Stupid Pilot Tricks

Lane writes about some of the most memorable pilots she's ever flown with--the idiots.

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I don't know his name, and I didn't quite catch his N-number. But somewhere in the San Francisco area, there's a pilot who owes me an apology.

I was flying my Cheetah down to the Oakland International Airport on July 4th to pick up a friend who was flying in for a visit. It was a pleasant morning, clear and smooth, and I was enjoying the short flight south across the Bay. I was at about 2,500 feet, still outside of the Class B airspace but talking to Bay Approach, when the controller called out traffic at my same altitude, going the opposite direction, at 11 o'clock and one mile. I looked and quickly spotted a fast-moving gray plane headed past me, to my left.

"Roger, Bay Approach, Niner-Four-Uniform's got the ?"

My transmission trailed off as I watched the gray plane pull up, bank steeply around and proceed to dive straight toward me from my seven o'clock position. Good Lord! What was this guy up to? My heart choked, then began pounding. Did he see me? What kind of evasive action could or should I take? As I watched, the gray plane abruptly stopped its dive, pulling up into a loose formation position 50 yards or so to my left and a little behind and below me. The controller called again.

"Niner-Four-Uniform, that traffic's now ?"

"I SEE the traffic!" I answered sharply. "He's right here, taking way too close a look at me, or something. What the hell is he up to?? Are you talking to him?"

"Negative," the controller answered. "We've got him on radar, but he's not talking to anyone."

A lightning-fast torrent of emotions and thoughts raced through me. At first, I had thought the plane might be a military plane doing an intercept on me. It was, after all, July 4th and tensions about possible terrorist activities were high. But now that I could see the plane more clearly, I knew that wasn't the case. It was definitely a high-performance plane, painted an all-over light gray, with a bright yellow nose, but it was a prop plane, not a jet. It had the distinctive dorsal fin and tandem, bubble-canopy cockpit of a Pilatus PC-7, although it could have been just a plane that looked similar to a Pilatus. But whatever it was, I was at its mercy, because it clearly had both speed and maneuverability on my poor little fixed-gear Cheetah.

Part of me surged with the same defensive anger I feel on a New York subway when some unsavory-looking character gets too close. "This is my space, dammit, get out of it!" I silently fumed at the gray and yellow intruder. But then another possibility occurred to me. What if he was just fooling around in the sky and just happened to have leveled out just there? What if he didn't actually see me? That was an even scarier thought.

As I watched, the gray plane suddenly banked up and away, then circled around once again. The controller called with two more traffic targets, and I registered a vague awareness of their positions, but I didn't look for them. My eyes were riveted on the much more threatening wild-card target just off my left side. Now he was diving down on me again, this time straight from my nine o'clock position. All I could do was keep a straight and level line and hope that he really did see me and didn't actually want to ram me broadside. As I watched, my heart hammering in my throat, the gray plane dove down, passed directly underneath me, and disappeared beneath my fuselage somewhere toward the coastal hills.

What possessed the pilot of that gray and yellow plane to pull such a bone-headed maneuver? Perhaps I'll find him one day and he'll have a good explanation. But I suspect that he and a buddy were just tooling around in the sky, saw the little airplane going the other direction, and decided to have some fun playing fighter pilot.

Fun for them, at least.

It never ceases to amaze me, this myopic tendency of some pilots to be utterly unaware, or even utterly uncaring, about the impact of their actions on anyone other than themselves. They moan and complain about the bad rap general aviation gets from the general public, and then they proceed to scare the wits out of other pilots in the sky or passengers in their own planes.

I remember the first time I got the wits scared out of me. It was only a couple of months after I'd gotten my private license. I'd flown up to a little airshow in central Indiana, and a guy came up and offered me a ride in his Luscombe. Being a neophyte pilot, all aglow with a love of anything with wings, I said yes without a second thought. Second, third and even fourth thoughts sunk in quite quickly 20 minutes later, however, when I found myself looking straight down at ground that was rushing up at me terrifyingly fast as the Luscombe pilot decided to show me-without telling me what he was going to do or even asking if I liked aerobatics-how fun a hammerhead maneuver was in his plane.

Fun for him, at least.

As the ground rushed up to meet us, I realized with a horrifying chill that I actually didn't know this pilot at all. I didn't know if he knew what he was doing, or knew how to pull out of this maneuver. And I wasn't entirely sure that Luscombes were really meant for this kind of thing.

"If I die in the next 10 seconds, it's my own stupid, stupid fault!" I berated myself, promising the powers that be that if I lived through this nightmare, I'd never let it happen again.

So when the pilot of a Stearman biplane offered me a ride later that afternoon, I was more cautious. I asked the other pilots at the fly-in about the Stearman pilot's experience and level of common sense before signing on for the ride. Getting a thumbs-up from a couple of other pilots, I climbed in the plane and hooked myself into the four-point, military-style harness. We took off and began climbing. But as the altimeter wound up through 4,000 feet, my stomach lurched and my throat tightened. There's only one reason to climb that high in a Stearman, and my introduction to aerobatics earlier that day had left me with no desire for any more. All I wanted was a nice, sedate ride over the countryside. But there was no intercom in the plane to communicate my discomfort to the pilot.

"OK," I thought. "I'll just have to suffer through it. Maybe it won't be so bad."

