Pilots Don’t Always Communicate Well When Describing Risk

Most in GA aren't always as transparent in departure dialogue with passengers as we should be.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

How do you know if someone is a pilot?

They will tell you.

As aviators we like to let everyone know, not only our own ability but that of our airplanes. We are proud of our dispatch reliability rate, the utility they afford, the ease of travel, and the time saved not standing in a TSA line. And we would love to tell you all about it in great detail.


And yet, for all that talk, we don’t always communicate very well with our passengers when describing risk. We don’t want to scare the deer. Or show our airplane’s shortcomings. Or our own.

But, yes, our little airplanes really do offer up all that utility. Add a Garmin suite of avionics to the already reliable powerplant/airframe in my highly updated Bonanza, and I can get in and out of places that no commercial airliner could ever attempt.

Part 91 takes away whatever remaining restrictions the majors have in getting off the ground. Technically, we GA pilots can take off in any conditions we like. Sure, we don’t necessarily do it, but we all know that we could if we wanted to badly enough. And that’s simply not a helpful framework for our self-deluding primate brains.

I remember once getting a call some years ago on a Saturday morning from my buddy, Dave. He and a friend had to make a wedding in California’s Bay Area that night. Their commercial flight into KSFO was canceled because of fog. He asked me if I could get them to a nearby airport in the next few hours. A part of my brain lit up at the thought of saving the day. It’s fun being the hero. I tried to remain calm and even had the wherewithal to tell him I had to check the weather first. But my mind was already 87 percent made up. I was getting them to that wedding.

Turns out it wasn’t just fog. There was a well-developed low making a ton of rain along with 70 knot winds at 10,000 feet. We flew right through that storm. While there was no convection, and I wasn’t exactly in over my head, it was not a flight that needed to happen. I had just received my instrument rating a few months earlier and was determined to leverage it to its full potential.

I remember this one moment up at altitude when I realized the weather at our destination was not going to lift above minimums. I told the guys we would not make San Jose and would have to land at Monterey. They were concerned with rental cars and ground transportation, blissfully unaware I had not studied our alternate’s instrument approaches—there are six of them at KMRY. Runway 28 was active, and it required a descent toward mountainous terrain and an approach that takes you right past peaks higher than the aircraft’s path. The surrounding terrain there is the real deal, having taken the life of a well-known CFI who had a CFIT accident in 2021 while departing into IMC.

Our flight ended with a successful landing, but I will always remember walking away from the airplane toward the FBO when Dave asked me if I always sweated this much when flying. “Yes,” I replied. “I’m a ‘schvitzer.’” Better that than explain to him that I exposed them both to a much higher risk without ever giving them the option to make a choice for themselves. Had I called Dave back earlier that morning and explained that our desired destination was at minimums and our alternate had mountainous terrain surrounding it on three sides, he might very well have decided making the wedding wasn’t that important after all. More than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, anyway. But I never gave him that option. I wanted to make it work—for me, as much as for him. And that’s a problem.

In the end, I didn’t even achieve the hero status that was fueling my decision-making process. The guys were scrambling to find a rental car as they tossed a thank-you over their shoulders as they walked to the FBO. I slowly made my way back to the airplane and just sat there in the left seat for a bit and breathed before filing and heading back to LA.

The best example of this noncommunication was also the worst day of my life: that fateful morning in Telluride, Colorado, where I encountered wind shear on takeoff and almost entered a stall/spin, ending with a gear-up landing. My passenger and I could have left later that day or the next morning. That’s when all the “reasons” start flooding in:

  • The hotel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is booked.
  • The restaurant reservation is made.
  • The girl is new to me, and I want to impress her.
  • My airplane is perfectly suited to the mission.
  • I am a pilot of exceptional, bordering superhuman ability.

In hindsight, those seem patently absurd (the last, also being patently false) with the reality I was then served: a totaled airplane, a scarred pilot and his dog, and a woman who ended up being subjected to a terrifying, near-death experience.

Had I just asked her if she was willing to risk the flight at one of the most notoriously dangerous airports in North America because of mountain wind shear and a climbing density altitude, I can almost guarantee she would have declined. But that dialogue never occurred, because I never opened it.

There are times where we really don’t see the danger coming and, as such, a conversation cannot be had. For that, there is no remedy. But I find the vast majority of the time there is that tingling feeling that originates in your brain then migrates south to the back of your neck, where it surfaces, becoming almost topical—like an itch.

We almost always know. We just don’t always listen, and we often don’t speak.

This column first appeared in the September 2023/Issue 941 of FLYING’s print edition.


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