I wrote this about a year ago. It was an explanation of how I came to the point of being vocally intolerant of foolish people in aviation, and an explanation to a new pilot of how anyone can recognize and avoid fools. I wrote it in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep after too much coffee. We live in a very rural area, and it’s dead silent in the middle of the night. It’s conducive to thinking about the things that you put out of your mind in the busy daylight hours. If you’re in a hurry, this will seem long. Leave it until you have more time, you will be closer to the mindset I was in when I wrote it.
I received some private e-mails in the past couple days. Two of these stuck out as perhaps worthy of slightly broader discussion. The first e-mail could be boiled down to the question ‘when did you become such an opinionated bastard?’ The second e-mail came from a guy who is new to experimental aviation, and had only made enough flights in general aviation aircraft to understand that he really liked it. His main point was that there was no real guidance for green guys on exactly what to do at the airport. He felt the standards for what is safe and what is not, and what might be interpreted as foolish by experienced aviators, were not spelled out nor defined. He was not so much concerned with how he looked, but whether something he might be doing unknowingly could be unsafe to himself or others. These two different letters can actually be addressed under a common theme. I’ll address the subject of each letter separately, and work to tie together a little bit at the end. I would like people to consider it, but in the long run use it as a starting point for developing or evolving your own values on the topic.
For a long time I have said the bitterest lesson I have ever learned in aviation was a fairly simple one. Fools are dangerous. From the very beginning of my time at Embry Riddle this was drilled into our heads by serious men. This was not ivory tower textbook theory. It wasn’t trade magazine statistics. It was our Department Chair telling you something important he knew from more than 100 A-4 missions in Vietnam. It was our regulations instructor talking about the guy in front of him walking into a propeller of an E-2C. It was our aerodynamics instructor explaining the right seat view from a B-52 when you’re about to have a midair collision with a tanker. It was the hydraulics instructor who was missing a finger, explaining about a guy mindlessly moving a lever in the cockpit without thinking about who was working in the nacelle.
The last story hinted at something ironic I was only later to fully understand. Yes, idiots are dangerous, but in aviation for very odd reasons that can defy logic and are hard to explain, the fools often do their damage but walk away comparatively unscathed. None of our instructors fully explained this last part for students. To amend things that they taught me, things I would like to share with you, I would like to spell this point out. Way back then, I was not a bastard. I had a live and let live attitude. I figured I didn’t have enough experience to speak up when others were doing idiotic things. Peer pressure, and the observation that idiots who broke the rules on a weekly basis were still alive after a few decades, conspired to erode the hardest edges of my standards. These factors worked their magic to keep my mouth shut, to go along with the gang a little bit, and even do a little flying with people I shouldn’t have. A number of events changed this.
In the early 1990s I was working at my friend Jim’s hangar at Spruce Creek. A guy from our EAA Chapter who had not flown his experimental in many years was out by the runway running it up. A part of this guy wanted to be young again, airborne, flying. The other part told him that the door had closed and the sun had set on that part of his days. A group of guys stood around him and goaded him into taking off. Jim had not been part of this but he was standing off to the side. Jim was a known aviator there and a physically big person. There were actions he could have taken. He later told me that he wanted to step forward, tell all the spectators to shut up, and tell the pilot to go back to his hangar. He wanted to do this, but he did not.
The man took off and was never fully in control of the plane. He flew around the pattern a couple of times, did a few approaches that were agonizing to watch, and then crash landed. He lived, but he hit his face on the panel, and bled terribly. I sat with Jim in his hangar that afternoon. He was distraught over his failure to act. I got a real good look at the price of peer pressure. Jim’s own brother had been killed in a plane crash. You didn’t need to be a genius to understand that Jim had asked himself a million times what he could’ve done or said that would’ve affected his brother’s fate 25 years before. On that day irony served him another chance, and he had not taken it. It was a hard thing to watch, perhaps uglier than the day’s accident. This was the first time I can clearly say I understood the cost of keeping your mouth shut. This was the first step to me becoming the kind of “Bastard” who publicly points out people doing dangerous things.
