Think Twice

Your mental attitude may make you a worse pilot than you think you are


My first and only accident is a good example of how psychological factors affect piloting decisions. I was 17, inexperienced and anxious to try out a new set of wings. I had little money, so my primary radio was a used unit of doubtful reliability. In fact, it had malfunctioned on the ground several times, and I was unsure how it would do in the air.

Everything worked well until I got into a steep turn. In most planes, a radio malfunction will not lead directly to a crash. But in a radio-controlled model aircraft, you can guess the result.

Despite what you might think, the cause of this crash was not faulty equipment – it was pilot error. I made a bad decision to fly with deficient equipment and I suffered a serious crash. Fortunately, I was able to walk away unharmed and wiser.

In general aviation, such lapses in judgment are often fatal. Poor judgment is evident when a pilot chooses to take off over gross at a high density-altitude airport, fly unprepared and unqualified into adverse weather, run out of fuel, buzz or fly with faulty equipment.

By some accounts, pilot error is to blame for about 80 percent of all general aviation accidents. A 1994 study reported in Ergonomics further found that, of fatal accidents, 60 percent result from improper decisions and 20 percent are caused by improper technique.

Most pilots are probably capable of making sound judgments, so the question becomes: What makes an otherwise capable person make bad decisions and kill himself and his passengers?

In an effort to get a handle on the answer, researchers have conducted many studies on pilot personality characteristics and aviation accidents in an attempt to find characteristics that can adversely affect piloting decisions and lead to accidents. Although many factors have been identified, the leading causes include cutting corners, thrill-seeking, high-risk behaviors, unrealistic self-appraisal of skills, feeling invulnerable, panic and stressful life events.

Those Daring Young Men
One factor that emerged from early research is called shrewdness, or the tendency to cut corners. In a study reported in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine in 1975, Army helicopter pilots were given a standardized personality test and their scores correlated with whether they had been involved in accidents. Those who had accidents differed from those who did not in several ways, including a need to cut corners. Accident pilots were significantly more likely to be the type of person who habitually cuts corners. A 1991 study by C.L. Lardent compared F-4 pilots who had had accidents to F-4 pilots who had not, with similar results.

Most people can appreciate the role of cutting corners in general aviation accidents. Examples include not checking the quantity or quality of fuel before takeoff, not checking weather, or putting off important maintenance items. Such poor decisions can and do lead to accidents, which is particularly interesting given the fact that most of these tasks take little time or effort.

A survey of more than 1,000 general aviation pilots who had recent accidents, incidents and violations classified most of these pilots as having thrill-seeking personalities. A 1992 dissertation by M.E. Lubner linked the accident pilots with the kind of people who like roller coasters, loud parties, high-risk sports and other exciting activities.

This conclusion makes the most sense when you stop to ponder how many accident chains begin with a pilot asking his buddy, Do you want to see something? or Under or over? It stands to reason that many low-level maneuvering accidents start off when the pilot or a passenger feels bored, wants to see something on the ground up close, or is seeking a thrill.

High-risk behaviors include buzzing, flying with known equipment deficiencies, flying under the influence, flying homebuilt aircraft, and VFR pilots continuing flight into instrument conditions.

Continued flight into IMC constitutes almost 30 percent of all accidents, and 70 percent of these accidents are fatal. The odds are good that a VFR pilot caught in instrument conditions eventually will become disoriented, confused and part of the accident record. Many unprepared and out-of-practice instrument pilots suffer a similar fate, usually by not following proper procedures.

Typically, a pilot departs in VFR or MVFR conditions and the clouds become lower or the haze thicker than expected. Rather than turn around or pick a spot for an off-airport landing, the pilot refuses to admit defeat and flies fearfully forward, vainly hoping for better weather and better luck.

American culture teaches the value of persistence and disparages quitters. After all, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Pilots find it only natural to try to impress others with their skills and accomplishments. They take pride in getting utility out of flying and being able to get where they are going when they say they will be there.

These factors combine to form the basis of get-there-itis. This type of attitude, while helpful in society, can be fatal in piloting if left unchecked by a sober assessment of skills, equipment and weather.

Unrealistic Self-Assessment
Research shows that pilots tend to have a more internal locus of control than the general population. That is, pilots are more likely to believe that life events are the result of ones own actions instead of fate, chance or luck.

