“Louisa County traffic, November four four two eight Quebec departing Runway Niner for left crosswind departure, Louisa County traffic.” I visually cleared final approach and the traffic pattern. Seeing all four quadrants empty, I took the runway and took off.
Upwind off KLKU looked fantastic. A riot of yellows, oranges and reds overwhelmed any remaining resistance from the faltering ranks of green leaves. It created a spectacular autumnal canopy beneath my fixed gear.
Somewhere on a distant radio call a guy might have announced a 10-mile, straight-in to downwind entry to the same runway I’d just departed, but I couldn’t swear to it. The fall colors had distracted me. I extended my upwind without any qualms. The town and airport of Louisa were new to me and I wanted to remember the experience.
I announced my crosswind turn and made it. That’s when I saw a Bonanza streaking toward me right to left, descending to my altitude. This time I did hear the pilot, yelling on CTAF at “that idiot coming my way.”
I broke off to the left in a tentative, shallow dive while he maintained course. My move had the effect of keeping me on a collision course with him. He arrested his descent while yelling some arresting expletive over CTAF. I recovered from my mistake with a deliberate diving S-turn to the right, under him.
I quickly apologized on CTAF for my snafu. At that moment, I finally understood why my first CFI’s mantra if on a collision course was: Always dive away and to the right.
The other pilot yelled something about “idiot outsiders not knowing local procedure at Louisa.”
That guy had every right to be angry. The danger I put us in was real. I felt like my apology, my silence and my polite exit from the area were the best methods to manage my own emotions. And I was full of them.
At the time of that flight, I was an ATP-rated airline captain. Even before I had made captain, I had always strived to fly professionally. I took a tremendous amount of pride in that. But my left turn into the flight path of another plane was about as unprofessional as it gets.
One CFI, who filed a report with the Aviation Safety Reporting System — commonly known as a NASA report — had his own emotional, unprofessional encounter. He and his student had just finished their run-up when they decided to visually clear the pattern prior to takeoff by performing a 360° turn on the taxiway. That’s when the two were stunned to see another Cessna 152 from their flight school zoom by them without warning or radio call. The reporting CFI hit the brakes hard to prevent crashing into the other aircraft, which had failed to yield on the taxiway, creating an on-ground, near miss situation.
What happened next was a classic, testosterone-fueled radio exchange between the two flight instructors aboard each aircraft. The reporting CFI, a more-experienced and older pilot, immediately made a radio call and said: “Next time use the radio.” The response from the younger, less-experienced CFI came quickly: “I had you in sight. SHUT UP!” The first CFI then lost his cool and yelled, “Don’t tell me to shut up, you (expletive deleted)!”
Here’s where it gets interesting. Back at the flight school, the altercation escalated further. Instead of disciplining the reckless CFI for his dangerous ground maneuver, the chief flight instructor chastised the other CFI for cursing on CTAF.
Things continued to unravel. When the student who witnessed the event came to the aid of his instructor — the older, more experienced CFI — the chief flight instructor greeted him with sarcasm. The chief flight instructor went on to deflect from the central issue of safety entirely. The student — a 2,000-hour, commercial-rated, retired Army helicopter pilot — said if someone in the military had acted like either the chief flight instructor or the reckless CFI, he would have been put on notice for as much as six months for endangering lives.
Managing emotions is tricky. Managing anger is even trickier. Most people don’t handle it well. Few of us have been taught how to handle anger appropriately. Most of us learn by watching someone else get angry. Usually the angry outburst is followed by a profound sense of embarrassment. Then, angry about losing control, the person deflects the embarrassment with more inappropriate behavior — like sarcasm, or more anger or denial.
As a result, the actual issue is left unresolved. In the case of the two CFIs, the unresolved issue was enforcement of a professional safety standard.
If you were the retired Army helicopter pilot, would you feel confident flying in that environment? Would you want to spend your hard-earned money at a school run like that? If you were a CFI trying to build hours at that particular flight school, would you feel confident that the chief flight instructor had safety — and your best interests — in mind?
Another pilot decided to file a NASA report after he was physically and mentally startled by his flight instructor’s unprofessional conduct:
“This was an insurance checkout flight to rent aircraft at KCNO. After making landings at KAJO, the flight instructor asked me to taxi back to Runway 25 and make a normal takeoff. I began a climb. At approximately 1,000 feet MSL, the CFI pulled the power out to simulate an engine out on takeoff. When asked where I would land the plane, I replied, ‘I would look straight ahead for a suitable landing spot.’
“This decision was based on my training that a successful turn back to the airport cannot be made below 800 feet AGL, and we were only at approximately 500 feet AGL. The CFI was not satisfied with this answer and said, ‘You’re going to land in the trees?! Why don’t you turn back?’ I told the CFI we could not make it, we did not have enough altitude. The CFI then grabbed control of the airplane and said, ‘We can! See! I will show you!’ At that point the CFI turned the plane approximately 170° to the left and we were losing altitude rapidly.”
When the pilot pointed out that the maneuver would have them landing in a refinery rather than back at the airport, the CFI decided to repeat the exercise, from the same low altitude, over a populated environment. While maneuvering, he failed to clear the area and failed to make radio calls. When confronted, the CFI rebuked his customer — the pilot — and became obstinate. He also refused to acknowledge the possibility that he had violated FARs.
Two sayings apply to these two NASA reports. The first is: “Attitude is everything.” It’s an oft-repeated aviation dictum. It applies equally to managing the aircraft as it does to managing the person. Flying a wrong attitude could result in a stall, a spin — or worse. Flying with the wrong mental attitude can have equally devastating, unforeseen consequences.
Both incidents occurred in rental aircraft operated by small FBOs. They both involved qualified, staff CFIs representing the small FBOs. Would you doubt the abilities of both the operators and the instructors had those pilots been you? How about your confidence in the airplanes being rented or their maintenance?
The second applicable phrase is: “Bad news travels faster than good news.”
Imagine if you were the pilot in either scenario. How many people would you want to tell your tale of righteous indignation? Remember the line from the old shampoo commercial, “I told two friends about it, and they told two friends, and so on and so on…”?
Negative PR is not the only casualty general aviation could suffer when pilots lose their cool. Failure to manage emotions while in command of an aircraft is a proven link in causal chain analysis of aviation accidents.
I flew for an airline where a pilot and a co-pilot got into a shouting match while on approach to a major international airport. The event was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder and preserved by that airline. It became mandatory listening for all Crew Resource Management classes. The pilot and co-pilot’s argument got so loud that they never heard the gear warning horn all the way down final approach. They wound up landing a packed, 120-seat passenger jet gear up.
Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.