Hazardous Attitudes and Pilot Judgment: Is That Maneuver Really Worth the Risk?
Anti-Authority, Impulsivity, Invulnerability, and Macho – In One Flight!
Pilots are often told about the five hazardous attitudes in aviation: anti-authority, impulsivity, invulnerability, macho, and resignation. Each of these attitudes has an “antidote” (see figure below).
As I was perusing the internet recently, I came upon an impressive video of a Blanik L-13 glider approaching an airfield during a fly-in or airshow in what appears to be Slovakia (based on aircraft registration). The pilot arrives at midfield with plenty of energy and enters a loop; pulling out of the maneuver just five feet off the ground before continuing a climbing left turn for the onlookers. I must admit, it was quite a sight to see – the loop itself was gorgeous and the spectators were thrilled and anxious at the same time – you could hear the crowd gasp.
Video Credit: YouTube - Agustin the Pilot
I watched the video several times. Each time I did, I thought more and more about how risky it was to execute aerobatics so close to the ground with little to no margin for error. Perhaps the pilot was an accomplished performer with thousands of hours in gliders; perhaps the pilot had “seen it all” and always made it out safely. Regardless of the pilot’s experience and expert maneuvering, I couldn’t help but wonder: was it really worth it?
I started to analyze the apparent lack of aeronautical decision making – from what I can tell, the pilot exhibited four of the five hazardous attitudes – all in one flight! In doing so, it could be said that he also demonstrated poor judgement. Skill and proficiency is not worth much if you can’t make safe decisions.
Although the video was shot outside the USA, it’s quite clear that rules don’t apply to this glider pilot.
There is a now infamous example of a USAF B-52 that crashed in Washington State during low-level maneuvers at Fairchild Air Force Base. The bomber was being flown in a tight turn, close to the ground when it stalled, crashed and burned. The pilot was well-known for taking risks and pushing the aircraft beyond safe limits. His actions ended up killing his entire crew - on Family Day at the base. There is a very good book that goes into detail about the B-52 mishap.
We can check our anti-authority by remembering that rules are in place for a reason. In aviation, rules and regulations are often the result of fatal accidents.
It seemed like a good idea at the time! We all know that the flying environment is very dynamic. We must be constantly weighing the current conditions to ensure safety. Remember to slow down and think twice before performing a maneuver or entering conditions that may lower safety margins.
I’ve done it many times before and always come away unscathed. Why shouldn’t I keep flying this way? You may have gotten away with your decisions in the past, but are you willing to bet your life that things will go in your favor this time around? Have you considered the potential for collateral damage to people and property on the ground?
Skill, not luck, is the reason the pilot is able to execute the loop, right? Remind yourself that no matter how skilled you are, luck will not always be one your side. If you're betting against a one-in-a-thousand-chance of something happening, are you ready to be the one that suffers the catastrophic outcome - just for the sake of showing off?
"Pilot judgment is the process of recognizing and analyzing all available information about oneself, the aircraft, and the flying environment followed by the rational evaluation of alternatives to implement a timely decision which maximizes safety. Pilot judgment thus involves one’s attitudes toward risk-taking and one’s ability to evaluate risks and make decisions based upon one’s knowledge, skills, and experience. A judgment decision always involves a problem or choice, an unknown element, usually a time constraint, and stress."
This whole idea of attitudes, skills, judgment, and decision making are ingredients of a larger topic: airmanship. Your entire approach to flying, from studying the regulations, understanding the aircraft you are operating, your proficiency, etc., all factor into the equation and should be the topic of endless practice and improvement.
Tony Kern, retired Air Force pilot, author, and aviation safety expert has written several good books about human factors and aeronautical decision making. Kern writes about this self-appraisal in his book Redefining Airmanship:
"Self-appraisal is not a natural task for many flyers, who tend to stay within their comfort zones and avoid areas in which they are less than skilled or proficient. Flyers should strive for balance across [all] areas of airmanship as an umbrella against the unknown situation that lurks in Murphy's closet."
It's easy to sit back behind a keyboard and second guess a pilot's decision making. If one is not a pilot or has not been exposed to similar pressures or circumstances, there's little use in doing so. There is, however, value in reviewing the behavior and decisions of other pilots with self-improvement in mind. This is akin to learning from the mistakes of others. So, let's take a moment to debrief this incident and see how things could have been done differently, if at all.
If we use the Stick and Glider Debrief model after each flight, we will be reminded to evaluate our decision making (the D in GLIDER). A good pilot is more than just one who can manipulate the controls with finesse or one who is an expert on regulations. Each of us must be willing to self-evaluate after every flight; taking inventory of our skills and our weaknesses. This can include checking our attitudes, judgement, and overall decision making relative to our performance as pilots.
I like to ask myself questions before I decide on an abnormal/non-standard course of action:
What's my escape?
Would I push this far with loved ones onboard?
What's at risk if the maneuver/decision goes wrong?
Do I have an alternative that gets me to the same goal?
If we look at the looping glider, the answers to those four questions might be:
Execute a half Cuban-8 at the top if things don't look right.
Of course I wouldn't do the maneuver with loved ones onboard.
If I can't execute perfectly, I may hit the ground and die.
I can still choose a low pass to show my glider to crowd.
Perhaps, you can take some time with an instructor after your next flight review and discuss how to best personalize your own debrief. Then, once honed, commit to analyzing every flight, whether you fly solo or with a copilot. Take notes and be honest with yourself. You will be a better and safer pilot for it.
Disclaimer: This post is not legal advice, flight instruction, or ground instruction. For answers to questions specific to your situation and experience, consult a flight instructor in your area.