If you really want to understand the depth of my hatred for stupid people around airplanes you can go to YouTube and search the words “Titusville plane crash kills two” and you can join 359,970 other people, mostly ghouls, who have seen the remnants of our friends Phil Schact and Bill Hess burning to death.
I could write a lot of stories, but none of them would come very close to explaining much about what made Phil or Bill great guys. Here’s a small try: Phil was a career pilot, and airline man, an aerobatics instructor and a regional aerobatic champion. He is a relentlessly positive guy. He was selling an antique aircraft for $25,000. He had a serious offer $24,000. Phil hears that there’s a young woman at the airport who’s been taught to fly by old school pilots. She is thinking about buying a plane, looking at some spam cans. Phil goes over, meets her, takes her flying and explains that she should really go after a different type of plane. He conveys to her that she has great promise as a pilot, and should keep working at it. Phil finds out that her total savings is $19,871. In an act of kindness that was characteristic of how he lived his life, Phil forgoes the higher offer and sells the airplane to the young woman for the balance in her savings account. It is an act that changes the trajectory of her life. The aircraft is 1946 Taylorcraft. The woman he sold the airplane to was named Grace. Today, I am married to her.
On the last morning of their lives, Bill and Phil got in Bill’s RV-8 and flew 40 miles down to Titusville for a fly-in breakfast. They were consummate pilots, maybe 40,000 hours between the two of them. They landed and taxied well clear of the runway. They were sitting about 150 feet off the center line on a taxiway on the far end of the runway. Enter the idiot, flying a Velocity with an older gentleman who built it. It is later told in some detail, that this younger pilot is a first-class fool. He is from Europe, has come to the United States because flying here is cheap. He has no respect for the rules, he always flys straight in approaches. No one can understand him on the radio, and he does not listen to others, nor does he look for traffic. When spoken to about this, he is smug and does not care. On this particular day, his straight in approach cuts off several aircraft in the pattern.
He lands the Velocity hard enough to break off the nose gear and it sheds part of the winglet. At this point he’s over 2,000 feet from hitting the RV-8. All he has to do is pull the power off and slide to a halt. Instead he decides he’s going to try to fly away. This does not work, his plane crashes, slides off the runway and collides with the RV-8. I was not there that day. But I have spoken to an acquaintance who watched Bill and Phil die from 100 feet away. After a few days in the hospital, the passenger in the Velocity died also. Upon his release from the hospital the pilot flees the country. After the accident, a number of people said that they had wished they had called the FAA on the pilot for his earlier transgressions. We are not talking about simple mistakes, we’re talking about a complete disrespect for procedures and other people’s safety that paved a highway to this accident. But most people don’t want to be called a bastard, so no one did. I can’t be mad at them for it, they were only giving in to the same peer pressure that I used to.
I have never turned anybody into the FAA, and I don’t view it is my job to do so. In aviation, my little neighborhood is Corvair engine building. I’m not concerned with the overall issues in aviation concerning the actions of fools. All I am concerned with is fools who wish to take up residence in our neighborhood. I am an individualist by nature. I think people should be allowed to do pretty much anything they want. Most people tend to add the phrase here “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” Often what they mean is “as long as I don’t find it offensive.” I don’t care if people are offensive, it isn’t a crime in my book. However, if you advocate things that I know from experience stand a good chance of harming somebody else, I’m going to talk about it, even if this leads to some people thinking of me as a bastard. I am not really smart, nor am I particularly self-aware, but I have absolutely learned in life that I am far better off having people dislike me for my tone or my approach than I am hating myself for something I should have done or said.
If you are new to the world of homebuilding, and maybe even flying, here’s something that you may not suspect: you’re actually in an excellent position to avoid the actions of fools. Compared to the general aviation pilots who are starting their flight lessons down at the local FBO mill, you have many distinct advantages. Down there, you take the first polyester clad flying prodigy they assign you as an instructor. You’re flying a worn-out airplane, that they can hardly afford to keep going. Their mechanic is paid a wage that precludes him from living in a double wide trailer. The student enters a system that takes no consideration of who he is or what he wants out of flying. Whatever the intention of the FBO owner when starting out, a lot of these operations devolve to a poorly disguised system of draining your bank account into theirs. It’s very important to understand that such settings attract and tolerate idiots. Nobody wants to upset the system. Whatever ambitions they had of higher standards have long ago been worn away.
