Pilot bias

The first time I rode in a helicopter it was to chase down Donald Trump’s yacht. It would be another six years before I would get my own pilot’s license, so the pilot told me to keep my feet away from the rudder pedals and not to move them — no matter what.

I opened my mouth to assure him I wasn’t going to mess up this opportunity, but he cut me off. “Don’t take it personally. It’s my standard practice to tell anyone sitting in the seat next to me the same thing. Even the cameraman who flies with me all the time gets the same message. Every day.”

Back then, I was a young television director, and we were hot on the trail of a news story. We did find Trump’s yacht. It was making a run down the Long Island Sound, but it had not run aground as reports first indicated.

No story, but the 90-minute round-trip wild goose chase was worth it. So what if I suffered charley horses in both calves from restraining my feet?

The experience cemented in me a commitment to flight training. Plus that pilot’s advice has stood me in good stead many times since.

Not so for one unlucky Alaskan pilot, who apparently didn’t give the same advice to his pilot passenger, and then had to file this NASA report:

“While landing on Runway 15 at Merrill Field (PAMR), doing a demo ride, a wheel landing was made. After releasing the brakes and bringing the tailwheel to a near 3-point attitude, it was obvious that the rear seat passenger, a licensed pilot, was resting his feet on the brakes. The aircraft started to pitch forward, mixture was out and key turned off, but the tip of the prop struck the runway. In my judgment, there was nothing else that could have been done to avoid this occurrence.”

But could something else have been done? How about a pre-landing briefing?

As a commercial pilot who gives aerial tours and demo rides, I speak from experience when I say passengers in small airplanes sometimes do funny things with their limbs the closer the airplane gets to the ground.

I also know this from the stories other commercial pilots have told me. So it’s likely that this ATP-rated pilot — who had flown 150 hours in the last 90 days, 50 hours in type — probably made it a practice to brief his non-pilot passengers about keeping clear of the flight controls. That’s just good common sense. It apparently did not occur to him to provide his pilot passenger the same briefing. Why?

Bias. It’s an American ideal to treat all people equally, yet the reality is we don’t really do that, particularly pilots. We tend to think of ourselves as slightly more equal than everyone else. We accord our own kind a little more respect than perhaps our own kind deserves.

We assume pilots have more situational awareness in the airplane environment than mere landlubbers, so telling other pilots how to comport themselves in the cockpit seems unnecessary.

That may be why the filer of this NASA report truly believed that there was nothing else that could have been done. That benefit-of-the-doubt blind spot resulted in a chipped propeller, a dented runway, and a hard-earned lesson.

Have you ever given another pilot the benefit of the doubt regarding some sketchy flight maneuver, just because he or she is a pilot? That’s bias. Have you ever let slide a nagging gut feeling about a fellow pilot’s skills? That’s bias.

Have you ever attributed your own sloppy approach and poor landing to external factors, like lack of sun or too much sun, rather than closely examining your own lack of proficiency? That, too, is bias.

Single-pilot Resource Management (SRM) is a decade-old concept derived from the airline industry’s Crew Resource Management. Its checks and balances concept worked so well at mitigating mishaps at the pro level that the FAA refined it for GA pilots. Making SRM standard practice helps pilots accurately assess hazards, manage resulting risk potential, and make good decisions. Using SRM regularly gives us the ability to be our own checks and balances. Becoming good at that skill is known as having good situational awareness.

Having good situational awareness helps us keep track of where we stand amid the three constant struggles of aviation: Pilot vs. technology, pilot vs. nature, and pilot vs. himself. Too often we aviators focus on the first two and ignore the third, at our own peril.

One multi-engine instructor based out of Long Beach, Calif., found this to be true about himself, much to his chagrin: “I was giving a multi-engine transition lesson to a mid-time, single engine, private-rated pilot. When we first met, I was struck by how large his feet were. It occurred to me that they might be a problem on the rudder pedals, but I said nothing. I figured this guy had had those feet all his life so he probably knew how to make them work for rudders and brakes in an airplane. On our first approach into KLGB, we encountered a gusty crosswind. The pilot was all over the rudder pedals making corrections. He landed centerline and fast, and with his feet on the brakes. We blew a tire and flat-spotted another. We also tied up Runway 7L for an hour until the aircraft could be towed away.”

If the trainee had not been a pilot, the subject of his feet would most likely have been discussed before the flight. This MEI let his concerns be overshadowed by the trainee’s status as a pilot, so he didn’t address the issue. Not dealing with those feet cost the instructor a bruised ego and two ruined tires and damaged his reputation in his local pilot community.

If our goal is to enjoy responsibly the freedom and adventure that flying can give us, then we must be willing to banish bias from the aircraft and declare that everyone onboard is created equal.

Then and only then will we be able to repeat regularly and with pride the words of that wise helicopter pilot who said: “Don’t take it personally. It’s my standard practice to tell anyone sitting in the seat next to me the same thing. Every day.”

It’s an American ideal to treat all people equally, yet the reality is we don’t really do that, particularly pilots. We tend to think of ourselves as slightly more equal than everyone else. We accord our own kind a little more respect than perhaps our own kind deserves. We assume pilots have more situational awareness in the airplane environment than mere landlubbers, so telling other pilots how to comport themselves in the cockpit seems unnecessary.

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