers.  We lose a lot of potential members of our community because of thoughtless actions.

Realizing that I have been and still am an aviation klutz from time to time has helped me in my efforts to be more tolerant of other pilots who, while wrapped up in what they are trying to do, have joined the aviation klutz club and inconvenienced me.  One of the things we all need to remember is we need other pilots to help keep the critical mass necessary to sustain our industry.  We should welcome and include others into our aviation community and treat them with civility and respect.

As new pilots come into the industry they will make the same kind of annoying and frustrating mistakes that we made when we started flying.  We need to be tolerant of these mistakes, including those of the rusty old hands who still make an occasional faux pas.

I know that I have been least considerate of others when I have been in a hurry.  Being in a hurry in an airplane is not a good thing.  These days when I find myself being in a hurry, I remind myself that the airplane is fast—so I don’t have to be.  We need to teach pilots to slow down and enjoy what they are doing.  They will become safer pilots, have more fun, and be much more considerate towards others.

We need to teach pilots that to be thoughtful aviation citizens, they don’t necessarily have to put others ahead of themselves.  They just need to think about the effect they have on others.  It will cost pilots very little, if anything, to minimize that effect.  The little effort it does take will pay rich dividends to them directly from safer, less stressful flights, and to the aviation community from greater support for airports and more pilots who stay with flying.

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Pilots Who Should Scare Us—And What To Do About Them

John and Martha King

(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)

It has happened to most of us who have been flying very long.  Someone we know, but maybe not all that well, comes to grief in an airplane, along with their passengers.  Very often the flight instructors and other pilots who knew the pilot weren’t all that surprised.  But the tragic fact is that they hadn’t done anything about it.

Most of us feel uncomfortable about intervening.  I know.  I used to feel that way too—until I stood by and let another pilot kill himself in an airplane.


To help people understand risk management in flying I like to use the PAVE checklist:

  • Pilot
  • Aircraft
  • environment
  • External Pressures

I had a student in a ground-school class who troubled me.  He was a pillar in his community.  He was both a physician and an Episcopalian priest, but he didn’t follow the conventions of a classroom.  He came in late, left early, and interrupted the class unnecessarily.  I became so concerned that I told the FAA inspector who came to give the test that unless he intervened, this student would kill himself in an airplane.  The inspector rightly told me that he could not give someone a lecture just because I said he should.  He suggested that I should intervene.  I didn’t feel comfortable doing so—and my student killed himself in an airplane crash within two weeks.

The truth is that many of us have been in a similar situation and done nothing.  I have resolved that I will no longer stand by and not act, when I see a problem.  But even if every one of us makes the same resolve, we still have the problem of what to look for, and after that what, to do about it.

With the support of Avemco Insurance, Bill Rhodes of Aerworthy Consulting has been working on what to look for.  Bill has been measuring the risk management performance of pilots in simulators and comparing their performance to some characteristics.

Here are some characteristics that on a preliminary basis Bill has come up with that we should find scary:

  • Takes risks
  • Knows it all
  • Is overconfident
  • Is overly optimistic—plans on the unrealistic/ barely realistic
  • Is in a hurry
  • Advances to high performance aircraft very quickly
  • Shows off
  • Ignores the books and the mentors

All in all, it is not so much lack of skill that should scare us as lack of humility, ethics and responsibility towards others.  In the final analysis, it’s not that we don’t know what to look for.  As a Supreme Court justice famously said—“I know it when I see it”.

Recognizing this person  is not the hard part.  The hard part is screwing up the courage to talk to them, and doing it in a way that gets positive results.

I might have a special perspective on this issue, because when I started flying I was identified as the overly optimistic person described above.  I had many people who did talk to me, but I discounted what they had to say.


To help maintain situational awareness I recommend the CARE attention scan:

  • Consequesnces (of changes)
  • Alternatives
  • Reality
  • External Pressures

The way I saw it, these people were trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do, and I took their admonitions as a personal affront.  I didn’t have the tools I needed to even know the categories of risks I was taking and the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong as a result of those risks.  I was, you might say, unconsciously ignorant—I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  All I knew was that people were questioning my skill and judgment and trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do.  I have often thought about why these very concerned individuals were unable to get through to me.  What could have gotten through to me?

I believe more information and the use of better terminology would have been helpful.

I was told what I was doing wasn’t “safe”.  People talked about safety as if safety were an on/off condition.  It just didn’t make intellectual sense to me.  What I needed was a more thoughtful way of thinking about it.  I needed the concepts of risk management and a vocabulary that would have given me the tools to think about the concepts.

It is subtle, but it would have been helpful for me to have focused on risks and probabilities rather than safety.  I needed to understand the risks I was taking and the probabilities of things going wrong as a result of the risks I was taking.

So what do I do now?  I try to give the person I am talking to information.  I explain to them the categories of risk involved in aviation, and what special risks there might be in today’s circumstances and how they can manage them.  But whatever I do, if I see a situation that scares me, I talk to them.  As flight instructors we should all consider it our sacred duty to do so.

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