Leading Edge: Speak. Up.

The author no longer has an issue asking for help from women smarter than him. Courtesy Ben Younger

Before GPS, when Rand McNally’s paper maps ruled the day, pulling over on a country road in a small town to ask for directions never felt like failure to me. I saw it as a chance to meet someone new, maybe find out where to get lunch. Likewise, when flying, I am not a man who has a problem with asking for help. I’ve learned that it is better to underestimate your abilities than to think too highly of them. In an airplane, when your reach exceeds your grasp, your insurance carrier may become involved—sometimes, the NTSB.

Anecdotally, other people do have an issue asking for directions. And when I say “other people,” I think you know I mean dudes. Men seem to have a problem not knowing stuff. For some men, it is not enough to know something; it needs to be explained to an audience in great, unsolicited detail. Everyone must know that you know (the dreaded phenomenon of “mansplaining”). For some people—again, often men—to not know something is not a knowledge gap happily filled but a void to be avoided at all costs.

My friend Carlo Mirarchi, a Michelin-starred chef I have written about in these pages, often finds himself on the receiving end of a phone call from me with a culinary query he probably does not consider worthy of his time. He thinks very little of me as a cook. That is fine by me because the people I am serving think exactly the opposite of my food, thanks to his advice. The expert help from Carlo elevates the food I make. That help is often delivered with a side of ridicule, but I find this to be a fair price for a perfect cacio e pepe.

Not asking for help sometimes results in more than a bad pasta dish. In an airplane, it can be quite a bit more serious. Tomes have been written on preflight judgment and decision-making, but there isn’t much literature exploring why pilots sometimes choose to go it alone, refusing help that is readily available. In the most serious cases, this refusal to ask for help will make them forever inaccessible to debrief.

It may appear reductive to try to explain the serious matter of GA fatalities with an age-old cliché regarding men’s inability to ask for assistance navigating, but there is data to suggest there is truth here. I’ve watched numerous accident-case-study videos on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association website that feature a man trying to downplay what was happening to him as he enters a quickly deteriorating situation. I am continually shocked by pilots’ decision-making processes, as well as their reluctance to admit to a mistake or ask for help while there is still an opportunity for a positive outcome. Social constraints/norms are oh-so-real. The ego foolishly puts itself before all else—even the life of its owner.

Watching these videos, with their actual ATC recordings, is painful. Maybe it’s because I know the outcome, but I can hear the fear in these pilots’ voices, try as they might to hide it. Apparently, it fools some because the controllers do not pick up on anything amiss—nor should they be expected to. That isn’t their job. “Use your words” is something we were all taught from a young age. Maybe your spouse is a mind reader, but I can assure you, ATC is not. Speak. Up.

I remember as a young man the shame that I felt in asking for help. There was usually an attractive woman present—though not always. A rival male could trigger a similar reaction. The audience mattered. When the individual was someone much older or far more experienced, it became easier for me to ask for help, to admit a mistake. Today, I would not be embarrassed to tell Capt. Sully that I need help trimming for best glide in my Bonanza. However, the approach controller I am talking to expects a modicum of ability from me if I am operating in her airspace. If my IFR skills are not up to snuff and I bust an altitude assignment, this will reflect poorly on me. She also has the power to discipline me if necessary.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

In my early 40s, I jettisoned these hang-ups along with a lot of other crap that wasn’t benefiting me. It took me a while. At some point (hopefully), we surrender to the idea that we don’t know squat and many others know more. Then, we feast at the buffet that admission allows us access to.

Now I ask for help all the time. If anything, I have the opposite problem. I want to declare when I see a broken layer on approach and only have four GPS satellites working. Not only is it no longer difficult to ask for help, it also serves double duty: I get the information and support I need, while the person I am asking feels good about their own abilities and knowledge.

When, in a genuine manner, you let a controller know you are in over your head, they don’t admonish you; they help you. In fact, for a few months after I got my private, I would sometimes consciously and incorrectly identify myself as a student pilot when checking in with a controller under VFR flight following. Instantly, the controller slowed down and enunciated more clearly. A handful of times I even expressed my level of anxiety by inserting a short but explicit addition at the end of my transmission—something I would still do today if the situation warranted it. Controllers, if not busy, will often check in and simply ask how you’re doing when you’ve communicated honestly. At what cost does this help come? Gratis.

We often hear about pilots’ reluctance in using the dreaded E-word. There are usually few repercussions for declaring an emergency, save for instances of gross negligence, yet the fear remains. Pilots still do not declare when they should. We—especially men—would rather continue on in dangerous silence than speak up and admit a mistake.

In reviewing the mistakes men make when flying, one could argue that machismo never came into play. Perhaps these pilots just didn’t know quite how bad things were until it was too late. I would argue otherwise. Pilots are all too aware. Just look at the success of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. There have been more than 1.5 million ASRS reports filed since the program’s inception in 1981. In 2017 alone, there were 94,000. Go and take a look. There are some incredibly honest, finely detailed accounts of pilots describing themselves doing very stupid things. Self-critique isn’t an issue so long as it’s anonymous and the ego is protected.

Machismo is often thought of as presenting as loud and big, and sometimes it is. I’ve been to the Jersey Shore. There, you can see it, hear it and smell it coming. When flying, beware the machismo that makes a man go quiet. That’s the one that’ll get you.

This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.
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