Piloting, Sex, and Sports

March 21, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

My apologies for stooping to a media trick for attracting readership by using a tantalizing headline. Last week the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to comment on Micron CEO’s Steve Appleton’s death in an experimental aircraft. Executive No-Fly Zone attempted to point out that pilot CEOs were in mortal danger and so were the public company shareholders who depend upon them for management magic.

The quotes and statistics are entertaining, but rather than enlighten they seem to reflect an editorial bias against anybody who flies except in the back of a Boeing or Airbus.

“The desire to fly an airplane has been shown to represent one aspect of a sensation-seeking personality, a genetic trait associated with risky behavior involving driving, sex, sports and vocation, according to psychology studies. Such traits, along with substantial wealth, may explain ‘why you see so many [CEOs] are pilots,’ says Stephen B. McKeon, an assistant finance professor at University of Oregon’s business school.”

I always thought driving, sports, and vocation (whatever that means) were fairly common pursuits and billions of people participate in them. As for sex – my guess is more than just thrill-seeking CEOs and perhaps even newspaper reporters indulge in sex of some sort – although that isn’t specifically stated. My friends who are airline pilots will be thrilled to know that only company procedures and the FARs are saving them from such self-destructive tendencies.

Professor McKeon notes that substantial wealth is part of the equation that seems to go with the territory of being a CEO and being responsible for the entire enterprise. Perhaps I’ve missed something.

“Piloting small aircraft represents the riskiest type of transportation, according to fatality data analyzed for the study. Nor was Micron’s Mr. Appleton the first corporate leader killed in the cockpit” writes WSJ’s Joann Lublin. I’m curious about the statistic and how it was validated.  We also don’t know how many CEOs were lost to illness, surgery, slips and falls in bathtubs, ladders, stairs, or while driving expensive automobiles that they ostensibly can afford. As for the sexual fatality rate, I’ll leave you to do your own research.

But enough snarkiness! Let’s acknowledge that flying light aircraft does have a higher degree of risk than sitting in the back of a ‘Bus or a Boeing or driving a car. The story made no mention that many CEOs participate in regular recurrent training to improve and maintain their flying skills. It also cited instances of experimental or ex-military aircraft that do not fall into the category of routine transportation. In fact, business flying, which is not a hobby but a practical solution to moving quickly around the country, has a very good safety record. But it’s not perfect, and as pilots we are well-served to remember that anything that moves five to 10 times faster than the average car will entail some increased risk.

Several of my CEO associates have repeatedly noted that they look for business-pilots to hire as executives. Top CEOs are good decision-makers, able to integrate large amounts of information quickly, are good students, inquisitive, and have a bit more risk tolerance than average. They also understand that nothing ventured means nothing gained. Guess what? Those are also the traits of most pilots.

The premise of the article was that companies might be irreparably harmed if a pilot CEO was lost in an aircraft – never mind all the other hazards mentioned above that are likely to be statistically much greater. Any board that bets the entire enterprise on just one person clearly doesn’t understand risk management or that no one is irreplaceable. Every company should have a succession plan – period.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Brian Turrisi

    This was about the worst public relations article I have ever read for General Aviation. Considering it was published in the Wall Street Journal, rather than a “rag” publication, legitimized this negative report to some degree.
    But this has more far reaching implications. Already many employees are banned from using private aircraft for transportation due to liability. This just fuels that notion and takes a big poke at GA right in the eye. On top of all the negative press about “private jets” in the last 3 years, this is not what GA needs.
    I have not read anything so anti- GA in a long time. I would love to see AOPA rebut this article!

  • http://N/A John P Collins

    Excellent article. The media slant everything to fit their own view and often throw in one or two facts to ligitimatize their so called opinion. Their livelihood depends on selling their product, so tha’s what they do and that is their focus. If there are any reporters still working who understand or even care about the difference between facts and opinion, they are extremely difficult to find.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    We collaborated with NBAA who is responding to WSJ. Aside from the fun I had in writing this for our audience, this is exactly why the AOPA Foundation is engaged in a perceptionof GA education process.

    You’ll see more on our website going forward to inform pilots BUT the key point of this project is not us talking to ourselves but to non-aviation people who only know what silliness they see or read in the media.

    Thanks for yor thoughts.

  • Bob Williams

    Good comments. Agree with Brian that NBAA and AOPA need to rebut this particular piece and do whatever is appropriate to stay in front of the public debate on flying in general and GA in particular.

    Thank you for your continued advocacy.

