By Brian Schober
Aviation is one of the safest activities humans can take part in. Despite the inherent danger of speeding through the sky in a metal tube, we've managed to reduce or eliminate most of the risks, such that there is less than one fatality per each 100,000 flight hours. Compared to driving, boating, or even golfing, we've done a great job at keeping people safe. Despite this, pilots continue to bend airplanes and deaths still do occur. While listening to a recent episode of the Aviation Newstalk Podcast hosted by Max Trescott, that week's topic struck me as something that should be common sense. After some internal reflection, I realized I am just as guilty as everybody else. I reached out to Max and asked if I could share his thoughts and he gladly agreed!
As a parent, I speak up any time my kids are about to step into danger's path. Like the Allstate commercial, mayhem is always lurking just around the corner for our family. When the urge to text while driving comes up, my daughters quickly, and less than politely, remind me that I can't do that. After a couple of celebratory drinks, I'll be the first to call for an Uber for a friend or offer a ride home. I'm sure we're all in the same boat here. It seems that speaking up would be the norm. Unfortunately, that doesn't always carry over to aviation. Speaking up when something is clearly wrong is the right thing to do, but we seem to hesitate to do so.
The more years that pass behind us, the more crazy stories we seem to amass about that guy who left the pitot tube cover on while taking off. What a dope, right? Or the Bonanza driver who taxis along with the towbar bouncing along in front? You've seen the guy who starts up with the wheel chocks still on the nosewheel, haven't you? No matter how good of a pilot you are, none of us are perfect all of the time. Fortunately, these types of issues often solve themselves relatively quickly, though not before embarrassment. Would you speak out if you saw an instance like these? Many pilots don't. New or low-time pilots may think that surely the pilot will recognize the issue before it becomes a real issue.
Author and psychologist Dr. Ira Heilveil recently published an article in Plane and Pilot magazine talking about this exact topic. He mentions a myriad of reasons why a pilot may not warn another pilot of a potential issue. Pride, honor, machismo, fear, etc... These are all powerful detractors. It can actually get worse. Dr. Heilveil notes that the hesitation to speak up increases with a crowd. In something he calls the Bystander Effect, he notes that people are less likely to intervene in a dangerous situation while in the company of others. This hesitation could be due to a social norm - if nobody else is panicking, maybe I'm just overreacting. In a room full of pilots, this type of social behavior can turn deadly if not countered. (Ira Heilveil – “Getting Pilots to Speak Up”)
Remember that pitot tube? In July 2018, a Malaysian Airlines A330-300 departed Brisbane, Australia, and almost immediately noted speed anomalies. After quite some time spent in the air troubleshooting, the aircraft returned to the airport and suffered minor damage. It was found that all three pitot covers were still in place. A photo taken from the terminal shows the covers in place while the aircraft was being pushed back from the gate. The tug driver surely saw the covers and didn't report them.
The towbar incident? It seems to be rather common. There is no shortage of YouTube videos showing aircraft taxiing with the towbar still attached. One example from September 2015 shows a Cessna 172 in the runup area with a towbar attached. The filming aircraft had a student and an instructor aboard. The instructor immediately called Ground and let them know the tail number and the issue. The offending pilot then stepped out of the plane (with the engine still running) and was going to remove the towbar. Fortunately, he stepped back in to shut it down. Tragedy averted.
What about more difficult decisions? Flights directly into IMC or night flights near or over rugged terrain still claim more pilots than they should. The risks are certainly higher, but well-trained pilots complete these types of flights all the time. Is it worth raising the flag just because you're not comfortable with it? That depends. If the pilot is Instrument rated and current, is familiar with the aircraft in question, and risks have been mitigated as best as possible, then flight into IMC may be perfectly safe. The pilot may have a method to effectively mitigate somatogravic illusion, or he or she may not.
As a pilot, you should feel free to question the flight. Free to question the soundness of the decision to go, free to offer alternate solutions. You may not sway the other pilot's mind, but then again, you might. What's the worst that could happen if you warn a pilot that something can go very wrong if he or she continues? Hurt feelings, some angry words, some bruised ego, and maybe even a damaged friendship. While there is some price to pay for speaking out, it's certainly less than a damaged aircraft or loss of a life.
Speak up. Those little hairs on your neck that tell you something isn't right are rarely wrong. Be bold enough to let a fellow aviator know you care. As Dr. Heilveil mentions, if the genuine intention behind speaking out is care, the recipient will sense that. They may not listen, but they will understand the intention is genuine. There are many tragic examples where pilots were warned by others, yet continued with the flight and ended up dead. Fortunately, most pilots also want to live to see another day and heed sound advice. Wouldn't you want somebody to help you out with a gentle warning if you were about to do something stupid? I certainly would.
If you enjoy tips and tricks for flying safely, Max Trescott's weekly Aviation Newstalk Podcast comes highly-recommended. Max does a great job of providing news specific to general aviation while providing insight into issues we may encounter in flight along with application methods to help keep you safer.