Singling out Young Pilots (and Old)

January 15, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

young pilotThe Safety Pilot column in the January issue of AOPA Pilot was “Curb Their Enthusiasm.” Two accidents citing judgment errors brought an enthusiastic response from some younger pilots asking why I was drawing attention to such things when the aviation business was doing everything it could to attract young people. Great question!

I learned to fly young, while in college, and pursued aviation with great enthusiasm throughout my young adult years and beyond. This column was written knowing that it would stir some different views, and that “telling it as it is” would be uncomfortable for some readers.

As a young pilot I desperately wanted to prove that I could do the right thing. Frequently got the benefit of some old pilots explaining, sometimes not too gently, that what I was about to do was not safe. It kept me alive and made me smarter.

Young pilots don’t know what they don’t know—of course, that applies to older aviators as well. However, youthful optimism is well-documented. It’s been well-researched that the human brain does not truly develop its cognitive skills until the mid-20s. (There are some people I know who are well beyond 25 and are still lacking in the cognitive area.)

Here is just one source, and you can find dozens of references on the web:

The primary message of recent groundbreaking neuroscience is that cognitive maturity develops last, after physical and mental maturity, for all adolescents. This research shows that cognitive maturity occurs in the mid-twenties…

Surprisingly, incomplete cognitive development of the brain lasts well through college years and, therefore, has enormous implications for the responsibility of parents and university administrators to that group. We fail young persons when we give them “just the facts” and say “you decide” without guiding them to and supporting them in making the best decisions. We fail them when we expect them to control their impulses and avoid risk behaviors, when we abandon them at critical decision-points to their own minds—minds with a limited capacity for abstract thinking…”

Higher car insurance rates for young people is just one example of addressing risk-taking behavior and is documented beyond any question. Try renting a car below the age of 25. The rental companies have had too much bad experience. Does this apply to flying? I think in a broad sense it does—people are people. Individuals will certainly vary, but that’s not how systems address problems.

There was another disaster involving a 17-year-old student pilot from Alabama who went joyriding in the last week or so with two friends in IMC that adds credence.

Because we do everything possible to educate pilots about safety and to encourage people of all ages to fly responsibly, there is also the responsibility to point out when someone uses really bad judgment to serve as a bad example. AOPA and the Foundation are strong proponents of having young people fly, but doing it responsibly is essential.

Balancing public relations desires and aviation safety is never easy!

Now to the “mature” pilots—don’t get too smug.

Just last year the Air Safety Institute mounted a major education campaign to deal with the safety of older pilots, so we cover all sides of the age question. Older pilots have their problems as well, and they’ve been documented.

Identifying what happened, to whom, and under what circumstances lets us put limited resources to the greatest effect. Some readers may not agree on this point, but perhaps this explains the motives. Chainsaws and aircraft make no allowances for enthusiastic misjudgment regardless of age.

When you see something that may be ill-considered regardless of age, speak up respectfully. Continue to mentor and encourage young people to fly and to learn from the mistakes of those who went before. You’ll last a lot longer.

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • pranesh dey

    Agree Bruce. Mistakes on the part of younger pilots stem from ignorance. As you said, ‘young pilots don’t know what they don’t know’. Mistakes on the part of experienced pilots I believe are because of other factors.

  • Ben

    Bruce, this is an interesting read after just reading another ASF article about how rules of thumb are no examples for using your brain. The “well documented facts” about the maturity of the human brain is just another rule of thumb. I’d be careful in how you apply it!
    When I reminisce about being a young pilot, well, I have to admit that I’ve achieved one of my goals: I’ve become an old aviator. As we approach (land and then depart for life beyond) “middle age”, we look back and like to blame the foolishness of youth. It provides comfort and our intuition is that we wouldn’t do the same foolish things again. I’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary!
    “Know what you don’t know” is the key to success in everything I’ve tried. What we *think* we know is what gets us in real trouble. Experience may lead us to wonder more deeply about what we’re missing, or maybe not. Aviation provides an excellent opportunity for young people to learn responsibility and judgment. We can follow the rule of thumb, like the masses, or we can take advantage of the opportunity. In my experience, young aviators learn to be responsible for themselves and their passengers, as well as those around them, than many other full grown “adults” I deal with outside of aviation. I think that, at least when I was a young aviator, the culture provided the learning opportunity and our peers (including those grey bearded geezers that we have now become) encouraged and reinforced good judgment more so than in other activities of my youth.
    Your “well documented facts” should be tempered with real-world experience: attracting young people to aviation is good for them, good for aviation, and good for everyone else: if we continue to provide the environment that encourages and reinforces good judgment, continue to set a good example (the hard part), then we have all won.

  • pranesh dey

    Hi Ben,
    So well said, Ben. I’m glad that you shared your views and made all of us richer. Wisdom from the trenches of aviation. Ben, I’m preserving your piece and sharing it with others if you don’t mind. I completely agree with you when you say:
    — ‘Aviation provides an excellent opportunity for young people to learn responsibility and judgment’.
    — In my experience, young aviators learn to be responsible for themselves and their passengers, as well as those around them, than many other full grown “adults” I deal with outside of aviation.
    — reinforced good judgment more so than in other activities of my youth.
    This good judgment one learns as an aviator I guess extends to everything else in life: driving, crossing the road, boarding the train, compassion for people around you, love for one’s country (however imperfect it may be), whether to go for an expensive electrical wiring for your home or settle for a simple electrical architecture that is safe and easy to maintain. Great piece Ben. I feel richer after reading it. Thanks