In our experience, one of the better ways to annoy a working flight instructor is to complain that the standard private pilot curriculum focuses on learning material—aerodynamics, meteorology, flight planning—and maneuvers. Commercial training is almost entirely about maneuvers, aside from some academic attention to advanced systems like turbine engines and cabin pressurization. A persistent school of critics likes to lament that this approach devotes too little time to cultivating good decision making.
Maybe. We’ve suggested before that the combination of reasonable intelligence and a healthy interest in self-preservation is enough to convince most pilots that they don’t really want to determine fuel capacity by running every tank dry, or try to teach themselves aerobatics by trial and error, or rely on experimentation to learn whether they can still clear the trees loaded 400 pounds above maximum gross. Most more-or-less sane individuals don’t need a lot of specialized training to figure out that none of these are really good ideas. Still, any large population contains a few outliers, and every year’s accident statistics are inflated by a relative handful of pilots whose enthusiasm outruns their judgment—or somehow believe sheer willpower can overcome the physical laws that govern the rest of the universe.
Want some examples? How about the 36-year-old doctor making a ferry flight in a BAC-167 Strikemaster (a British training and light attack jet)? He had all of 20 hours of time in type and no other aerobatic training, but couldn’t resist celebrating his arrival with a roll at pattern altitude. He crashed inverted into the river. While the results were just as catastrophic, even that decision doesn’t seem as absurdly ill-advised as a Florida Cirrus pilot’s attempt to roll an SR22 at a GPS-estimated altitude of 129 feet. He, too, had no aerobatic training—but he’d just been to an airshow, and was flying home in the company of two genuine aerobatic airplanes, so why not? The angle of impact was 80 degrees nose-down.
For most of us airshows are good, clean fun, but they seem to have unfortunate effects on a susceptible few. The pilot who broke up a Baron trying to roll it with four passengers on board was said to have been obsessed by a performance that featured rolls performed in a Beech 18. About the only good thing to be said about this guy is that he started with enough altitude to allow overstress to rip the airframe apart—first the tail, then the wings—before it actually hit anything.
Do-it-yourself aerobatics are among the most spectacular lapses in judgment, but at least they’re relatively rare. Far more common, too common in fact, are the pilots who don’t quite believe that it takes real practice just to control an aircraft by instrument references, never mind tracking where it’s going and what solid objects lie in between. Many simply blast off into the murk (including a subset who, apparently feeling that it’s too scary during the day, prefer to do their scud-running at night when at least you can’t see whatever it is you can’t see). Some actually take the trouble to file IFR flight plans and pick up clearances they can’t execute. Such was the case with the pilot of a Piper Lance who couldn’t get the tower to authorize a VFR departure from Tulsa. He filed an instrument flight plan, perhaps thinking a few minutes’ climb would put him on top—then couldn’t manage to find either his assigned altitude or heading. The departure controller told him he was descending, not climbing as he’d reported, seconds before he blundered into a radio tower. The real tragedy was that four passengers were on board.
Casual attitudes toward flight planning cause other sorts of trouble, too: Witness the Cherokee pilot who passed up half a dozen airports only to exhaust his three hours’ worth of fuel five miles short of the one whose airport/facility directory page was found on his kneeboard, or the Cessna 206 pilot who “assured his passengers he had enough fuel for the five-minute flight” and turned out to be wrong. Then there was the Alaskan who liked to stuff his 206 full of so much lumber, hardware, and groceries that the tires looked flat. On the day it couldn’t climb after takeoff and crashed into downtown Anchorage, it was a good 700 pounds overweight.
Would more formal study of decision making during primary training have convinced any of these people not to try these things? Somehow, we’re skeptical.