Pilots Who Shouldn’t Be Flying

I was interviewed in 2004 by Business & Commercial Aviation. I still feel the same way in 2015!

 |  Business & Commercial Aviation – November 1 2004

Editor’s Note – B&CA received a very favorable response to this article when it was published in 2004. Many of the observations and comments are still valid in today’s flying environment.

Unless you’ve spent your entire aviation career inside a cocoon, you’ve probably encountered a pilot who shouldn’t pilot; a person who, despite having accumulated a wealth of flight hours, ratings, and sometimes years of line experience, would be better suited to a different occupation.

Is it too bold a supposition to say that some people simply shouldn’t be commercial pilots? It seems that eventually every pilot will encounter another who seems unfit to fly. The judgment could result from the other pilot’s glaring lack of technical skills, a disturbing personality trait, habitual over-consumption of alcohol or drugs, or any number of other factors that cause serious doubts by one pilot about the safety of another.

Yet while most pilots are assertive by nature, as a group we tend to wimp out when it comes to thinning the herd. None of us wants to be the one to potentially end another pilot’s career, even when we find one we know is dangerous. We do nothing, remain mute, and hope that perhaps a truly bad pilot will quit, the “system” will weed him out, or someone else will sound the alarm — anything that doesn’t involve our active participation in the process.

“It’s like crime,” says Gregory Feith, an ATP and former senior accident investigator with the NTSB who now works as an aviation safety consultant in Denver. “When someone witnesses a mugging, for example, they’re reluctant to report it. Why? Fear of retribution. With bad pilots it’s the same mechanism — people are afraid they will suffer negative fallout from their employer, the pilot community, or the person they’ve identified. Then they rationalize continuing to share the cockpit with this same individual by thinking, ‘Well, at least I can control the situation when I fly with him.’ But that’s not really the case. Something can happen on the flight deck that requires the action of two pilots working in harmony. If you don’t have that from the beginning, you’re already in trouble.”

And even if you do turn somebody in for incompetence or negligence, such failings are hard to define and even more difficult to prove. After all, to become a commercially licensed pilot, one needs to have acquired a certain amount of practical flying experience and demonstrate both the knowledge and skill set forth by the federal government. But as has been documented in many fatal accidents, shortcomings in personality and attitude rather than a lack of technical expertise are sometimes key to a flight’s undoing.

“Personality needs to be considered on a level of importance right along with piloting skills,” says Feith. “A safe pilot needs to be able to comfortably multi-task, keep an open mind, assimilate quickly and see the big picture. When you have a pilot with an angry, ticked-off personality, his world shrinks, and his viewpoint is narrowed before he even gets in the cockpit. That in itself is a weakness, and for the captain — who is the purveyor of safety — his persona becomes a liability.”

While pilots are typically passionate about flying, there are exceptions. In some Asian countries candidates are selected to become pilots based upon their academic performance, rather than any interest or aptitude on their part to pilot airplanes. And there are youngsters in the United States who feel compelled to become pilots because it’s a family tradition.

“Make no mistake,” says Feith, “there are people sitting in cockpits today because their peer group or their personal history put them there. They are convinced that they need to be there, rather than should be there, and there are few ways to determine until after the fact — even on personality tests — how these pilots are going to perform under pressure.”

Psychologists say one of the best major indicators of good mental health is an individual’s ability to handle change, and Dr. Robert Rose, an industrial psychologist and expert on pilot personality, says a significant marker in a successful aviator is a capacity for stressful situations. Rose said that most career pilots score at the top end of the scale on optimism or what he calls a “strong coping personality.” However, you cannot use psychological testing and profiling to precisely gauge who will be a safe pilot.

When conducting a course for airline pilots seeking to become instructors, I’m wary of pilots who repeatedly blame others — be they crewmembers, air traffic controllers or the weather briefer — for what is essentially their own screw-up. To my way of thinking, if it’s never their fault, then it’s never — in their minds — their responsibility. If that’s the case, then maybe they’re really not vested in what’s happening. I don’t want such pilots anywhere near the flight controls, least of all if I’m a passenger whose fate is in their hands.

For the most part, such it’s-not-my-fault rationalizers are incapable of change. They’re not going to be motivated to improve, because in their minds nothing is wrong to begin with. It’s a cycle that won’t be broken. An instructor can try to pinpoint with exhausting accuracy where, why and how they need to improve. These pilots will grit their teeth and nod — doing just enough to get through the review — and then re-engage the old bad habits.

Feith agrees: “The type of problem pilot we repeatedly see is the excuse maker. He’s the guy that thinks, ‘I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong.'”

Crew resource management (CRM) training arrived in the training centers some 20 years ago to help address those kinds of attitudes. And while CRM was initially dismissed by many as being too “touchy feely,” it was eventually embraced by pilots because the FAA required it and because accident transcripts proved repeatedly that good pilots could avoid bad accidents by working together cooperatively. But what about the other kind of pilots? After all, they’re out there.

