One of the truly unique facets of aviation that increasingly appeals to me is the expectation that pilots will perform as professionals in the cockpit.
They can joke, or not. They can talk about their favorite movie, or song, or fashion trend — or they can just stick to the requirements of the flight.
The job is to do the job, not to become best friends. If we can function in good humor, that’s great. If not, we just stick to the job at hand.
No muss, no fuss, no cursing each other out because the person in the left seat has an idealogical difference of opinion with the person in the right seat. None of that matters. As we all learned in our first hours at the controls: When all else fails, fly the airplane.
In my career I’ve only refused to fly with two people. That’s it. Just two. In both cases, I felt being airborne beside them would put me outside the realm of safe flight, and so I stood my ground. In one case, losing my job in the process. No regrets here.
My first no-go involved a doctor from Europe. He was a private pilot, and probably should have been encouraged to remain a private pilot in search of some remedial training and a flight review. Instead, the owner of the flight school I flew for encouraged him to seek out a commercial certificate, which he did.
I was assigned to fly with him, which was fine with me. At that point in my career I was more focused on adding flight hours to my logbook than the size of my paycheck. Things went well right up until we got airborne. Then the scenario soured quickly.
My student was willful and argumentative. He bristled at any instruction I offered, preferring to figure out how to fly chandelles and lazy 8s on his own. And that was on a good flight.
The final straw for me occurred when we were doing pattern work in a Cessna 172RG. While turning downwind for Runway 23, I pointed out a motor-glider beginning its takeoff roll on Runway 11.
While that may seem unusual to have traffic using two different runways simultaneously at a non-towered field, at this particular field that was a normal occurrence. My intent was to share a practical example of why a good collision avoidance scan matters, even in the pattern, from above pattern altitude all the way to the ground.
My student saw things differently. He began yelling that he was in charge and didn’t need any input from me. He punched the panel a couple times to emphasize his dominance. I answered simply, “Okay, make this one full stop.”
His landing was good, which brought a wide smile to his face. We cleared the runway, brought the airplane to a stop, and I got out. “Go ahead and tie it down,” I said before removing my headset. “We’re done.”
My employer insisted I fly with the customer. I stood my ground, and lost my job over it. Fair enough. I’ll take being a temporarily unemployed flight instructor over being a dead flight instructor any day.
Our responsibility as pilots is to assure the safety of the flight. It’s not to get paid, it’s not to get to the destination on time, and it’s certainly not to risk our lives to placate the bruised ego of a screaming passenger, flight student, or peer.
Given the situation, I felt I was making the smart choice. I still do. And I’m still here.
My second refusal to fly came as the result of a fellow who contacted me, asking for some pointers on flying his ultralight. After arriving at the airport and being shown the aircraft, I noticed a few discrepancies. It had two seats, carried 10 gallons of fuel, and weighed at least twice the limit set in 14 CFR Part 103.
I explained to the man that his aircraft wasn’t an ultralight and he’d need to earn a recreational or private pilot certificate to fly it (this pre-dated sport pilot certificates). He waved the news off as if it was of no more concern than a circling insect.
His plan was to give rides, because he heard pilots could make good money doing that. Well, that’s not allowed in amateur-built experimental aircraft, I told him, and even if it was, he’d need a commercial pilot certificate to conduct those flights. Again he assured me that was no problem, he didn’t need a license, he just needed the airplane, and some help learning to fly it.
The conversation continued along those lines until I finally told him he couldn’t legally fly the way he intended to, and I reiterated that he really needed to take flight lessons to earn his certificate. That would allow him to gain the experience he needed to be able to fly rides, someday in the future, with a commercial certificate and an appropriate aircraft.
As you can imagine, he disagreed. We never flew together, for which I’m very glad. Others did, however. He flew passengers, as he’d planned to do. They paid for the privilege too. Until he and his last passenger entered an accelerated stall on takeoff, pitched over, and made a good sized dent in the earth. Neither of them survived.
Two pilots walk into a bar. That’s the opening of a joke, I think. Or a spirited conversation about all sorts of divisive, exciting topics. In the bar that’s fine.
In the cockpit, it’s best to just focus on doing the job. Personal opinions don’t mean much in the long run.
But doing the job responsibly? When we do that, everybody wins.