Sky Kings: Overachievers, Hurling Towards Risk?

When you are at a gathering of pilots, you are surrounded by remarkable people — people just like you. In the United States, less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the population has made the substantial personal commitment of time, effort, money and stress required to learn to fly.

To learn to fly, you have to study a relatively complex body of knowledge and be tested on it. You have to overcome setbacks and discouragement. Almost all who learn to fly say to themselves somewhere along the line, “You know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this.”

Finally, you have to present yourself to an examiner to be evaluated on your knowledge, skills and risk-management ability. The examiner passes judgment on you and can declare you fit to carry passengers whose lives will depend on you. All of this is intimidating stuff.

These characteristics — readiness to study and learn, willingness to take on a challenging task, perseverance through adversity — all happen to correlate with achievement. So when you are in the company of pilots, you are in the company of achievers, people who are hard-wired to complete what they set out to do. They don’t give up on goals easily. These are the movers and shakers in the communities they are associated with — the people who make important things happen.

If we pilots are all that capable, why don’t we have a better accident record that reflects our extraordinary competence?

I believe this can be explained, in part, by the fact that achieving, goal-oriented people are particularly susceptible to succumbing to the external and internal pressures of flight. These are the pressures that make us want to start or continue a flight when we really shouldn’t. This is the one risk-factor category that tends to make us ignore all the others.

External pressures refer to things such as having someone waiting for you at the airport or an important meeting or event that you are supposed to attend — maybe even wanting to show up at your high school reunion in your fancy airplane.

The internal pressure part is how you respond to goals. Goals that can drive your behavior don’t even have to be ones you have actually expressed to yourself. It could be something as subtle as a desire to demonstrate that all the time and money you have put into flying is worthwhile and gives you utility.

Sometimes, even arbitrary and unimportant goals can make you push on unreasonably. One time, John and I were on a VFR trip and set a goal of making a fuel stop in North Platte, Nebraska. There wasn’t any particular reason why we picked that airport. It just happened to be in front of us on the map. But once we picked it as a stop, making it became a goal. As time went along, we realized the wind was stronger than we thought it would be. As we flew, we got lower and lower on fuel. We determined that we could make it to North Platte with the slimmest of margins. So we continued.

We did make it to North Platte, but as we predicted, we were very low on fuel. After we got on the ground, we asked ourselves why we had continued to North Platte rather than diverting. We decided the reason was that we had set a goal, and being hard-wired goal-oriented pilots, we didn’t want to give up on it.

We have all read about accidents in which pilots continued despite mounting risk factors, and we have asked ourselves, “What were they thinking?” I think I know what many of these pilots were thinking. They were thinking they didn’t want to give up on a goal.

Sometimes, an unexpected change in circumstances can lead you into a desire to accept risks you know you shouldn’t. Recently, we were flying into Wichita, Kansas, for what we considered an important afternoon meeting. The weather, which was forecast to be clear, was actually below minimums with low ceilings and fog. When we arrived, the weather was still below minimums, and we diverted to our alternate — about 35 miles away and in the clear. We rented a car at our alternate and made the meeting in time. So far, so good.

When we returned to our airplane the next day, right on schedule, we found scattered frozen water droplets on the right wing but almost no ice on the left wing. We had made a commitment to stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to pick up some friends on the way home, and they were already waiting for us. We asked the FBO about putting the airplane in a heated hangar to deice it, and they quoted a price three times what we would have paid in Wichita to keep our airplane in a hangar overnight. Plus, the deicing would take at least two hours.

Now obviously, the only smart and legal thing to do was put the airplane in the hangar. But it really grated on us to pay hundreds of dollars to hangar the airplane for just two hours. Plus, the thought of having our friends cool their heels for the additional time was pressuring us. John brought up for discussion the possibility that maybe there really wasn’t all that much ice on the wing, and we could just carry a little extra speed on takeoff. After a very brief dialogue, John quickly retracted the suggestion. I arranged for the airplane to be put in the hangar, and John called our friends.

Afterward, John and I thought a lot about why, after all these years and experiences, we even considered the idea of not putting the airplane in the hangar. What were we thinking? We were thinking we did not want to give up on a goal.

When I look back at the cases through the years when we accepted risks we shouldn’t have, I realize that in nearly every case, reality was interfering with what we wanted to do with the airplane. Our goal-oriented mind-set was leading us to deny reality. In our early flying days, we wanted to prove to ourselves and to others what we and the airplane could do. The idea of canceling a trip or not making it to our destination seemed like a failure. Later on, it was more a case of trying to make a schedule.

What is to be learned from this? The pressures that make pilots accept unreasonable risks are very compelling and tenacious. So how do you manage this subtle, yet powerful, risk factor?

You can help yourself out in advance by using strategies to make it easier to give up on a goal. Even if you are going out for a $100 hamburger, you can take an overnight bag so that if you have a mechanical or weather problem you can check into a hotel and have a nice dinner and a pleasant night’s rest.

On longer trips, you can make sure you know how to contact anyone you are planning to meet at your destination. Better yet, tell folks that you will be there an hour or so after you expect to arrive. So if you have to make an unexpected stop, you can call to let them know you’ll be late before it inconveniences them.

If you do show up on time, you can always refuel the airplane, clean the windshield and generally set up for your next departure while waiting to meet your friends.

There is an easy way to tell when you are falling prey to these pressures: It is when you are feeling you will be late or that you are in a hurry. As soon as you begin to feel in a hurry, it’s time to figure out a way to take the pressure off yourself. Maybe arrange to delay the trip or schedule it for another day.

Whatever you do, just don’t let yourself get into the frame of mind that you have to make the trip. Remind yourself that the airlines cancel trips too — maybe even more frequently than we do. Your mind-set should be that you can only make the trip if all the pieces fall into place.

So the next time someone tells you that you are a competent goal-oriented achiever, you should smile and accept the compliment gratefully, but at the same time, remind yourself that these wonderful attributes can be the most significant risk factor you can face in an airplane.

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Martha King and John King take turns writing Sky Kings. They have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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