Pilot Flying Fears?

Education is the best way to deal with safety concerns — especially if you’re a pilot.

I recently took part in a forum discussion that revolved around safety issues. The person who started the discussion, a helicopter pilot training to be a CFI, was concerned about the possibility of flight schools emphasizing the fun part of flying without adequately addressing the dangers. It wasn’t a failure to teach emergency procedures that bothered him. It was the attitude of flight schools and CFIs. He worried that flight schools, in an attempt to keep enrollment high, were failing to make students understand just how dangerous flying helicopters can be.

While I’ll agree that flying helicopters is dangerous, I also agree that driving a car or or crossing the street is dangerous. In fact, you stand a far more likely chance of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle than in an aircraft. The pilot who started this discussion knows this, but he still wonders whether flight schools should be making student pilots more cognizant of the dangers, especially early on in training.

I understood his point of view, but I really don’t know firsthand how much his flight school is downplaying the dangers. The general feeling I came away from after reading his comments was that he had a fear of flying. (This turned out not to be the case.) While it’s always good for a pilot to be afraid of what could happen, there comes a point where the level of fear becomes unhealthy. Yes, it’s true that pilots need to be mentally prepared to react to an emergency within seconds. But no, we don’t need to spend every moment of every flight actively thinking about all the emergencies that could ruin our day — or end our life.

Experiences Teach

I flew with a 300-hour pilot a few years ago. He’d gone through training and was a CFI looking for a job. (I have flown with quite a few CFIs looking for jobs, but that’s another story.) We were on a cross-country, time-building flight in my R44. I would eventually fly a total of 20 hours with him.

Early on in our first flight, I learned that his CFI, who was the flight school’s Chief Flight Instructor, had been killed in a rather disturbing fiery crash. Although she had over 2,000 hours of flight time, she had only 24 hours in the helicopter make and model. On that fateful day, the NTSB concluded that the accident was caused by:

The pilot’s improper planning/decision in attempting a downwind takeoff under high density altitude conditions that resulted in a loss of control and impact with terrain. Contributing to the accident were the helicopter’s gross weight in excess of the maximum hover out of ground effect limit, a high density altitude, and the gusty tailwind.

(I don’t really want to discuss this accident here; I think deserves a discussion of its own elsewhere in this blog and hope to address it in the months to come.)

Near GormanIt soon became apparent to me that the pilot was unusually fearful of flying in the mountains. Our route required us to fly west from Wickenburg, AZ to the California coast near San Luis Obispo. He started fretting about the mountains ahead of us while we were still in the flat deserts of Southern California. The mountains he was worried about showed elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet on the chart; we’d be flying over a road that ran in a relatively straight and wide canyon. That part of the flight turned out to be uneventful and he seemed genuinely relieved when it was finished.

Monterey BayOddly, later in the flight, when the Monterey tower instructed us to cut across Monterey Bay at an altitude of only 700 feet, I was pretty freaked out. Here we were, in a single-engine helicopter flying far from gliding distance of land, without pop-out floats or personal floatation devices. My companion, on the other hand, was perfectly at ease. In fact, I think he thought me cowardly when I asked Monterey tower for clearance to fly closer to shore.

This is a great example of how experience teaches. My companion was a “sea level pilot,” who did all of his training — and flying — in the watery areas around Seattle. He was comfortable with water and low-lying lands, but he was fearful of the conditions that had taken the life of someone he knew very well. I was a desert pilot with most of my experience flying over dry land, much it in high density altitude situations, including more than 350 hours flying tours over the Grand Canyon at 7500 feet or higher. I was comfortable flying over most kinds of terrain at just about any altitude but very fearful of flying over water.

(Nowadays, I wear a PFD when doing any extended flying over water and require my passengers to do the same.)

Learn from Other People’s Mistakes

Back in the forum, I began wondering if the pilot who had started the thread was concerned because he’d lost someone close to him in a crash — much like my cross-country companion had. (That turned out not to be the case.) I said:

If a person thinks too much about the danger of ANYTHING, they won’t be comfortable doing it. I admit that I don’t concern myself with it. I do everything I can to fly safely and maintain a safe aircraft. I’m confident in my abilities and never push the envelope of comfort more than I absolutely need to. I don’t fly around thinking that at any moment, something bad could happen. If I did, I’d hate flying and I’d likely be a horrible pilot.

Later, in the same post, I said:

You might also consider reading NTSB reports for helicopter accidents. What you’ll find is that most accidents are caused by pilot errors. REALLY. Reading those reports will help you learn what mistakes others have made so you’ll avoid them in the future.

He saw these two comments as conflicting and replied that I couldn’t really say that I wasn’t concerned with danger if I was reading accident reports.

