Ego in the Cockpit?
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI
Originally published in Fly
Low Magazine – April 2004
were toward the end of our flight in the L-39 jet trainer, and I
was just getting established in the downwind leg at the Santa Fe
Municipal Airport. This was my second flight in the Albatross, and
I was handling things much better this time around, I thought. I’m
not an airline pilot or a military jet jock -- just your average
general aviation CFI. Most of my time is spent instructing primary
students in a Piper Warrior, but today I felt a kinship with the
Top Guns. Unlike my first flight, I now knew how to start the engine,
taxi, takeoff, land, and do some aerobatics. Maybe getting the type
rating in this bird isn’t so far fetched after all, I thought.
I can handle this plane.
Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!
Pulling out the landing checklist,
I verbalized it to instructor Dale “Duke” Faust in the
rear cockpit. “OK, we have 180 knots, gear is down and locked,
speed brakes closed, spacing is good.” Glancing at the altimeter,
I saw we were about 80’ low. Well, that’s close enough
I thought. This thing is so pitch sensitive that if I monkey with
it too much I’m going to make it worse. So I concluded the
checklist with, “We have pattern altitude… or thereabouts.”
As soon as that last remark
left my lips I knew it was a mistake. But things happen fast in
the L-39 and seconds later it was forgotten as I decreased power,
added flaps, started my turn to the runway and flew the final approach.
Soon Dale and I were on the
ground and debriefing the flight. He had mostly good things to say,
but saved the not-so-good for the end. “You said one thing
up there that showed a bit of a bad attitude,” he said. I
immediately knew what he was going to say, and that he was going
to be right. “Pattern altitude or thereabouts?!” he
continued. “The pattern altitude here is 7400’. Not
7320’. Not 7401’. You’re an instructor -- would
you accept that attitude from one of your students?”
I was embarrassed. Damn straight!!!
I wouldn’t accept that from a student. I told Dale he was
100% right, and there were no excuses. He accepted that, and we
moved on. I brooded over the incident for days. What had made that
come out of my mouth? After reflection, I believe the answer is:
I had done well during the
flight, so maybe I thought I deserved a break. More likely, I just
couldn’t face up to the idea that I was below the standard
even briefly. Either way, I had traced it back to my ego, and this
realization was worth the price of the flight to me.
The FAA has identified five
“Hazardous Attitudes” to safe flight: Macho, Anti-Authority,
Invulnerability, Impulsivity, and Resignation. After I thought about
it, I realized ego plays a role in all five. The words macho and
ego could almost be used interchangeably (for men, anyway). A big
ego can definitely lead to a feeling of invulnerability. You’ve
got to have some ego to be anti-authority. There are different reasons
for impulsiveness, but the “Big E” could play a role
there too. And finally, an excess of ego can lead you into a place
where you are eventually not up to the task, resulting in resignation.
Indeed, I had resigned myself to being stuck 80’ below the
pattern altitude that day in the L-39.
Let there be no doubt –
EGO KILLS. Dale’s partner at the Jetwarbird Training Center
is Larry Salganek, an air show performer, aerobatic instructor and
experienced Warbird pilot. Larry tells me he has personally seen
more than his share of Warbird fatalities, and that most of them
caused by the pilots doing something they shouldn’t have been.
Often, what did them in was showing off for a passenger or someone
on the ground
Dale and Larry both recognize
the danger of ego, which is important since they make their living
instructing in Warbirds. They believe in planning a flight carefully
and sticking to that plan, and always flying the plane within its
limitations. “As soon as you exceed those limits, you’ve
just become a test pilot. And that’s when things can go wrong,”
Dale was an Air Force instructor
for 14 years, flying T-33’s and F-15’s. His outlook
on ego is summed up in this statement about the discussions military
pilots have after a flight: “When the briefing room door closes,
the ranks come off. At the proper time in a flight debrief, any
pilot can say anything they need to about another pilot's part of
the mission. I once saw a captain severely critique a one-star general,
and he was right to do it."
Fine, you say. But that’s
military and Warbird pilots. Those guys fly dangerous airplanes.
How does that apply to us general aviation folks? Well, remember
the old saying -- “The Piper Cub is the safest airplane in
the world; it can just barely kill you.” And besides, it’s
not usually the airplane that does people in.
Most GA accidents are the
result of pilot inexperience or misjudgment, and ego can most definitely
play a role in both. If you were anything like me when I was a low-time
pilot, you were eager to appear skillful and capable. That’s
probably natural, and so are some of the misjudgments that more
experienced pilots will make. After all, I’m not saying we
should fly without feeling confident. But I’m beginning to
believe the key is to keep things in perspective so the ego remains
at a reasonable level.
As an instructor, I certainly
want to instill my students with a sense of confidence in the airplane.
But I also don’t want to overdo it and create dangerous pilots
who don’t believe in their own mortality. For myself, I believe
I’m a capable pilot, but I keep this in perspective by reminding
myself there’s always something else to learn. And my experience
in the L-39 that day was a reminder that my qualifications and abilities
don’t excuse me from doing things in the correct manner. Doing
things by the numbers greatly enhances my chances of coming back
to fly another day, be it in a Cessna 150 or a MiG-15.
Remember the “IMSAFE”
personal checklist for helping decide if you are fit for a flight?
It goes like this: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue,
and Eating. I’d like to suggest adding an extra “E”
to that list. The ego doesn’t belong in the airplane, so try
to leave it on the ground.
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