The Finer Points: Don’t Trust Cowboys or YouTube Wannabes

These days, anybody with a video camera and an airplane can be a self-proclaimed aviation expert.

I overheard a conversation years ago on a Colorado mountain flying trip that really stands out in my mind. It was long before I began running my own mountain trips (I was a hired gun on this one) and it stands out because I lost all respect for one of my colleagues that day, an instructor I had previously looked up to.

It was summertime and we were flying around Aspen, Eagle, Leadville and other high mountain airports so that our pilots could experience what it was like to operate at density altitudes as high as 13,000 feet. On this trip we had a group of nine airplanes. Most were normally aspirated Cessna 182s without integrated oxygen systems. The point was to show pilots, in a safe and controlled environment, how their performance, and the performance of their airplane, degrades rapidly in the hot, thin air. Most of us had pulse oximeters to monitor for hypoxia, and there was an experienced CFI in every airplane.

We were at lunch when I overheard the pilots of another airplane talking in excited tones about going up to 16,000 feet. I naively asked, “Where did you guys get an oxygen bottle?” To which they replied, “We don’t have oxygen.” They had been flying around at 16,000 feet without it.

If you’re not aware of what hypoxia can do to a perfectly good pilot, it’s profound. Nobody is immune, and I can think of many excellent aviators who aren’t with us anymore because they failed to appreciate this fact. I knew their instructor, knew he was a “cowboy,” but still, this shocked me. These guys looked up to him, and there was certainly nothing I could say now to change that opinion.

New pilots just don’t know any better. They look up to people who seem to be able to push the limits and get away with it. They think everybody else is just too scared to try. They now saw him as brave and held him up on pedestal he didn’t deserve to polish. He had failed them, and it was the last time I worked with him or recommended him for anything.

In that case the damage was limited. Limited to the crew of his airplane and the people they had an influence on. It’s an age-old problem, and one tricky truth about flying; sometimes, when you are new to it, it can be hard to tell who the experts really are. A student walking into a flight school doesn’t know a 20-year veteran from the CFI who just got his license, and a young pilot doesn’t necessarily know how many cowboy pilots died doing stupid stuff before he or she got there. It’s likely been that way since the beginning, only now the effects are different. The consequences are more severe and our responsibilities more profound.

We now live in a world where everybody carries a flight school around with them in their pocket and it has 1 billion members. It’s called YouTube, and it’s awesome. It allows you to watch your favorite flying heroes any time of the day from anywhere in the world. Anybody with a camera and an airplane can publish their take on flying simply by setting up a gmail account. You can see Bob Hoover doing his stopped engine aerobatic routines, see accident recaps from AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, get the view from inside Sean Tucker’s Pitts while he’s performing. What’s not to love? OK, maybe a few things, and it’s the job of the experienced aviators and the big brands in the group to understand that the future of aviation is watching.

These kids will look up the folks who are out there flying into IMC in controlled airspace without a clearance (that’s a real video, if you can believe it) or clipping terrain in the fog while scud running (another real video) only to get out and laugh it off. Creative license often allows people to justify omitting major points in the story to create excitement and accumulate views – only the viewers don’t know that, the same way the students in my colleague’s airplane didn’t know that good pilots shouldn’t fly around at 16,000 feet without oxygen, and those that do don’t last very long.

Quality content creators vet their work meticulously. I am involved with a number of YouTube channels and I can tell you that some producer pilots really care and work long, hard hours to get it right. They vet the content with multiple experts before ever hitting the publish button, and these are the biggest channels in the industry. So you can get views (and lots of them) without sacrificing the integrity of the content. The marketing power of social media is profound, but it’s a new space for aviation and can be dangerous water to tread. Often the only thing that validates or invalidates a content creator are the other big names that choose (or choose not) to align with them.

And the truth remains: You can’t tell a veteran from the new kid on the block any more than you can on YouTube, but on YouTube the new kid can claim to be a veteran and the world will never know it. We do know. The same way experienced pilots have always known. We’ve lost friends and heroes, and understand that our machines can have teeth. We use the same tools we’ve always used to influence the thinking of younger pilots. We set an example of what’s good and we tell stories about what’s bad. We talk about our successes and our failures.

In the words of the late Bob Hoover, “If you know your own limits and the limits of your machine, you’ll be just fine.” But who the heck is Bob Hoover anyway, and where do I find his YouTube channel?

Jason Miller is the creator of The Finer Points of Flying and a CFII with more than 20 years of aviation experience and thousands of hours of instruction given. He is a member of the FAA safety team, a speaker for AOPA’s Air Safety Institute and was nominated by the FAA for the 2009 Flight Instructor of the Year Award.

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