Stupid Pilot Tricks

I’ve been flying turbine aircraft for more than a decade now (jeez, time flies!), and with few exceptions, those with whom I’ve shared the cockpit have operated in the consistently safe and professional manner one would expect from an aviator who makes their living flying airplanes.

You’d think this would go without saying, but unfortunately corporate and charter pilots don’t always have the resources or limitations you’d find at a major airline. As the Bedford G-IV accident illustrates, this is especially true of private (Part 91) flight departments. Some of them are run as professionally as any Part 121 airline, while others… well, let’s just say they leave something to be desired when it comes to standards, training, and safety culture.

But every now and then you come across something so egregious that you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing. For example, take a look at this sequence of photographs, which were sent to me by a friend. This Hawker was departing from the recent NBAA convention in Las Vegas, the one place you’d expect a business aviation pilot to be on his or her best behavior.

This first frame looks like a normal takeoff

The main gear are still on the runway but the nose gear retraction sequence has already started.

The nose gear is halfway retracted by the time the main landing gear leaves the runway.

Main gear retraction begins the instant lift off occurs. You can see the main gear doors are already opening.

The nose wheel is almost stowed, and the mains are folding inward. How much indication of a positive rate of climb does the crew have at this point?

Gear is mostly retracted and altitude is perhaps a couple of feet above ground. At least the flaps are still down.

Spoke too soon! Flaps are retracted and a steep turn initiated abeam the NBAA static display. Looks to be little more than a wingspan above the dirt.

The coup de grâce, a banked turn of perhaps 80 degrees over the area north of the field, which is now primarily residential housing.

I don’t fly Hawkers, but ran it by some friends who do. None of us could think of any scenario where raising the landing gear handle prior to takeoff would be acceptable practice. There’s nothing to be gained from doing it. At that point the only thing preventing the gear from folding up are a couple of squat switches. They’re not exactly the most robust and durable components on an aircraft, and they live in a dirty, windy, vibration-prone environment. To say this pilot was taking a gamble would be charitable.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with some mitigating circumstance to explain this. Is it possible the gear handle could have been raised inadvertently? Or that a malfunction in the system could have cause it to begin retracting without the handle being raised? Sometimes people do unexplainable things without realizing it. It reminds me of the Virgin Galactic accident, where one of the pilots unlocking the feathering mechanism at the wrong time caused the entire spacecraft to break apart. As the old saying goes, “I know people do crazy things, because I’ve seen me do ‘em.”

Unfortunately, the last two photos put to bed any such thoughts. The Hawker is well into a turn at what appears to be not much more than a wingspan worth of altitude. That means the pilot started the turn as soon as he or she thought the wingtip wouldn’t drag in the dirt. And then there’s the very steep turn in the last photo, which an eyewitness – an experienced aviator in his own right – estimated at about 80 degrees of bank. That’s a clear 91.303 violation. The law defines aerobatics as “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight”. The definition is necessarily vague because of the differing performance of various aircraft. A 45 degree pitch angle may be normal Vx climb for my Pitts, but it would be abnormal for a transport category jet aircraft like the Hawker.

If that’s not enough, check out the supremely early flap retraction. Industry standard is 400’ minimum before any configuration change.

Summary: the pilot was showing off. Which is incredibly stupid, because the airport was populated with professional aviators, many of whom are getting tired of seeing this sort of thing. A number of them are involved with flight safety initiatives and have undoubtedly read more than their share of incident and accident reports caused by just this sort of behavior.

Is it possible to fly into or out of the industry’s largest convention without understanding that a hundred cameras are trained on every arrival and departure? Perhaps they wanted to be recorded; if so, they got their wish. The entire thing was likely recorded on the FDR, CVR, and ATC radar. Certainly, it was capture on film, probably on video somewhere too, and last but not least by the eyes of everyone who saw it.

Is it really worth sacrificing life and livelihood on a stunt like this? For some people, apparently the answer is yes.

What’s most irritating is that these stupid pilot tricks give everyone in my line of work a black eye when most of us do not deserve it. So it’s up to those of us in the industry to say loud and clear that pilots who engage in these hair-brained stunts are not cool. They’re being unprofessional, unnecessarily risky, and demonstrating the exact opposite of “the right stuff”.

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  23 comments for “Stupid Pilot Tricks

  1. November 15, 2017 at 2:00 am

    I think you’ve said everything that needs to be said about that particular take-off but the wider sentiment of the post immediately brings to mind the ‘enough is enough’ reaction to sexual harassment that has followed the Harvey Weinstein allegations in Hollywood.
    I only shudder to think what kind of revelation or event it would take to initiate that reaction to pilot showboating… While a growing majority of pilots do see professional conduct as the true marker of their competence, I hope they can help stop the rest of the train before it goes horribly off the rails.
    Rather than wait for enough to be enough, let’s get on the front foot in decalring ‘enough already!’.