My response was:

You need to understand that it’s BECAUSE I read the NTSB reports that I’m NOT overly concerned with the dangers of flying. The NTSB reports educate me about what can happen when you do something dumb: fly too heavy for your type of operation, perform maneuvers beyond the capabilities of your aircraft, fly into clouds or wires, etc. Each time I read a report and understand the chain of events that caused the accident, I file that info into my head and know to avoid the same situation.

I went on to say a lot more about what I’ve learned from NTSB reports. I read them for helicopter accidents at least once a month. Another pilot in the forum said he does the same thing — in fact, he even has a browser bookmark that’ll pull up the reports by month! I cannot say enough about the usefulness of these accident reports for training and awareness.

Unanswered Questions Can Fuel Fear

As I look back now on the flights I took with that mountain-fearful CFI — with the forum discussion in mind — I’m wondering whether the flight school had properly debriefed its students after the loss of the Chief Flight Instructor.

What had the flight school told him and the other pilots? Had they told him what caused the crash? I know that back then, before the NTSB report was issued, the flight school was in denial about the aircraft being overweight for the operation. Had they told their students anything at all? Were my companion and the other pilots and student pilots at that flight school left to wonder how such a great, experienced pilot could have been involved in a crash in the mountains?

Were his unanswered questions fueling his fear?

Another thing I suggested in the forum is that flight schools might want to conduct monthly seminars that students are required to attend as part of ground school training. Get all the students and CFIs into a classroom or meeting room with a few knowledgable, experienced pilots at the front of the room. Pick 3 to 5 recent helicopter accidents for which the cause is known. Talk them out. Explain what went wrong and what could have prevented the accident. Don’t point fingers; present facts.

Why don’t flight schools do this? Could it be because of what this forum pilot originally said: flight schools don’t want to scare off students by discussing dangers? If so, they’re doing their students — and the rest of the aviation community — a serious disservice.

Education and Experience are the Answers

Nowadays, if you want a job as a pilot carrying passengers for hire, you’ll need at least 1,000 hours of experience as a pilot in command. (Yes, I know some companies will take less, but those are few and far between.) There’s a reason for this: they want pilots who have experience flying. Experience leads to skills, knowledge, and confidence.

Some people think 1,000 hours is an arbitrary number and frankly, I have to agree. My first 500 hours were very different from the average CFI’s first 500 hours — in some respects, my experiences are “better,” while in other respects, a CFI’s experiences are “better.” But I also can’t see any other easy way to gauge a job applicant’s level of experience.

But it isn’t just experience that makes a pilot a good pilot. It’s also knowledge and attitude. Both of these things could be the end product of a flight school’s training program.

Many flight schools seem satisfied getting students and putting them through a “program” with just enough skills and knowledge to pass a check ride. Many students, who don’t know any better, are more interested in the cheapest way to get their ratings than the quality of the training.

I believe that with better quality training and better quality experience, less hours of experience should be necessary to have and prove good piloting skills. I also believe that pilots with better quality training and experience will have a better, safer attitude toward their responsibilities as a pilot.

It’s not a matter of teaching new pilots to be fearful of what could happen by stressing the dangers of flying. It’s a matter of educating about dangers — and how to avoid them.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Pilot Flying Fears?

  1. Excellent post Maria. You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself. ~ Samuel Levenson
    This quote, uncredited I might add, is used by Transport Canada in one of their aviation safety letters. I have read helicopter accident reports for almost 40 years now and the information provided has been helpful in my continuing education and longevity as a pilot.
    It took me only about a dozen years to realize that with very few exceptions, I was not seeing any “new” accidents. The same mistakes are repeated over and over again. Indeed I have made several preventable errors during my career and with the exception of a couple of mechanical failures I “own” the accidents that followed.
    As a chief pilot I tried as often as possible to discuss a few worse case scenarios and possible negative consequences of the flight I was sending the pilot out to perform, particularly if it was that pilots first mission of that type. The last item I would discuss would be the fun side of the flight to be completed and some examples of similar work I had performed of that type.
    Flying helicopters is dangerous. Its an enjoyable dangerous career.

  2. Thanks, Keith. From you this means a lot.

    Oddly, I assumed all pilots read NTSB reports. I can’t think of a better objective and fact-based source of information about accident causes. So far, I’m seeing that only experienced pilots do this. It’s as if they understand the value of these reports but newer pilots just don’t see the point.

    I think accident discussion should be a part of all ongoing training. But in all cases, I think the discussion should be either led or moderated by a mature, experienced, and knowledgeable pilot who can provide answers to questions based on facts and aerodynamic theories. Too often in the forums, accident discussions degrade into finger pointing and cruel jokes. It’s amazing how immature some pilots can be when discussing something as serious as safety.

  3. Is it possible to love, experience, and contemplate flying to an extent that fear of a mishap impinges upon one’s joie de voler?

    That’s what has become of me after around 10khrs and my first accident (with minor injurues to self and a student). Part of my experience also has included picking up the mangled pieces of fallen flying compadres and their machines.

