Ego in the Cockpit?

By Jason Catanzariti, CFI

Originally published in Fly Low Magazine – April 2004


We were toward the end of our flight in the L-39 jet trainer, and I was just getting established in the downwind leg at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport. This was my second flight in the Albatross, and I was handling things much better this time around, I thought. I’m not an airline pilot or a military jet jock -- just your average general aviation CFI. Most of my time is spent instructing primary students in a Piper Warrior, but today I felt a kinship with the Top Guns. Unlike my first flight, I now knew how to start the engine, taxi, takeoff, land, and do some aerobatics. Maybe getting the type rating in this bird isn’t so far fetched after all, I thought. I can handle this plane.

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Ego alert!

Pulling out the landing checklist, I verbalized it to instructor Dale “Duke” Faust in the rear cockpit. “OK, we have 180 knots, gear is down and locked, speed brakes closed, spacing is good.” Glancing at the altimeter, I saw we were about 80’ low. Well, that’s close enough I thought. This thing is so pitch sensitive that if I monkey with it too much I’m going to make it worse. So I concluded the checklist with, “We have pattern altitude… or thereabouts.”

As soon as that last remark left my lips I knew it was a mistake. But things happen fast in the L-39 and seconds later it was forgotten as I decreased power, added flaps, started my turn to the runway and flew the final approach.

Soon Dale and I were on the ground and debriefing the flight. He had mostly good things to say, but saved the not-so-good for the end. “You said one thing up there that showed a bit of a bad attitude,” he said. I immediately knew what he was going to say, and that he was going to be right. “Pattern altitude or thereabouts?!” he continued. “The pattern altitude here is 7400’. Not 7320’. Not 7401’. You’re an instructor -- would you accept that attitude from one of your students?”

I was embarrassed. Damn straight!!! I wouldn’t accept that from a student. I told Dale he was 100% right, and there were no excuses. He accepted that, and we moved on. I brooded over the incident for days. What had made that come out of my mouth? After reflection, I believe the answer is: Ego.

I had done well during the flight, so maybe I thought I deserved a break. More likely, I just couldn’t face up to the idea that I was below the standard even briefly. Either way, I had traced it back to my ego, and this realization was worth the price of the flight to me.

The FAA has identified five “Hazardous Attitudes” to safe flight: Macho, Anti-Authority, Invulnerability, Impulsivity, and Resignation. After I thought about it, I realized ego plays a role in all five. The words macho and ego could almost be used interchangeably (for men, anyway). A big ego can definitely lead to a feeling of invulnerability. You’ve got to have some ego to be anti-authority. There are different reasons for impulsiveness, but the “Big E” could play a role there too. And finally, an excess of ego can lead you into a place where you are eventually not up to the task, resulting in resignation. Indeed, I had resigned myself to being stuck 80’ below the pattern altitude that day in the L-39.

Let there be no doubt – EGO KILLS. Dale’s partner at the Jetwarbird Training Center is Larry Salganek, an air show performer, aerobatic instructor and experienced Warbird pilot. Larry tells me he has personally seen more than his share of Warbird fatalities, and that most of them caused by the pilots doing something they shouldn’t have been. Often, what did them in was showing off for a passenger or someone on the ground

Dale and Larry both recognize the danger of ego, which is important since they make their living instructing in Warbirds. They believe in planning a flight carefully and sticking to that plan, and always flying the plane within its limitations. “As soon as you exceed those limits, you’ve just become a test pilot. And that’s when things can go wrong,” says Larry.

Dale was an Air Force instructor for 14 years, flying T-33’s and F-15’s. His outlook on ego is summed up in this statement about the discussions military pilots have after a flight: “When the briefing room door closes, the ranks come off. At the proper time in a flight debrief, any pilot can say anything they need to about another pilot's part of the mission. I once saw a captain severely critique a one-star general, and he was right to do it."

Fine, you say. But that’s military and Warbird pilots. Those guys fly dangerous airplanes. How does that apply to us general aviation folks? Well, remember the old saying -- “The Piper Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you.” And besides, it’s not usually the airplane that does people in.

Most GA accidents are the result of pilot inexperience or misjudgment, and ego can most definitely play a role in both. If you were anything like me when I was a low-time pilot, you were eager to appear skillful and capable. That’s probably natural, and so are some of the misjudgments that more experienced pilots will make. After all, I’m not saying we should fly without feeling confident. But I’m beginning to believe the key is to keep things in perspective so the ego remains at a reasonable level.

As an instructor, I certainly want to instill my students with a sense of confidence in the airplane. But I also don’t want to overdo it and create dangerous pilots who don’t believe in their own mortality. For myself, I believe I’m a capable pilot, but I keep this in perspective by reminding myself there’s always something else to learn. And my experience in the L-39 that day was a reminder that my qualifications and abilities don’t excuse me from doing things in the correct manner. Doing things by the numbers greatly enhances my chances of coming back to fly another day, be it in a Cessna 150 or a MiG-15.

Remember the “IMSAFE” personal checklist for helping decide if you are fit for a flight? It goes like this: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Eating. I’d like to suggest adding an extra “E” to that list. The ego doesn’t belong in the airplane, so try to leave it on the ground.

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