    • November 15, 2017 at 10:15 am

      That’s a powerful (and timely) analogy, but not an inappropriate one. After all, the wages of showboating are often fatal. It doesn’t get much more serious than that.

      Airshows are our worst enemy in this regard, because while they’re entertaining as hell, they also promote that kind of flying to people who lack the self control necessary to avoid trying those stunts themselves.

      You’re absolutely correct about the fact that most aviators do see professional conduct as the hallmark of competence. That’s something of great comfort to me, as it illustrates a crucial shift in mindset which acknowledges the fact that faulty decision making is responsible for most GA accidents.

      • November 15, 2017 at 1:05 pm

        Airshows are to aviation what car racing is to motoring. I took special note when one of Australia’s most successful race drivers remarked that ‘the best drivers aren’t quick, they’re smooth’. And yet, it’s still easy (and all too common) to spot people who appear to have learned their road skills by watching TV.
        So I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame airshows. After all, what display pilot wouldn’t tell you that safety and professionalism are what keeps them alive?
        On the contrary, pilots who showboat their stick skills at the expense of all others are just proving how much they don’t know. Stupid is as stupid does.

  2. November 15, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Thanks Ron, keep up the good work!

    • November 15, 2017 at 10:16 am

      Much appreciated, my friend. Fly safe!

  3. November 15, 2017 at 6:07 am

    Me: How low are you allowed to fly?
    CFI: Never fly so low they can read your tail number.

    Why can’t we see the tail number in those photos? How can there not have been repercussions from this flight? Eighty degree bank is all you need. The other stuff is just noise in the signal for me. Eighty degree bank over housing (I know, I fly that departure). That’s acrobatics in a plane not certified for them in a location and altitude you are not allowed to do ’em.

    • November 15, 2017 at 10:48 am

      Your CFI sounds like a smart guy. With 12 inch registration numbers and the quality of today’s cameras, you’d really have to stay up there!

      Heck, with tools like ADS-B, FlightAware, and the flight data recorders found in even the smallest glass-equipped aircraft, you could be high up in Class A airspace and still have each and every Stupid Pilot Trick recorded in all its glory. But even that is not enough to stop some people from doing crazy things.

      Regarding the tail numbers, they were removed by request of the original photographer — not to protect the guilty, but because the photog has concerns about liability. Are those concerns overblown? Possibly. But they were his images, so it was only fair to comply with his request if I wanted to use them. And to be honest, I don’t blame him. This litigious world is one we’ve created, and now we have to live with it. I can see things from the photog’s viewpoint. He’s an individual who probably lacks the financial and legal resources of a business jet operator.

      Someone did contact the FAA. Attempts were made to contact the owner of the aircraft as well. Will those lead to repercussions and change? Only time will tell.

  4. November 15, 2017 at 6:54 am

    Well said, Ron. The only part I take issue with is the report of the 80 deg bank. It may well have been 60, which, while still being unnecessary is a different league than 80 degs. It’s really hard to tell in the photo and any kind of mental recollection by someone who saw the pass could be tainted by a predisposition to categorize the crew as tools having just witnessed the rest of the takeoff. So, I wouldn’t put a ton of stock in the eyewitness report, even from an experienced aviator.

    No argument on the early gear retraction, early flap retraction and the early turn out, though.

    It does boggle the mind as to who they thought they were going to impress. If it was a field full of school children that they were hoping to dazzle, then the motivation would make some semblance of sense. Given that it was a field full of professional aviators, I’m struggling to understand, like you, just who they thought would be impressed.

    • November 15, 2017 at 10:54 am

      You’re absolutely right, Keith: the angle of bank number was an estimate. I tried to convey that with the “perhaps 80 degrees” in the photo caption and the “estimated 80 degrees” in the body text.

      Perhaps they were not trying to impress anyone beyond themselves with the quality of their stick and rudder skills. Or maybe they were just having fun. It could have been the pilot’s last flight before retirement and he just figured there was nothing to lose. The possibilities are endless… but as you sagely noted, none of the ones I can think of would make the performance any less egregious.