“When I used to jumpseat regularly on the airlines, I would hear constantly about the bad apples in the bunch,” Feith says. “And some won’t want to hear this, but there are corporate pilots, particularly a few [FAR] Part 91 guys, who simply can’t adjust to the structured and disciplined atmosphere of airline flying, so they stay Part 91. They’re already operating, some would say, at a reduced level of safety because of a disdain for rigorous standardization and procedures — the very things that we know increase safety.”

And they remain in the cockpit despite, or some might argue, because of, the system. Feith says unions can protect flawed pilots, and training companies exist to improve, not eject, pilots of all skill levels. “They also don’t relish being the bearers of bad news as to the quality of the pilots you’ve hired,” Feith observes, “and corporate flight department managers may never know if a candidate passed extraordinarily — or barely marginally — because it’s a hard thing to objectify.”

His point was underscored by the collective reaction of several training companies B/CA contacted regarding bad pilots. One person pretty much spoke for all in observing, “We don’t even want to be quoted as having ‘no comment’ on the subject.”

And with that comment as preface, the tragedy that befell eight people aboard a King Air A100 on Oct. 25, 2002, in Eveleth, Minn., may be understandable, but that flight could and should have been prevented long before Sen. Paul Wellstone and his party boarded that airplane.

Accident investigations typically are light on what Feith calls “character autopsy” of the people involved and the impact their personalities may have had on the chain of events that led up to the crash. “There’s a big reluctance by investigating agencies to perform them due to lack of manpower, money, litigation and time,” he said. But character and personality traits can obviously effect the course of action. Pair a weak captain with an average copilot, and things will probably work out. Put that same captain with a weak copilot on a clear day, and again, barring any emergencies, they’ll probably manage to get the airplane back on the ground in one piece. But pair that weak captain with a weak copilot on a heavy IMC day, and give them a nonprecision approach with a political celebrity in back, and you dramatically increase the odds for disaster.

Although the NTSB was not able to establish with certainty whether the captain or the copilot was flying the approach, it remained the captain’s responsibility to maintain control of the aircraft, which he did not. The airplane slowed during the approach to Runway 27 at Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport (EVM), stalled, crashed and burned, killing all aboard.

The NTSB was able to determine that the captain had a checkered past with the law — in fact, he was a convicted felon who had served prison time for fraud. He had falsely led his employers to believe that he had logged hundreds of hours flying regional turboprops, and his flying performance elicited a preponderance of indictments from other pilots who had flown with him at the charter outfit.

The negative recollections of the pilots constituted the most chilling information to surface in the accident’s aftermath. Just days before the disaster, one pilot said, he had to take control of the airplane immediately after departure because the captain had engaged the autopilot incorrectly and the aircraft lurched into a steep dive. Critique after critique came in regarding his on-the-job performance: distracted, tired, unaware, prone to errors, and he gave the majority of the legs to the copilots to fly — frequently having them handle not only flying duties, but also most of the radio calls. One fellow pilot said he felt the man was “dangerous” and that he had “a real bad feeling about him.” Said another, “He just seemed real slow. Always hitting wrong things, saying wrong things.” And, he added, “He was too timid, he lacked . . . something.” I didn’t know the captain, but I did know the copilot. He was a kind and thoughtful man who loved aviation, but failed to make the grade time and again. He was dismissed from two aviation jobs.

The accident investigation revealed that the copilot’s sub-average performance continued at the charter company, where he required extra time and training, and was reportedly slow to grasp systems and computations. However, he was also regarded as “a good guy.” And he was.

So, the NTSB investigators learned that both dead pilots had demonstrated difficulty with getting the job done. Whether it was ground school, simulator training, operating as an effective crewmember, or just a general weakness in overall airmanship, they lacked something. And lots of fellow pilots whispered about that behind their backs. But that didn’t do them or their passengers any good. If aviation really is a fraternity of sorts — a “band of brothers” — then it is the responsibility of each of us to help our weakest siblings, even if that means doing the hard thing of clipping their wings. Failing that, we must share the blame.

“We are each personally accountable for enhancing safety as a whole,” says Feith. “But it’s not the collective that enhances safety, it’s the individuals within the collective who do so.”

  1. Rick Longlott 9 years ago


    I couldn’t agree more with the basics of the article but unfortunately, HR has now become the sole keeper of the gate to employment and use the same pyschological testing (from the 50’s, I might add) that Dr. Rose in his article said

    “that most career pilots score at the top end of the scale on optimism or what he calls a “strong coping personality.” However, you cannot use psychological testing and profiling to precisely gauge who will be a safe pilot”.

    I’ll add to that by saying nor can you determine through testing whether or not a candidate will be a good employee, either, but that’s what most companies do nowadays with marginal and sometimes fatal results.

  2. DK 9 years ago

    Thank you for this article. Having watched you appearances on various show, I’ve heard the phrase “why did such an experienced pilot?” more than a few times. Hopefully there will be a system of peer review put in place that allows for improvement in pilot quality.

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