My brother's keeper

October 1, 2000

A thunderstorm was bearing down on the airport as a Cessna single began taxiing for takeoff with two people on board. As a bystander, what would you have done? What obligation do we have to intervene or at least make the attempt when we see a potential accident situation developing?

An FAA safety counselor standing by the unicom broadcast this warning on the CTAF, "Cessna departing Allenburg, we have a thunderstorm approaching the field. Would you consider coming back to the ramp so we can discuss this?" as the Cessna began its takeoff run. The aircraft began to slow as a puff of wind rustled the leaves. It turned off at midfield and taxied back to the ramp as the counselor hurried out to help with securing. They just made the line shack when the rain and the wind began. There was no legal obligation for the counselor to become involved, and there was some risk of being rebuffed by someone who was obviously master of his destiny and that of the passenger. This story had a happy conclusion, and perhaps a wiser pilot emerged.

I've struggled occasionally with how and when to intervene in other people's affairs. There is a very fine line between doing a good deed and being a do-gooder. Do-gooders are those folks who have a strong opinion on everything and are convinced that you are entitled to their way of looking at the world. You'll find them almost everywhere these days, making life just a bit more irritating for the rest of us. In aviation this usually involves a traffic pattern transgression, perceived or otherwise, and do-gooders allow little room for interpretation. For these people, "It's my way or the highway, Jack." In a group as independent as pilots, and in the land of the free, this type of interaction is not always held in high esteem. Still, there is an occasional need to offer friendly advice or counsel to those who might not be aware of a dangerous situation they are creating.

At our little airport was a private pilot named Sid who owned a Cessna Cardinal. Sid had recently earned his private certificate but had a reputation for being a guy who cut corners to get where he was going. He was something of a pariah after having pulled a number of bone-headed stunts. One evening, while several of us were lined up on the taxiway waiting our turn to take off, Sid pulled out on the grass next to the runway, moved to the head of the line, and took off — just like that. It was a considerable breach of etiquette, and it happened so quickly that before anyone could reach for the mic and offer any comments regarding his ancestry, he was gone.

The next day, seeing Sid, I casually asked where he was going in such a big hurry last night. Seems he was taking flight instruction on the other side of the bay and was late. It never dawned on him that a thorough before-takeoff check might be a good thing before undertaking a night flight, and after all, there was a line of other aircraft ahead of him. We briefly discussed the matter, but I could tell it didn't do any good. There were a few other "deals" involving Sid during the summer, and I finally called my friendly FAA accident prevention specialist (now called safety program managers) to ask some advice. The response was that until Sid had a major problem or was caught breaking the rules by the FAA there was nothing the agency could do. He eventually did have a minor landing accident; the FAA conducted a recheck, and he passed. A year later a friend sent me a newspaper clipping about Sid's getting into weather with predictable fatal results. I always wondered what else could have been done.

"Ratting" to the FAA on a fellow pilot is low on my list of civil behaviors. Yet, when it's not just a difference of opinion but a real safety concern, it seems that we have an obligation to do something other than shrug. Enlisting the aid of the airport manager is another option.

An AOPA member recounted a recent experience in the pattern. Two aircraft came head-to-head on base leg. Mirror-image patterns tend to animate even the most lethargic pilot. When they arrived at the gas pumps, the member asked the other pilot whether he realized how close they had come to swapping paint because of the nonstandard pattern. The other pilot, a senior gentleman, acknowledged that since they had both walked away, it wasn't worth discussing. At the FBO, the member found out that the other pilot was well-known and revered in those parts. He had been flying since the Earth cooled and operated pretty much as he did many decades ago. Whether he still held a medical certificate was a matter of some conjecture. Legends don't die easily, but the rest of us may not be so robust.

Take a foggy day where the ceiling is 400 obscured and the visibility is reported at three-quarters of a mile. A helicopter school is flying with students and working on traffic patterns. Remember that helicopters do operate under different rules than fixed-wing aircraft, and they may have had enough slant-range visibility in the pattern to have good ground contact. A pilot commented that if someone shooting the ILS strayed at all from the localizer a collision was a possible outcome. He went to the school and asked them if they thought this was a concern — it wasn't. The pilot then called the FAA and asked a hypothetical question about the situation without identifying the operator. The FSDO inspector, putting the circumstances together, called the school and told them that he took a dim view of this type of operation. The positive outcome was that the school stopped doing patterns in those weather conditions and instead concentrated on hovering practice, and the airport became a bit safer for all users. It was slightly contentious but was properly resolved.

The last example involved a pair of low-time pilots who decided to learn from each other. They took a Cessna 152 out to practice cross-controlled stalls between 1,500 and 2,000 feet agl. Spin entries were also explored. Conventional wisdom is generally to plan spin demos above 4,000 feet agl or higher. After the air work was done, it was time for some "river running," by their description. By the pilots' own admission, the flight was conducted about 100 feet above the water. The trees, which were above the aircraft on occasion, were at least 50 feet away from either wing. The pair, upon being asked about their flight, felt that they had exercised good judgment. They kept a sharp lookout for wires and had emergency landing sites available if the engine failed.

Every experienced pilot will come across others who have a higher risk tolerance than they do. This is usually born out of hard experience. In some cases, their optimism is justified, and in others we get to read the headlines. Many young aviators come to engage in risky behavior when they have decent aircraft-handling skills but not much seasoning. Just ask the military about its accident experience with pilots in the 300-to-500-hour range. The comment about looking out for wires is interesting because in most cases the wires are invisible until it's too late. At least that's what the survivors say. Most wire strikes occur at 100 feet agl or below.

The defensiveness was natural in the pilots' minds. What they did was to them reasonable, safe, and legal, but humans can rationalize anything. Getting others to see what they cannot is a challenge — perhaps an impossibility. The "be reasonable and see it my way" approach is not always accepted. Imposing our value system on someone who doesn't share it is also onerous — especially when it is unwarranted.

Where to draw the line? From the safety viewpoint, we frown on "river running" because history has shown this to be a high-risk situation. Stall demos from a noninstructor at low altitude are also a potential "situation." We can make dire predictions and pontifications, but the reality is that most of these pilots are unlikely to be involved in an accident anytime soon. It may never happen. That's what makes safety such a hard sell. Luck has a way of injecting itself into many situations, and most of the time it works — except when it doesn't.

The most compelling point is that these actions reduce the safety margins — that is unambiguous, and I doubt that any safety counselor, inspector, or pilot examiner would endorse any of the behaviors we've discussed. They have seen too much from well-meaning, bright, capable aviators. Should you be your brother's keeper? If the danger is clear and present it might be good to gently intervene. If a pilot showed up at the airport and it was obvious that alcohol, drugs, or some illness impaired him, would you attempt to keep him from flying? Is this similar to calling the police on a cell phone when you see a drunk on the highway?

What if the situation is not critical, but the action is against good operating practice? Is it something that the pilot consistently does, and is it against the regulations? Much tougher call. In all cases, comments should be offered with grace and humility. We've all been on the wrong side of the judgment equation, so be gentle and courteous. This parting thought is from Walter Wriston, former chairman of Citibank, "Good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is the result of bad judgment." In banking, you may be poorer but wiser. In aviation, the consequences may be far more severe.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.