  5. Richard Katz
    November 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Personally I find this upsetting. Seeing this raises my anger for several reasons: First, this action appears to not respect others by putting them in danger; Second, this action puts property in danger: both the aircraft and property in the flight path trajectory. Third, a big part of being a non airline pilot is constantly being aware that a pilot’s actions are a public relations event. whether the pilot admits it or not. His or her actions in an aircraft impact the public’s judgement of GA, and if GA is to continue to be a viable vocation and avocation public support and advocacy is required. GA is losing too many airports and participants to permit pilots from behaving in ways that besmirch GA

    • November 15, 2017 at 11:01 am

      You’re right to be upset about it! I would hope everyone would be. Regarding a pilot’s actions being a PR event, that is sadly true. And I would add that in today’s world, everything we do as pilots is being recorded by plane spotters, flight data recorders, portable GPS units, security cameras, passengers, bystanders, ATC radar, ADS-B, and probably a dozen other sources I’m not remembering at the moment. Even way up in the flight levels, Big Brother (and John Q Public, via the internet) is watching. In a way, that makes this Stupid Pilot Trick even worse. The pilot knew they were being watched and recorded, and did it anyway. No shame, indeed.

  6. Doug Olson
    November 15, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Three things we risk whenever we fly…1. Loss of human life (or injury), 2. Damage to expensive equipment, 3. Loss of reputation. These two pilots managed to luck out on the first two and stuck the rest of us with the third.

    • November 15, 2017 at 11:23 am

      Agreed. Pilots of this ilk also stick us with higher insurance premiums, more regulations, and higher penalties for infractions.

      I would like to ask them if they think it’s worth the price… but I’m afraid I know what the answer would be.

  7. Charlie Mike
    November 15, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Good Article Ron. This is not only evidence of poor airmanship but also poor culture within the associated flight department. This crew is a product of their own environment. Those tasked with safety and leadership responsibilities over these mavericks bear some of the shame/blame. It takes a squadron to raise a child.

    • November 15, 2017 at 11:37 am

      Excellent point! Perhaps these knuckleheads saw someone else do the same thing, and that culture (or lack thereof) is simply being passed along to the next generation of Darwin Award nominees.

  8. Bizjet flyer
    November 15, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    We do that all time when no passengers onboard , it can be done safely. We even do that at high density airports . Have to know your limitations. It’s a great feeling living on the edge sometimes .

    • November 15, 2017 at 2:19 pm

      Wow.

    • Mike
      November 15, 2017 at 9:39 pm

      No, you are a fool! I’ve been flying for 38 years! Military, commercial, GA. Accident investigator. Thus is unacceptable on so many levels in this plane, phase of flight and location. How would I respond to “you’ve got to know your limitations”? Simple, once you’ve crossed your limitations it is too late recognize what your limitation was which is poor headwork! I truly hope YOU are spotted doing this and caught, fined and license suspended, before killing some innocent bystander. Ron, I agree with your “wow”. I thought I was speechless until this fool boiled my blood.

  9. Frank Davis
    November 18, 2017 at 4:34 am

    I wonder if the pilot is an ex-military pilot? Not justifying poor decision making but the military does this all the time. Of course their aircraft are built to handle this behavior and pushing the aircraft is part of the job.

    As a low time pilot I shudder at that behavior.

    • November 21, 2017 at 10:09 am

      I’m not sure even the military would approve of intentionally raising the landing gear handle while the aircraft is still on the ground.

      • Mike
        December 7, 2017 at 11:39 am

        Let me answer for you…NO…we would not have approved that. Back in the late 80s early 90s there were still quit a few A-7s around…the pilots were transitioning over to them..BUT one fellow in my airwing who had orders to Hornets decided to fly really low along Virginia Beach on one of his last flights in the Corsair…a civilian called in his numbers,,,that pilot lost his wings. So does crap like this happen? YES, is it met with swift repercussion?. YES I am 22 years airline, 10 years military.
        Crap like the movie Top Gun made a bunch of us look like cowboys, even though the Navy said is it was the best recruiting tool ever, and second was Officer and a Gentleman. 2 movies that were total crap on accuracy..The military aside from a few idiots who like to draw penises in the sky are the most adept and conscientious pilots I have ever met. (some now are saying this was the way the guy got out of his commitment from the military)

  10. Ryan Lunde
    November 21, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Something that’s been left out of this discussion is impulsiveness. I’ve been guilty of it in the past and gotten away with it and then it bit me pretty good. Doing things with low margins without a plan is how a lot of accidents happen. Sometimes pilots just don’t consider the consequences and do what feels good at that moment.

    • November 21, 2017 at 10:11 am

      Great insight, Ryan. The showing off is bad enough, but doing it on the spur-of-the-moment is even worse, because it leaves the other pilot wonder what the heck is going on and eliminates the “backup” you typically get from a properly operating crew environment.

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