Be Your Fellow Pilot’s Keeper

We discuss aviation safety regularly in the aviation industry, promoting safer operations, discussing previous accidents, helping pilots make the self-evaluative decisions that are intended to make them safer pilots. But what is our communal role? Do we have a greater responsibility as pilots to intervene when we see a fellow pilot about to do something that might affect their safety?

Not long ago I sat in a meeting of senior aviation leaders, and one of them asked the question, “How many of you have known a pilot who had died in a general aviation aircraft?” About half of the room raised their hands. He followed with, “How many of you know a general aviation pilot who you think will kill themselves in an aircraft?” Everyone raised their hands. This caused me pause. If we all know someone who is likely to kill themselves in a general aviation aircraft, what can we do to stop them from doing it?

Imagine you are a bar tender. The patron at the end of the bar who has been served a few too many drinks tonight picks up their keys and heads to the parking lot to drive home. Do you stop them? What if you are an FBO owner about hand over the keys of your plane to a pilot who comes in to rent your Cirrus when the ceiling is 500 feet overcast and it is 34 degrees on the ground? What if you know they haven’t flown in 60 days? Are you going to hand them the keys to your aircraft?

What if the aircraft isn’t yours to dispatch, but instead your hangar neighbor is rapidly preparing their plane to depart just ahead of a major squall line of thunderstorms. Would you have a discussion with them or just let them go? What if they told you they “knew they could get ahead of the storm,” but you knew better. How far would you go to stop them? Would you physically restrain them? Would you call the FAA and report them? Would it be better to do that than let them die?

Is there a greater degree of culpability, of responsibility, and of influence that needs to be exerted by flight instructors? Would a pilot listen more to an instructor than the pilot in the hangar next to them?
Many times pilots using rental aircraft have some guidelines that are set forth in rental agreements that limit their operations. These included not just FAA, but also insurance guidelines, many of which are based on loss histories showing exactly how people hurt themselves or the aircraft. But beyond these should there be additional limitations? Private aircraft have even fewer guidlines, many times being left to the feeling of the owner/operator of whether they “think they can make it today.” At what point does the business that provides aircraft to pilots have an obligation to intervene when a customer intends to take their aircraft into conditions that they may not be trained for, proficient in or safe enough to handle? What about fellow pilots who see an owner/operator embarking into conditions that may be beyond their skills or the aircraft’s capability?

Many collegiate and academy flight programs have specified minimums that must be met for their students to fly. These limitations are not as commonly found in the traditional FBO training environments. It is suggested to pilots in privately owned aircraft that they set personal minimums and adhere to them. This gets more attention in type clubs, who sometimes help pilots develop specialized forms to analyze the risks of their flights. This at least helps pilots become more aware of their risks, if not actually mitigating them. In some cases, these are criticized as being too conservative.

There can be a real difference between “current” by FAA minimums, and being “proficient” or “experienced enough” to fly in some conditions. Many times the lines between these considerations are very subjective and vary widely between individuals. What is our role in oversight of a fellow pilot’s decision to fly in weather conditions when we have questions about their ability to handle them? If we see someone going flying in an aircraft under conditions that have a crosswind component greater than we think they should fly in, do we confront them? When weather minimums are below the prescribed approach minimums for the airport, if icing potential exists, or other similar hazards what should we do? What about the renter who is going to head off into solid IMC conditions even though they are just 3 days from expiration of their IPC that was done 6 months ago; are they going to be safe? What should our line staff do? What if we overhear that the customer is going to take the aircraft to an airport that is shorter than we think their skills can handle? Where does the line get drawn, or does it get drawn at all?

We are a community, and we need to help each other. While it is correct that pilots should be able to make their own decisions for flight safety, it doesn’t mean that they can’t seek help from others. No one pilot has experienced all potential dangers they may encounter. We consider it normal that a student pilot requires oversight, but then feel reluctant to ask for help once we have completed our pilot certification. To some extent, we are all, always student pilots, and we have more to learn, often from each other.

Many businesses that provide rental aircraft rely only on the pilot’s judgment whether to conduct their intended flights. Perhaps we need to be more involved in the decision about what conditions our customers fly in, if for no other reason than to protect our aircraft assets. Or perhaps we simply need to let our dispatching staff or instructors exercise their judgment to stop flights before something tragic happens.

It isn’t just about what is “legal” by FAR or what “meets the minimum” for our insurance. We need to think about what is safe; we need to engage better with our renters and fellow pilots about their flight operations. The reality is that in many cases pilots don’t make judgment calls for each other. This doesn’t mean we have to have an iron fist over what each other does, but we should be engaged. With a little help from each other, we can all take the opportunity to learn more and become more proficient, resulting in a safer pilots overall.

I vividly recall a soggy, low-overcast winter day when I owned an FBO. We had a customer that wanted to use one of our aircraft. It was a day that experienced pilots recognize had a strong likelihood of icing. One our instructors happened to be at the airport when a customer showed up fly one of our aircraft. The instructor talked with the would-be pilot and indicated that he didn’t think they should fly. The customer wasn’t happy that our instructor told him he wouldn’t dispatch him an aircraft that day. At another airport nearby, there wasn’t an instructor to stop their renter from flying that day. Our customer was unhappy, theirs ended up dead. Which would you prefer?

I have asked a lot of questions here, and for some of them I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that we have to change our mindset as a community. It shouldn’t feel weird for us to challenge a fellow pilots decision-making if we think they are going to do something that might hurt their aircraft, themselves, or their passengers. We should have these discussions with each other, welcome others to question us, and be willing to question others. I never want to sit at an airport again, watching a plane heading off to the horizon and thinking, “that’s probably the last time I see that person alive,” just hoping I am wrong.


Be Your Fellow Pilot’s Keeper — 1 Comment

  1. As I was reading through my thoughts lead me to : 1) where do we determine the line is where our “business” ends. Who is to say we know someone else’s skills better than them. There are definitely some gray lines. Obviously some experience with that specific pilot would be a major factor. 2) we need to have an altered mindset (as you wisely concluded) as a community. As a chief I would put out notices to flight instructors in the event of unusual or poor weather conditions and I remember getting a lot of attitude from even the instructors thinking they knew better. I realized it was a time to have a group discussion about weather and decision making skills. We discussed what led us to make choices to go or not. I believe many benefitted, some were still annoyed with me. Those are e ones that need these types of discussions more often. How do we encourage that group to these types of discussions and analysies?

    Excellent article.