We pilots of a certain age were taught in school that George Washington never told a lie. Teachers drove the point home with a story about America’s first president and a certain felled cherry tree. I’m not sure why a lesson about being honest had to involve George Washington. Maybe it was to make the point that people who don’t lie are destined for great things.
That’s why a report to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System I summarized at the end of last month’s column troubled me. In it a pilot admitted to fabricating a fantastical story to emphasize the importance of pilot courtesy. The lie was so huge and so unbelievable, it got me thinking about why we lie.
Are the reasons behind why we lie enough for a CFI to tell such a whopper?
To recap the NASA report: “I was pilot in command giving dual instruction at Plattsburgh International Airport. The student and I were flying a VFR pattern at night. We were on the base leg of the pattern. Another airplane joined the traffic pattern behind us. Suddenly, that pilot clicked seven times on the UNICOM frequency. The runway lights jumped from medium to full brightness.
“Seeing this action as unsafe, I reacted by stating that we had ended upside down in a snow drift. When the Aircraft Y pilot queried, I continued by stating the airplane was upside down in the middle of the runway at Plattsburgh as a result of flash blindness caused by the sudden intensification of lights while I was on short final.”
Pilot #2 had done the aviation equivalent of flashing the CFI and his student with high beams. Because the CFI believed the other pilot had displayed “poor etiquette,” he decided to teach that pilot a lesson.
But why did he lie in this “teaching moment” instead of choosing another course of action?
Psychologists generally divide lies into two broad categories — protection and self-aggrandizement. We lie to protect ourselves or our children from a reality that is harsher than we care to acknowledge or are able to face. We lie to protect the peace and harmony of personal, professional and social relationships.
Some studies suggest that women lie most often to protect themselves or someone else. Men are guiltier of telling lies of self-aggrandizement. Inflating our own value in any given situation temporarily increases our self-confidence and sense of self-worth. I confess to being guilty of that.
Not long before I finally achieved my private pilot license, I remember reading that the average pilot takes about 55 hours of flying time to get a license — 15 hours above the minimum required by the FAA. It took me 70 hours to get my first PPL, a helicopter private.
Never mind that I commuted about 75 miles round-trip to my lessons, that I worked two jobs to pay for the privilege, and that I started flying in my 30s. None of that mattered. What mattered was that I viewed my result as being below average, which in my mind made me a below average pilot. I clearly recall many occasions in my first year after achieving my rotorcraft PPL when I was tempted to lie about that number.
The thing is, this CFI’s lie doesn’t fit neatly into either of the general categories. Stumped, I turned to my wife. She offered a different, baser explanation. “Sometimes people lie out of anger, or just to be mean.”
That seems to make the most sense. The CFI admitted, “I was angry with the pilot…I wanted to drive a point home in terms of safety and stop the irresponsible actions of the Aircraft Y pilot before they continued and he hurt someone [else]. A new pilot or one without a lot of recent experience or recent night experience could be sufficiently distracted during the landing phase of flight to make misjudgments resulting in a crash landing or a botched go-around.”
If I had been the offending pilot and I had heard that the “plane was upside down in the middle of the runway,” I might have become frightened or unnerved. I’d be afraid of liability for causing a crash landing. I’d be concerned I might have injured or killed someone just from carelessly lighting up the runway. I’d certainly abort my landing. I might even experience trouble controlling my own aircraft during the go-around and while setting up for another landing, so unsettling would be that news.
On the one hand, the CFI’s lie would have had its intended effect: To scare me into thinking about the consequences of my actions. On the other hand, if I were a coward, I might have bailed out and headed to another airport. If asked, I’d have denied I was ever near Plattsburgh that night. How effective would the CFI’s whopper strategy have been if Pilot #2 had turned tail and run, and not have landed?
That pilot did apologize for his inconsiderate actions, so the CFI might argue his tactic worked. But here’s the thing. According to the reporting CFI, “Shortly after (less than 1 minute), I stated that we had miraculously turned the airplane upright and were departing from Runway 17 and were going to remain in the pattern.”
The only thing that stopped me from lying about the total number of hours it took me to get my private helicopter rating was the thought that at some point, I was going to go for another rating. Doing so would mean a CFI was going to have to examine my logbook. If that CFI had ever heard what I was tempted to say and then seen the reality, in writing, in my logbook, that CFI might doubt my credibility. My fear of being viewed as untrustworthy was greater than my fear of being a less-than-average student pilot. I thought a great deal about that.
It’s not clear how much forethought the CFI gave his two lies — first, the plane wreck and second, the miraculous recovery. Announcing that he and his student would continue pattern work, at night, post-crash must have strained the credulity of Pilot #2.
Wouldn’t this therefore undermine the CFI’s attempt to teach proper flying etiquette? Furthermore, wouldn’t lying in front of his student raise doubt in the student about the instructor’s trustworthiness?
When I had trouble maintaining a hover early on in my helicopter training, my instructor told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll have it nailed before the next lesson is over.” I doubted myself, but I trusted him. I’d seen him in action both as a helo pilot and working with other students. He was good. So if he saw success in me, I believed him. Before the next flight lesson ended, I had nailed the hover.
Since becoming a flight instructor, I have used that same phrase on unsure students. Each time it has produced the same positive result. My experience tells me a direct correlation exists between a student’s trust of an instructor and the ability of the student to learn from that instructor.
The CFI and his student might have initially shared a good laugh over how they scared the bejeebers out of that other pilot. But I wonder if the student began to wonder when else the CFI might have lied? Did he lie a lot or was this a one-time thing? Did he lie from a place of anger, and if so, how often did he get angry? That kind of creeping doubt is not what anyone wants in a cockpit.
When it comes to the truth, it’s important to think about whether we want people to trust us. Do we value integrity? Do we want our words to reflect our actions? If open and honest communication can make the difference between life, serious injury or death, isn’t a commitment to telling the truth worth the trouble? Doing so, we’ll be better able to gain and keep our students’ trust.
In finalizing his NASA report, the CFI wrote, “I would rather see [the pilot] upset for a moment than having to answer to his company, the FAA, or to the lawyer of some grieving relative. In reconsidering my reaction, I believe it was ill-conceived but well-meaning. I am open to any suggestions on how to better respond to this situation when it happens again. I’m not sure whether it is a training issue or a company procedures issue.”
I’m hopeful the reporting CFI asked himself those same questions. Had his CFI lied in his presence during his training? Is that why he thought it OK to do so? Is lying tolerated at his company? Going forward, how will he guard against lying in other critical situations?
We aren’t perfect; neither is our world. Our ideal self rarely meshes with our real self. Neither is our ideal world our real world, but I think we can find peace and freedom in the security of knowing that the world we’ve created for ourselves as pilots and teachers of pilots benefits from frankness and honesty.