I’m on my third airline. At each one, the chief pilot(s) have always insisted on just one thing: Never, ever lie to them. The reality, they each said, is that things happen. Sometimes those things result in damaged equipment, damaged airplanes, injuries, or just embarrassment to the pilot group or the company. But, most of the time, anything that was not done with malicious intent or wanton disregard for safety can be dealt with. There may well be punishment—even harsh punishment—but a suspension is by far better than a termination.
I’ve heard several stories about people trying to hide something. One of the worst was a crew that wanted to move an airplane on the ramp. They failed to look outside, and the movement of the airplane caused considerable damage to the cargo bin because the belt loader was still in position. They lied, got caught, and were fired. Another example is of a pilot—a former chief pilot, no less—who lied to the control tower about a non-existent mechanical problem because he wasn’t ready to go. As soon as he was, he took off. The tower wasn’t sure what to make of the situation, and called the company—which happened to have a base at that airport. An investigation ensued, and the pilot was terminated. He was also punished by the FAA.
Contrast that to this. A first officer was doing a walk-around one winter in the middle of nowhere, and it was bitterly cold and windy with blowing snow. In his haste to get back in the airplane and get warm, he did more jogging than walking, and failed to notice that somebody had placed a cover on one of the pitot tubes. This is not common at the airlines, and it was unheard of at this one. However, it happened, and he missed it. At some point during the takeoff—I’ve never been sure if they rejected the takeoff or actually flew a circuit around the pattern, because I’ve heard both versions—the cautions and chimes started, and it was obvious that something was amiss. After returning to the gate, the problem was found, and the flight departed normally.
The FO immediately went to the chief’s office and did the carpet dance, confessing his sins and placing his fate into the hands of the chief. The chief honored his word, and told the FO that he would be suspended for two weeks. However, the FO could pick the two-week period that he wanted off. He chose Christmas, and his request was honored. He missed two weeks of pay, but his honesty was respected, and his kids had Dad home for Christmas.
It doesn’t always have a happy ending. Some pilots are fired just because what they did is so egregious that they can’t be forgiven. But, more often than not, immediate honesty pays off, and the impact on a career is minimal to non-existent. I know one pilot who misunderstood the change in his trip and didn’t show up the next morning, leading to the cancellation of three flights. The chief told him that ordinarily he would have received a two-week suspension, but because of his history, he’d just get a verbal warning. The pilot knew that the real reason he wasn’t being suspended was because of a staffing shortage, which the chief acknowledged. When he asked to be suspended anyway—after all, he’d be off for two weeks—the chief denied him and sent him back to work. Sometimes, you can’t get punished even when you want to be.—Chip Wright