Skill vs. Judgement

If there’s one thing aviation will never run out of, it’s ‘old sayings’ (it will also never run out of abbreviations, but that’s another story). “The best way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start out with a large one”. Or how about “Takeoffs are optional; landings are mandatory”. These aphorisms are bandied about in emails and pilot lounges around the world. Most of them get old. Quickly.

But there is one that I don’t think you can hear too often. It tells us that “the superior pilot is the one who uses his superior judgement to avoid situations where he might need his superior skill.” In other words, leave the Top Gun attitude on the ground and you’ll have gone a long way toward ensuring you don’t end up like Goose.

I love this saying because it reminds us that by a ratio of nearly 9-to-1, accidents are caused by poor pilot judgement rather than mechanical failure. (source: AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s annual Nall Report)

Think about that for a second. It means that when a pilot is involved in an accident, the odds are that he caused it. Not by lack of stick and rudder ability, mind you, but rather by using poor judgement in the cockpit. Examples include VFR flight into IMC weather, failure to abort a poor approach, descending below minimums, buzzing, low level aerobatics, and the all time favorite: running out of fuel.

These lapses of judgement are what kill people in the skies. With the intense discipline, screening, and first class training our military pilots recieve, you’d think this sort of thing would be limited to the civilian world. But it ain’t necessarily so. The web is replete with stories about military pilots who voluntarily put themselves behind the eight ball, and one of them was on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times.

SAN LUIS OBISPO — At a quarter past noon on Jan. 21, a U.S. Navy F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter flown by a combat-tested pilot named Richard Webb appeared over the Edna Valley and streaked toward San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

On its first pass, the Super Hornet screamed along at more than 650 miles an hour, just 96 feet above the main runway. Soon it circled back, touched down on the tarmac for an instant, then went into a steep climb, afterburner roaring, and disappeared in the skies.

I had to read that last paragraph about half a dozen times before my mind would register what it said. Six hundred fifty miles an hour at 96 feet. Over a Class D airport. Then he pulls up into a vertical climb, adding ‘aerobatics in controlled airspace’ to a long litany of Part 91 violations. Speed restrictions. Careless and reckless operation. You name it. And those are just the civilian regs. I’m sure the list of military violations is even longer.

Oh, and did I mention that the pilot had a total of 14 hours in the Hornet when he pulled this stunt?

Top Gun may have been fiction, but apparently someone forgot to tell this guy. The worst part of this story doesn’t even have to do with the low pass. As I’ve repeatedly said, everyone has lapses of judgement. But Mr. Webb later defended himself by claiming that “No respected fighter pilot worth his salt can look me in the eye and tell me they’ve never done the exact same thing.”

Oh really? I would love to see the list of active pilots who’ve made unauthorized, near supersonic passes over a civilian airport before performing an vertical upline right over the field. They may have done it fifty years ago when the airports were less crowded and the airplanes less capable. But the fact is, Mr. Webb learned nothing from his experience. His defense: everyone does it.

In regard to his unauthorized flyby, Webb wrote, “No respected fighter pilot worth his salt can look me in the eye and tell me they’ve never done the exact same thing.”

Webb concluded that he was “not apologetic for what I did, and if given the chance, I’d do the same thing again…. It’s just incredibly hard to admit fault, and accept such disproportionate punishment, to an action that probably helped recruit many young kids in town that day…. I feel ashamed to have my close friends die to protect your freedom to complain about how we do our job.”

Well get used to it, pal. We’re the ones paying for the plane, the fuel, the maintenance, your salary, and the airports and airspace you abused. This isn’t about how Webb does his job. It’s about removing a pilot who demonstrates extraordinarily poor judgement before he kills someone.

The actual fly-by probably presented little if any danger. Mr. Webb obviously has the requisite stick-and-rudder skills, but his lack of good judgement trumps it every day of the week. His refusal to acknowledge that the high speed pass was a bad idea or that he’d do anything differently if given the chance indicate that the judgement problem goes way beyond this single incident.

Prognosis: anti-authority attitude and poor decision-making skills. He does not belong in the cockpit.

Poor decision making is something every pilot must guard against. Complacency, boredom, and ego get in the way. By way of a civilian corollary, IAC’s Sport Aerobatics magazine recently detailed the story of a promising young pilot who ran afoul of numerous regulations when she performed aerobatic maneuvers over a church as part of a wedding celebration. This violated rules against aerobatics over populated areas, in controlled airspace, and below 1500 feet above ground. The difference is that she publicly acknowledged her lapse in judgement, accepted a hefty sanction from the FAA, and has shown every sign of learning from this incident.

Prognosis: pilot learned from her errors and is likely to show far better judgement in the future.

I believe flying is fairly safe. Unlike many other activities, however, it is extremely intolerant of carelessness.

  6 comments for “Skill vs. Judgement

  1. John
    October 22, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for drawing attention to this story. I’m amazed that the pilot still won’t admit, or fails to realize, that he made a mistake. Good pilots all learn to listen to and accept feedback on their performance, even if they don’t like what is being said.

  2. peter
    October 23, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    how true,after a bad crash at farnborough in the fifties,during a high speed pass by a DH 110,all flying above or towards spectators was banned.Peter.

  3. Jason
    October 26, 2005 at 10:38 am

    650 MPH??? As a civilian non-pilot, I immediately thought that was a typo. As a human, I immediately thought Webb is a complete jerk. His comment about how he probably recruited “many young kids in town that day” sent chills up my spine.

  4. Jon
    November 22, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    “No respected fighter pilot worth his salt can look me in the eye and tell me they’ve never done the exact same thing.”

    if I were a fighter pilot (closest I’ve ever been to flying a real airplane is MS Flight Simulator 98) I’d look him square in the eye and tell him that I’ve never done the exact same thing. Then I’d deck him, square in the eye.

  5. Terry
    December 12, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    15 years ago as a tower controller, we had 2 f-18’s request a carrier departure. As our base was an Air Force base, we had no idea what this was. Being a midnight or so departure, no one was around, my supervisor approved it. Upon clearance, the blaze of afterburner glow and the noise that follows ripped down our 13,000 runway. About midfield, the two craft lifted and proceeded to a completely vertical climb into nothingness leaving only shaking windows and a ring in our ears. Yes, our phones started to ring. It was an amazing sight I must say.

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