    I used to be an instructor and mechanic who downplayed danger. I remain in the perceptions of some local cynics a relatively foolhardy personality.

    Sometimes I’m nostalgic for the bliss of ignorance, but still I recognize irreversible changes of heart and head. At any invitation to invite or advise about aviation, I have no choice but honesty in approaching the subject of how very dangerous flying machines are. No weapon of medieval warfare can rival the meat-cleaving potential of the smallest and mundane of aircaft. I can no longer gloss over the basic considerations of the inherent risks of the lethal corners of altitude and velocity. Nor can I fall back on bromides about the inherent risks of any mechanized living, or of old vs bold pilots etc.

    My answers don’t come as readily any more. My routine inspections of and introspections pertaining to flight are taking noticeably longer. Does this detract from the overall exuberance of flying for myself and those who fly with me?

    I think it’s an important question. Flying in an everyday sort of way of life is a truly defining choice. I am a role-model aviator by nature of how I choose to earn my living. If I may humbly offer to my peers here, any kernel of what I’ve learned through chance or choice, I would like state the perhaps obvious: “It” can happen to any of us next time up. To you, to your student, and to you and their fragile and mortal passengers.

    In talking to others or self, I’m increasingly trying not to miss any opportunuty to make a valuable and vital impression. Stay proficient. Fly smart. And (then most important of all) enjoy this astounding gift of wings to the absolute fullest.

    • It CAN happen to any of us. All we can do is minimize our risks by flying safely and maintaining a safe aircraft. But accidents do happen — sometimes to the best and most experienced of pilots. I hope I never get to the point where thoughts of what might happen stop me from flying.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Fly safe!

  4. Maria, Hello again. I have read many of the NTSB helicopter accident reports and one thing sticks in my mind. Quite a few fatal crashes due to pilot error occur with VERY experienced pilots. It is kind of surprising to see even Viet Nam combat vets, or 10,000 hour pilots fly into towers or inadvertant IFR. Or Gary McCall dropping off heli-skiers in Colorado, and tumbling hundreds of feet because his MR touched some rock. That just doesn’t seem like it should happen. Or check out the 14,000 hour FW captain of flight 203 in Reno, 1985. For an aspiring pilot, it is deppressing. Like, if THIS guy crashes with THAT experience….why get started?

    • Mike, don’t let the accidents get you down. You need to understand that at certain levels of experience, complacency sets in. You get this feeling that you’ve flown so many hours and can do anything and you start paying a little less attention than you should. Complacency is often what kills these high-time pilots. The trick is to never let complacency make you a sloppy pilot. Easier said than done, but there it is.

      Also, understand that flying is a risky business. Knowing what could happen is a great way to prevent it from happening. But accidents do happen; if that bothers you, then maybe flying isn’t the right career choice. It’s all up to you.

  5. Right on Rob. I would say although pilots are not bikers, we do have a similar risking type of spirit, which is a choice we are free to make. However, the constant practice of situational awareness is the key to successful (non-damaging) flying. Invincibility is the sure way to bend a plane or your head. Thanks for being the best teacher I’ve had (and soloed with.) I’ve had 3 other teachers and you were by far the best.

  6. The earlier comments are from American and Canadian pilots, I’m guessing.
    My training (in the UK ) was very different. The emphasis on safety and gentle control movements made me believe that the C152 was a sort of flying porcelain figurine. It was after many sedate hours that we did tight turns, the occasional loop, side-slips and short-field landings. If I could have followed-through on those more extreme control movements, at a far earlier stage, I would have enjoyed my training more as I would have known just how slow you can go with 40 degrees of flap, how fast you need to dive to restart a stopped engine. This was all done eventually, but it seemed to take months of weekend flying.
    When I ride a new motorbike I “see what it can do”, not in a suicidal way, but to get the ‘feel’. Passengers might not want to experience negative g or tight turns, I understand that. But students are, by definition, willing to go bit further.
    When I had a go at floats in Canada three years ago I was unsure what the a/c could cope with, especially constrained by those big drag-hungry appendages. Not to worry, said my instructor, it can turn really well, try this…

    Wish my early hours in the UK had been that dynamic. It builds confidence sooner.

    Even the best pilot might miss the cat that’s hiding in the wing…

    • I find myself gently pushing the envelope on many of my solo flights. It’s a good way to really get the feel of the aircraft without putting passengers at risk. But I honestly believe that the best way to really know any vehicle — helicopter, plane, motorcycle, car, boat, etc. — is to log time in it in a variety of situations. I’ve got more than 1800 hours in my R44 and I can pretty much predict how it will react in most situations.

  7. I just started taking courses at Hillsboro Aero and i just went in the air and i really felt the urge to ask them to show me what that bird could do. im glad that i am not the only one. Great post.

What do you think?