I Get The Darndest Questions

by Harold Green

Sometimes I get the darnedest questions. One of the latest was, “How do you handle the situation when the person you are flying with is doing something you think is not safe?” That, at least, was food for thought. Now, how do we answer that?

While disclaiming any pretense to expertise on this subject, common sense says that avoiding the situation in the first place is the best answer. Once in the air, it is a whole new ball game because correcting unsafe activities requires either the tact of a professional diplomat, or a very large club. The eventual outcome could very easily result in a loss of  a personal relationship. Large clubs are not a good answer while flying, either. The following assumes you are about to fly with someone with whom you have only a nodding flight acquaintance. If you know the other person well and you have reservations, just find some excuse not to go, or if airborne, play sick and ask to land immediately!

In order to avoid the problem of potential safety issues arising while in flight, it is important to identify and avoid the situation in the first place. This can perhaps be done by judging the attitude of the person with whom we may fly. There is no guaranteed method of doing this. After some thought, however, I harked back to my days as an airborne radio operator in the U.S. Air Force for a basis.

We flew as five-person crews consisting of a pilot and co-pilot (commissioned), one navigator (commissioned), one flight engineer (enlisted), and one radio operator (enlisted). We were assigned to a flight, not to a crew, so we flew with whoever was assigned to that flight. In those days crew coordination consisted of everyone doing what the pilot said, when the pilot said it. Any discussion tended to be between the two pilots, and that was brief at most. Discussion or comments from the enlisted personnel about anything other than their specific duties was generally not welcomed. Since we had no input into the operation, we rapidly learned to judge the quality of the pilots with whom we flew. Not that we could do anything unless it was a very immediate and direct crisis to which we could contribute within our specialty, but at least judging the pilots gave us advance warning.

Because Air Force flight training was very thorough, it was rare that a pilot was not competent to fly the airplane. Although the training is different, as is the mission, the same is also true of the quality of general aviation pilots. What determined the quality of the pilot was their judgment. Again, the same is true of civilian pilots. Some things that seemed to provide evidence were: How the Air Force pilot interacted with others, particularly those whose lives depended on him. Arrogance or contempt meant we were dealing with an insecure pilot who would be prone to rapid, ill-conceived, ego-driven decisions. Lack of attention to detail during pre-flight generally indicated lack of attention to safety as well. To the point of this discussion, while it was not judicious to question the pilot, there was one instance when the flight engineer and I refused to fly on a flight due to a mechanical problem with the airplane. Fortunately, the outcome was in our favor because the failure we saw coming happened while the plane was taxiing and still on the ramp. As a result, we avoided a threatened court martial and possibly saved lives in the process.

Conclusion: Avoid the situation if at all possible, but bear in mind that the consequences can be substantial.

Next, it is wise to closely watch how the person handles the preflight of the airplane and the flight planning. Does the pilot know the airplane is airworthy and has the pilot planned the flight with due awareness of potential problems? If the answer to either of those questions is “NO,” then stay home! There are enough opportunities for surprises during a flight and there is no advantage in increasing that probability. Besides, the degree of preparation and flight awareness is a good indicator of the decision-making capability of the pilot.

Instructors are often faced with situations in which the pilot is performing some action, which is considered unsafe. However, bear in mind that the instructor has a direct impact on the student’s ability to continue flying. This is a tremendous leveler of rogue tendencies. In addition, flight instructors tend to evaluate a student prior to flying with them. While not pretending to speak for other instructors, my initial evaluation keys on the potential students’ reaction during preliminary conversation. If the student shows an inclination to take control of the lesson, or wants to tell me what is proper operation, a caution flag goes up. That flag has never been raised without subsequent confirmation in flight. Conversely, students who have a receptive attitude and ask, rather then attempt to control the lesson, have always been safe pilots. NOTE: Safe in this context does not always correlate with above average piloting skills. That is a different issue.

A tool that could be considered is the FAA touted I’M SAFE checklist applied not only to yourself, but also to the person with whom you are going to fly with. You may not be able to know all the answers, but at least they could point the way to consideration: illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, eating, and emotion are all factors which can affect both ability and judgment. Many of these can be judged in others by observation.

There is an issue, which can, and probably should be, raised prior to flight, which can at times serve as a trigger on reflection. That is to determine who is going to be Pilot-In-Command (PIC). This should be accomplished prior to any flight in which there is more than one pilot on board, although it is rarely done. NOTE: Both instructors and students can log PIC time if the student is qualified to fly in the flight conditions. But guess who the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will assume is the PIC? The big advantage to this is that it causes both pilots to consider the consequences of their actions. It is said that the PIC is the one whose name is listed on the NTSB accident report.

What about after you are in the airplane and you discover you would rather not be there? This is a matter of judgment, and determination on your part. Unless the situation is immediately dire, it might be best to suggest a concern and see what the reaction is.

For example, as you are looking out at ice beginning to build on the airplane, you might comment, “Gee, we’re picking up ice. What should we do about it?” If the answer does not express concern and a positive course of action, consider direct verbal confrontation. Generally progressing from suggestion to a direct statement like “I don’t like this because…” to “Let’s get out of here,” or, “Don’t do that again” is probably the best approach. In no case should you consider physical intervention, unless the situation is such that immediate disaster is at hand, and even then the results will probably not be good. In short, how you handle the situation depends on the seriousness of the situation, and let’s face it, your relationship with the pilot. (Heaven forbid the other pilot is your spouse.) Nonetheless, if you have a serious concern, you have an obligation to express it if for no other reason than to avoid continuation of bad practices, which might impact other people, to say nothing of saving your life!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Green was named “Wisconsin Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, he is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award,” and has been a flight instructor since 1976. Readers can email questions and comments to Harold Green at harlgren@aol.com or call 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

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