The pilot dove the plane down and went through a roll, then a loop. Then he pulled up into what appeared to be another loop, but which turned out to be a Cuban Eight. In a Cuban Eight maneuver, a pilot performs the first half of a loop, but when the plane is inverted, he lets the plane descend inverted on a diagonal line before rolling upright and pulling up into another half-loop, descending inverted again, and rolling right-side up again-inscribing a sideways figure-eight in the sky.

The maneuver is not something I'd recommend for beginning aerobatic passengers, anyway. But as we reached the peak of the loop and began our inverted descent, the shoulder straps on my harness suddenly let go. With negative G forces pulling me away from my seat, toward the ground, I fell into the lap belt-a belt I figured had gone to the same party as the failed shoulder harnesses, and so therefore might decide to let go at any moment, as well. And I wasn't wearing a parachute. Apparently the pilot considered parachutes as unnecessary for aerobatics as a preflight briefing or consultation with his passenger.

With a panic I've known few other times in my life, I clutched wildly for the sides of the cockpit, searching madly with my feet for something to hook my toes under on the floor. We came out of the maneuver, rolled upright, and I breathed a momentary sigh of relief-until the pilot pulled up into another Cuban Eight loop. And another. And another. And another. Each time we went inverted, I fell into the lap belt again, grabbing frantically for something to hold me in the plane. On one descent, my key ring-holding my house, car and office keys-fell out of my shorts pocket. But with my fingers locked in a death grip on the top edge of the open cockpit, I just watched them fall into a farmer's field below. They're probably still rusting there today. My grip on the cockpit rim was so tight that when we finally landed, I had a hard time prying my cramped fingers off the leather.

How the pilot failed to notice my distress still mystifies me. But then, so does his decision to inflict not just one, but eight Cuban Eight loops, without parachutes, on a passenger he didn't even know. Looking back on it, it's a wonder I ever got back in an airplane. I did, of course, partly because I'd already had other flight experiences with which to temper those two nightmarish flights. But if I'd been a non-pilot, I doubt I ever would have darkened the gate of an airport fence again. As it is, I'm wary and unenthusiastic about any aerobatics, and my discomfort with any maneuver that involves negative Gs or looking straight down at the ground is primal, deep and will probably endure for as long as I fly.

But while the Luscombe and Stearman pilots might be guilty of ignorance or stupidity and poor communication, they at least didn't actually mean to intimidate, bully, frighten or endanger anyone. The same can't be said for all pilots.

I went flying once a number of years ago with a pilot in a single-engine Piper airplane. We flew out over the water west of Palomar Airport near San Diego-a fairly busy field with a lot of corporate jet traffic. As the pilot looked down at the sailboats beneath us, he asked if I wanted to dive-bomb some boats. I said no. He looked over at me, full of disdain.

"What are you, a sissy?"

"Whatever," I answered. "I just don't want to do it."

"Ah, don't be such a baby," he answered as he threw the plane into a dive.

My protests increased in volume as he dove down toward a ship, climbed sharply into a wing-over and dove back down toward another. As we climbed out of the second dive and he pulled the plane into another steep wing-over, I was on the up-wing side. And suddenly, I saw the underside of a large airplane pass by my window, heart-stoppingly close. Fixated on his floating targets below, the pilot beside me never saw the business jet that almost made all of us statistics. And descending on approach to Palomar, the jet pilots obviously never saw the little plane climbing steeply into their flight path, flown by an irresponsible pilot with a bullying attitude and far too much to prove.

Pilots all over America complain that the general public has a warped view of general aviation-that they see little planes as frightening and dangerous, and private pilots as unregulated, irresponsible cowboys. But how can we blame them when we have pilots among us so willing to demonstrate the worst stereotypes of irresponsibility? Stupid pilot tricks like dive-bombing unsuspecting airplanes and frightening passengers are inexcusable not only because they're potentially dangerous, but also because they do damage to aviation as a whole.

Whether we like it or not, our freedom to fly our own airplanes wherever we want around America is a privilege, not a Constitutional right. And a privilege is something you have to earn the right to exercise or keep. We have, at best, 600,000 pilots in a country populated by more than 300 million people. Do the math and figure out what a small percentage that represents, and then consider that the country is ruled by the democratic premise that the majority's wishes should prevail. It matters what the rest of the world thinks. And after the events of the past year, we will be given even less slack or forgiveness for stupidity, arrogance or mistakes.

To become a pilot is to gain a wonderful kind of freedom. But all freedoms carry with them an equal measure of responsibility. With the freedom we gain as pilots, we are also given responsibility for the safety and well-being of many other people-in our airplanes, in the sky around us and on the ground. Fortunately, most pilots carry that responsibility with great professionalism and care. But it doesn't take many irresponsible maneuvers to give all of us a bad name.

Sometimes, the damage is only a frightened passenger who will then take up some other sport besides flying. But even if that's the worst that happens, aviation has then lost not only a potential pilot, but a much-needed supporter. And sometimes, the consequences are much worse. I've lost more than one friend to accidents caused by pilots who pulled some stupid pilot trick in an effort to impress someone, even if that someone was only themselves.

On one level, the pilot of that gray and yellow airplane did nothing more than bust a couple of FARs and frighten me for a few minutes. But what if I'd been an easily flustered student pilot? What if one of those other targets I ignored because I felt the need to keep such a close eye on him ended up converging with my flight path from a different direction? Or what if I'd had an already aviation-wary Congressman on board?

We are all our brother's keepers, in the world and family of aviation. The actions of each impact the safety and freedom of all. So the pilot of that gray and yellow airplane really owes an apology to more than just me. He owes one to all of us.