This attitude is also a mark of success, being linked with health, wealth and happiness. Unfortunately, this attitude can be taken to a foolish extreme when pilots falsely believe that they have complete control over every aspect of their lives, including the likelihood of having an aviation accident.

In one study, pilots were asked: Compared to other pilots of your experience level are you more or less skilled? Are you more or less safety-conscious? Do you have a greater or lesser chance of an accident?

The results should not have been a surprise to anyone who hangs around airports. The pilots surveyed believed that they were more skilled than other pilots, more safety-conscious and had a lower chance of having an accident.

While these attitudes are helpful – they help us participate in a high-risk activity by cleverly denying our exposure to danger – they also represent inaccurate perceptions. Almost no one has any sort of evidence to support the conclusion that they are safer than other pilots. Accidents can happen to anyone, even good pilots.

It is both more helpful and more accurate to humbly accept the possibility that a poor decision could lead to an accident. The more you believe that accidents happen to someone else, the more likely it is that you will be in danger because you will have less motivation to continually train and prepare for any eventuality.

People generally like to believe that good events are more likely than bad ones. This optimistic attitude helps account for the popularity of gambling and lotteries. But the odds of having an aircraft accident are greater than the chances of winning the lottery. Optimism does not decrease your odds of having an accident, so it would be a better bet to spend money on an instructor than lottery tickets.

Another personality characteristic common in pilots is the feeling of invulnerability. A 1984 study by L.F. Lester asked pilots to read an accident scenario and answer the following question: Imagine that you were the pilot of this accident aircraft. If so, why would this have happened to you? 1) I had to get there, no matter what. 2) I thought I could handle the situation; Im a great pilot. 3) I just kept going. An accident wont happen to me.

Most pilots picked the last alternative. This represents an attitude of being invulnerable and feeling special, that bad things only happen to the other guy.

But the truth is, you are the other guy. The old saying, He had more money than sense properly describes the pilot who has more equipment than he can handle, takes more risk than prudent, and feels special and invulnerable. Money may be a benchmark of success, power and achievement, but being well-heeled does not reverse the laws of physics. In the air youre just a pilot regardless of the size of your brokerage account.

Psychological Postmortem
Consider the personality factors mentioned so far – cutting corners, thrill-seeking, high-risk behaviors, inaccurate self-assessments and feelings of invulnerability – as basic ingredients leading to the poor decisions that result in accidents. The accident pilot thought he or she was better, luckier or more blessed than others – and made bad decisions thinking they were good decisions.

Accident pilots do not intentionally take off knowing that a bad decision and crash await them. Thus, the accident pilot may think, Ive flown overweight before. What difference does a few more pounds make? The plane can handle it. Or Ive run scud before and it worked out, so why turn around now? Im a great pilot. Or Ive flown this long before. Running out of fuel wont happen to me. Or Its no big deal having a drink or two before flying. Im a safe drinker.

The very things that make a good pilot – confidence, skill and determination – can undo a good pilot. Too much confidence results in taking unwarranted risks. A grand faith in our skill can lead into a situation that proves too difficult. Too much determination can result in an inability to admit to mistakes.

By this view, accidents are not necessarily the result of a one-time mistake in judgment, but are the end result of habitual unsafe practices, attitudes and personality styles that the pilot has come to regard as normal, and therefore safe.

Considered as personality dynamics, these hazardous personality characteristics can be likened to two powerful defense mechanisms: denial and rationalization. Defense mechanisms are predominate ways of coping with difficulty and become more prominent under stress.

Denial is when we blindly refuse to see the truth – for example, discounting an unfavorable weather forecast because the flight must be made.

Rationalization is another way to screen out the truth. When using rationalization, a person convinces himself that something is other than what it is through over-reliance on flawed logic. A pilot might rationalize flying in ice because he knows his plane can handle it. This pilot could present a list of arguments that miss the essential point that he is a test pilot in an unknown situation. In both cases, to accept the truth would create tension or necessitate a change in behavior or self-image.

Bad Things, Good People
Although many pilots fit the profile of being into risky business, there are also external factors that can have a profound impact on your psychological ability to make good in-flight decisions.

If an engine fails on initial climb, for example, fear is a natural response. Unfortunately, the natural physiological response and interpretation of the situation – Im dead! – do not lend themselves to the cool thinking and clear actions required to survive.