Homebuilding can be just as bad, but it doesn’t have to be. You can make it any way that you want to. In this case, you’re going to be the aircraft manufacturer, and the engine manufacturer also. You have time to seek out intelligent qualified people for your further learning. Building an engine can teach you a lot about whose advice you take, and who you don’t listen to. This phase can be done while you’re still safely on the ground. If you set your standards very high, you will attract other people who take flying seriously.
Aviation works just like life, quality people tend to gravitate towards the same setting, and dirt bags tend to collect where the standards are low enough that they don’t stick out. In homebuilding you control the entire show. After the plane is done, you’re going to be the director of maintenance, the chief of flight operations, scheduling, dispatching, and the chief financial officer. It’s a beautiful system where you’re entirely in control of things that you normally have to resign to others. To me this is at the heart of what is captivating about homebuilding. The process is an opportunity, but not a guaranteed transformation. If there is a guy in your local EAA Chapter who doesn’t really strike you as the human personification of self-reliance and self-actualization through homebuilding, yet he has completed an airplane, it isn’t the process’ fault. If you are new to homebuilding, do not judge the potential of the experience by looking at people who merely went through the motions, ended up with the plane, learned the minimum amount, etc. The greatest dad ever and a guy who made a deposit at a sperm bank are both technically involved in fatherhood. Only the former understands the rewards of the experience.
I would be doing new guys disservice if I didn’t clearly say that Bill and Phil’s accident was the freak occurrence of an idiot harming somebody who was not in his immediate vicinity. In general it is plenty of protection to not take advice from nor fly with idiots. There are rare occurrences their range is further, but for the most part if you give them up wide berth and don’t listen to them you’ll do okay.
If you have not spent much time in airports, the basic rules are pretty simple: Pay attention to what’s going on; don’t talk on your cell phone or walk around with your head somewhere else; don’t drive your car on the runway, taxiways or parking aprons; don’t smoke around airplanes or in hangars; do not interrupt people who are pre-flighting airplanes or engaged in intensive maintenance. Introduce yourself before you ask a question, and if you do ask, make sure that you listen to the answer. If you’re addicted to looking at your smart phone, leave it in the car. Most older aviators take it as a sign of real disrespect if you glance to your phone the whole time they’re talking to you. Spend twice as much time listening as talking. If someone specifically tells you not to do something, don’t do it. This is all that it takes to blend in at 90% of the airports in America.
There are a couple of obvious character traits in people who I like to steer clear of when it comes to planes. I only fly with people I know fairly well; I will not get in an airplane that a guy pre-flighted while he was talking on his cell phone. I stay away from people who are in a big rush at the airport. These people often don’t have the time for a preflight, a mag check or taxiing to the downwind and to the runway. I will not speak to a person who knowingly does downwind takeoffs or landings to shorten the distance to his parking spot. I have nothing to do with people who brag about having their annual inspections or biennial flight reviews pencil whipped. I don’t fly with pilots who do things that are forbidden in capital letters in the pilots operating handbook (Example: slipping a 172 with the flaps down). I’ve never taken a flight lesson of any kind with an instructor who couldn’t tell me what condition achieves the minimum turn radius in any aircraft ( Maneuvering speed, bank angle increased until the plane reaches its positive G limit, full power.) I stay away from pilots who say things like “this plane has a bad glide ratio when it’s heavily loaded” (aircraft of the same glide ratio and gross weight glide as they do lightly loaded) I steer clear of people who offer testimonials on flight characteristics planes they never sat in (“Republic Seabees glide like bricks” ), avoid people who are poor listeners or openly brag about things that they have gotten away with.
The above paragraph might describe 20% of the people in airports. That’s okay, I don’t need to pal around with everyone. If you’re new to aviation, spend some time observing people and develop your own set of values. Be discriminating. If you’re new you have no track record, then you’re a thoroughbred as far as anybody’s concerned, and the only way that is changed is if you spend a lot of time with fools and idiots and let them turn you into one. If you believe this is possible, then the corollary is also possible. You can choose to spend your time with skilled, competent, aviators and let their experience and your hard work turn you into one yourself.