  • Kevin Collins

    Bruce, please provide a link to the NBAA rebuttal once it is available. I imagine you plan to do that anyway, but I just wanted to put in my vote to see it. With respect to the content of the response, I’d love to see Ms. Lublin publish the sources for her statements regarding aviation as the riskiest form of transportation and aviation’s link to a “sensation-seeking personality”.


  • http:[email protected] John Valentine

    Bruce, this man displays all the signs of a mid-level academic horse’s patoot(sorry, channeling Col. Potter), to whit: He displays obvious signs of self-importance and a need to self-aggrandize and denegrate other people to puff up his image against his own wildly displayed insecurity. He tries to overcompensate for his inadequacies by writing wild papers in which he clearly demonstrates his ignorance of the subject matter, and does so in a most inflammatory fashion. His ‘facts’ are so weak that he clearly could not get it passed an objective peer review by real aviation professionals who live outside his tiny little ivory tower. If this knee-walking turkey of a ‘paper’ is ever listed as having passed academic review, it will only be because it was reviewed by pallid little creatures with equally disturbed agendas. I would suggest it be reviewed by actual, competent academics such as a professor or head of aviation studies at Unversity of North Dakota, or perhaps Professor Bob Hamilton of the aviation program at Middle Georgia College. (I will point out that there is nothing new under the sun, even in exactly this type of attempt by bean counters and money weasels to straightjacket the creative spirit and joy of living that the top rank of CEOs display. I submit Robert A. Heinlein’s classic story from 1949, “The Man Who Sold The Moon.” Slap these critters down whenever they appear, and then tell them – ‘Nothing of importance here, move along. These are not the ‘droids you are seeking.’

  • Robert Tompkins CFI/CFII

    It is clear that this “professor” needs some additional coursework on “risk management”. As a business school finance professor, I can speak with some experience that it is sub-optimal to eliminate all risk. As a pilot and flight instructor, I know that when I fly there is a risk. However, aviation teaches concrete risk management assessment skills and means to minimize those risks. Such skills transfer extremely well to managing businesses. In some ways, flying is the best possible way to acquire an efficient “risk management” approach. I would refute the professor’s contention that one negative event, such as the accident he refers to is sufficient to draw robust conclusions. The professor should do a proper academic study of the performance of companies run by pilot CEOs versus companies in the same industry run by non-pilot CEOs. If he finds that pilot run companies perform worse (or have higher volatility in earnings – translated as “risk”), he can provide empirical evidence that pilot CEOs are excessive risk takers. Otherwise, this Professor is making broad claims with only anecdotal evidence and that is bad science.

    Professor Dr. Robert G. Tompkins, Ph.D. CFI/CFII/MEI

  • Vince Latona

    Nice article Bruce….the case can be made that driving to work is unsafe. Recall the 55 MPH speed limit going to be raised to 65 and the media blathering that ‘babies bodies will be splattered across the highways.’

    If saving lives is the goal then slowing down will definitely work. How about 20 MPH national speed limit. That will save lives. 10 MPH will save even more. Flying at 200 knots is more dangerous than driving at 30 MPH. And the message we are to take from this is ……?

  • http://www.aopa.org/asf Bruce Landsberg

    Kevin –

    Here is the link provided by NBAA: http://www.nbaa.org/news/letters/20120314-wall-street-journal.php 

  • Kevin Collins

    Bruce, thanks for the link! It would have been nice if the response had refuted the articler’s questionable conclusions, but I suppose one has only limited space in which to express one’s views in a letter to the editor. I’m glad the NBAA pointed out some of the obvious gaps in the Ms. Lublin’s logic.

  • http://www.achievementaviation.com Josh Johnson

    I find a fair amount of comfort in reviewing accident data. Flying is kind of like living in a big city, generally safe, but you can sure find trouble if you want to. In reviewing the Nall report, if we would agree to: (1) Never attempt VFR flight into IFR conditions and (2) Maintain minimum safe altitudes (i.e. – no buzzing) we reduce our risk of dying in an airplane by something like 90%.
    In this case, I likely am as safe or safer than driving my car. The difference is that I can control many more aspects of the risk I am taking than I can when driving.

  • Tony O’Brien

    We have all learned journalism is by trade no longer a proud tradition. Why should we be so surprised by an article with no research, relevant point or real basis?

    These hacks who write articles with biased slants look not for real news but to sensationalize their byline. We can only hope our Nation figures this out and refuses to read what is called news.