The net result is that panic sets in. Reaction time increases and thoughts slow. Some people become overwhelmed and immobile, unable to respond to the situation. Others make an impulsive move, such as a steep, low-altitude turn back to the runway, which examination shows was an illogical response.

Panic intrudes upon the pilots ability to fly the plane and conduct a well-rehearsed series of actions – fly the plane, pick a field, carb heat, fuel pump, switch tanks, adjust mixture, check mags, pick a spot, fuel off, flaps full.

The only solution to panic is training. People who fly the big stuff have access to simulators. Light plane pilots can practice most scenarios in the plane, but visualization is also a useful tool. Imagine an emergency situation and see yourself coping with it. This is called fear inoculation, and practicing this exercise can help prevent panic from disabling you in emergency situations.

Stressful Life Events
Stressful life events, such as job loss, relationship problems and family changes, have a physical, emotional and mental impact on anyone. High stress can exacerbate an underlying personality characteristic, such as feeling invulnerable, so the person under stress is more apt to make bad decisions. In studying a USAF squadron with a high accident rate in the late 1960s, for example, J. Aitken found that 66 percent of the pilots admitted to worrying about flying, marital problems and bereavement issues. In squadrons with low accident rates, the percentage of stressful life events was lower.

Often, stressful life events are detected during the course of an accident investigation, but thats not always the case. Sometimes other causes get the official blame, which means that the incidence of stress-induced accidents is likely much greater than youd find by studying the NTSB accident data.

Here are just a few examples of how stressful life events can impact pilot personality characteristics and cause accidents:

• An airline pilot was suffering from stress at work and marital problems. This apparently increased his risk-taking behaviors, as he was last seen performing aerobatics – at progressively lower altitudes – until he struck the ground.

• A private pilot was having financial problems and argued with his wife on the day of departure. There were mechanical problems with his light twin that caused many delays. His wife and friends were impatiently waiting for him at another airport.

Witnesses said that by the time he took off he appeared angry, frustrated and rushed. One engine failed on initial climb. The pilot must have froze at the controls, for he took no corrective action prior to stall/spin.

• A student pilot was in love with his female flight instructor. She decided to dump him. Lovesick, he circled her house, planning to crash. He ultimately changed his mind and ditched the plane in a lake beside her house rather than landing on an adjacent golf course. He claimed he was experiencing engine roughness. The accident investigation incorrectly ascribed the cause of the crash to carburetor ice.

Manage Your Risk Profile
All this talk may have you wondering why anyone ever leaves the ground. But its important to realize that accident rates are based on group data, and each individual has a different risk profile.

For instance, if you fly a poorly maintained, high-performance experimental aircraft, your accident risk is higher than the rest of general aviation. If you only fly well-maintained, thoroughly preflighted, lightly loaded, certificated aircraft in good weather, your risk is lower. Being in a low-risk group does not protect you from poor decision making, however, because a low-risk pilot can increase his or her risk by making bad decisions due to hazardous personality characteristics.

You can monitor and control your unsafe personality characteristics through awareness and preparation. Before every flight, ask yourself, What am I thinking now that increases or decreases my safety? Perform a self-check of hazardous attitudes before flight by asking, Am I feeling like nothing bad can happen to me? Am I taking too many risks? Am I cutting corners? Am I upset over recent stressful events? Am I better than other pilots?

In this way, you can recognize those times when youre feeling invulnerable or prone to taking risk and cutting corners. That will help you reduce your chance of making a poor decision and becoming part of the accident record.

Your physical, mental and emotional fitness determines your ability to make sound decisions. Having the right thoughts before, during and after a flight is just as important as having fuel and oil.

No one is immune to accidents; by definition they are not completely predictable. You can fool yourself into believing that accidents only happen to those less skilled or less conscientious, but it only takes a small lapse in judgment for a pleasant flight to turn into disaster.

The old saw is that flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of shear terror. But you dont have to be bored or terrified. Look for emergency landing areas and traffic, go through emergency procedures, check the weather ahead, spin your E6-B flight confuser or enjoy the view. Keep yourself busy and recognize that today may be the day your engine fails, your fuel is contaminated or the alternator fails.

If something does happen, it wont be terrifying because you are prepared. Everyone has a chance of an accident, but with constant training and self-vigilance you can avoid pilot-error blunders and manage emergencies with confidence.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “The Brain Game.”

-by Miles Diller

Miles Diller is a clinical psychologist, an active general aviation pilot and owner of a Cherokee 180.


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