When to speak up

I recently read a story in a nonflying publication about a group of people on a resort boat going scuba diving. The tale is related that at one point the captain had to leave his post at the wheel to go below to find his sunglasses. While he was doing so, the boat began to drift off-course enough that it was clear it would crash.

The employee sitting next to the captain began to display obvious knowledge of the impending situation, but did nothing to react, even though all he had to do was put his hand on the wheel to keep the boat going straight. The author explains that it was clear that such action by an employee in the past had led to a pretty severe dressing-down, if not outright embarrassment in front of a boatload of customers. Further, when the captain finally resumed his post, there was no discussion about the danger the boat had been in.

In a crewed environment of any sort—airplanes, in our case—the most important asset is trust. Each pilot must not only trust that the other knows how to fly, and that he or she knows what the job is, but the first officer especially needs to trust that the captain will welcome input that could be necessary but a bit embarrassing.

Now, there is speaking up and there is speaking up. In the simple version, the FO might point out something mundane and obvious. For example, the controller issued a descent clearance and the altitude was set, but the captain forgets to actually start the descent. The FO then pipes up, the captain realizes what he didn’t do, starts to descend, and all is well. That’s easy.

What’s harder is when a judgment call is required. Maybe the controller named Victor gave some bad vectors, and the approach is going to be steeper and faster than it should be. Or, maybe there is some questionable weather ahead. Or, maybe the captain is missing every radio call because he has something on his mind or doesn’t feel well. Calling for a go-around during an unstable approach sounds like it should be easy, but you’d be shocked at how hard it is for an FO to bring himself to call for the go-around.

A captain who is error-prone is a difficult scenario, especially if you don’t the person well. If he or she has a reputation for it, you can at least be prepared. If not, you have to determine if the captain usually operates this way or is just having a bad day.

I’ve always told my FOs that not only should they speak up, but that I need them to. The last thing I want them to do is wonder if it’s OK or if it will offend me. The truth is that it will offend me more if they don’t. After all, it always seems that certificate action follows the dumbest mistakes that are left uncorrected. I hope everyone I flew with will agree that speaking up with me was never an issue.

It’s a harder skill—and it is a skill—to develop than you think. When I first upgraded, many of my captains were my age or older, and they had less reservation about pointing something out, even if it was not a big deal. But as time passed, and my FOs became much younger than me, I noticed that I had to really emphasize that my feelings would not be hurt if they said I was being dumb, or if they wanted a go-around because they didn’t like what they saw. It always seemed to me that being able to talk about it after the fact was better than the NTSB and FAA talking to my family about instead.

But there are some pilots who are just “plane” jerks, and take on a very dictatorial attitude. In my personal experience, these are actually easier to deal with in some respects. Get them alone, and tell them flat out how they are coming across and that they are not being conducive to a safe environment, and (this is important) give them examples of negative behavior that they have displayed. Being called out often makes people realize that they have crossed a line or two, and often brings about the sort of behavior modification you need.

Don’t be the guy sitting next to an empty chair as the ship (or plane) heads for trouble. Be assertive but respectful, and fix the problem now. You can deal with the other person’s attitude later. If things are bad enough, you can always find another job.—Chip Wright


  1. This accident report is an example of what can happen when you do not speak up–


    NTSB Identification: ATL07FA077
    14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
    Accident occurred Sunday, April 22, 2007 in Hamilton, GA
    Aircraft: Beech 58, registration: N5647C
    Injuries: 5 Fatal.
    This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

    On April 22, 2007, about 1451 eastern daylight time, a Beech BE-58, N5647C, registered to Renaissance Aircraft Management LLC, operating as a 14 CFR Part 91 personal flight, broke up in flight in the vicinity of Hamilton, Georgia. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed. The airplane was destroyed. The private pilot and 4 passengers were fatally injured. The flight originated from Jack Edwards Airport, Gulf Shores, Alabama, at about 1300 central daylight time.

    A witness stated he was in his boat fishing in a lake in the vicinity of his home. He heard an airplane approaching his location from the southeast to the northwest. It sounded as if the pilot was performing some acrobatic maneuvers. The witness looked up and could not see the airplane. The engine noise continued to increase in intensity and the witness observed the airplane to the north of the lake heading northwest. The airplane was high and descending very fast in a 45 to 60 degree nose down attitude. The witness stated he observed a wing or part of the tail separate from the airplane in the vicinity of Hamilton Mulberry Grove Road. He immediately went to his boat dock and to his home and called the 911 emergency operators to report the accident.

    A motorist approached a Georgia State Patrol Officer at the accident scene and informed the Officer that he was a friend of the deceased pilot. He further informed the officer that he was planning on purchasing an airplane from the pilot, and the pilot was going to use the money from the sale of the airplane to purchase the Beech 58 that he was flying at the time of the accident. The motorist further stated that the accident pilot “flying skills were below his standards because the pilot was known for overstressing the planes he flew.” The motorist further stated from having flown with him and he made a statement to a friend about three weeks ago that the accident pilot would probably crash an airplane within the next year.

    A friend of the pilot stated the pilot was in his shop on Friday, April 20, 2007, before he departed to Gulf Shores, Alabama on a fishing trip in his Beech 58. The friend informed the pilot, “That he thought he was stupid and not to do anything in the airplane that would get him hurt.” The pilot stated, “I think I can roll this airplane.” The friend stated, “The pilot had been at Sun N’ Fun in Lakeland, Florida, during the week and had observed a performer rolling a Beech 18, and the deceased pilot just kept the rolling issue in his head.” The friend stated the pilot had flown with a retired airline pilot, who owns a Beech 55, and the pilot had rolled the airplane with the deceased pilot as a passenger.

    Another friend of the deceased pilot stated, he was in the right front seat of the airplane on April 19, 2007, on a return flight from Sun N’ Fun in Lakeland, Florida, with two other passengers in the back seats. They departed Lakeland, Florida, and the pilot climbed to an initial cruising altitude of 9, 500 feet. The autopilot was on and the airplane was cruising at 220 knots. The pilot climbed to 10,500 feet to see if they could get a better ground speed and eventually descended back down to 9,500 feet. A short time later, the pilot stated, “I want to try something.” The pilot rolled the airplane to the left side, and then back to the right side with the autopilot off and stated, “I believe its possible to roll this airplane.”

    The pilot pushed down on the control yoke, initiated a descent, and turned the airplane to the left, pulled back on the control yoke, and the airplane went up and over to the right like a spiral until the airplane was in a knife-edge attitude. The friend of the pilot stated he did not know what airspeed they obtained while the pilot was performing this maneuver and stated, ” It got me out of my comfort zone, and I could not handle it.” The friend stated he grabbed the flight controls, leveled the airplane, and stated to the pilot, “I can not do this.” The pilot replied, “I believe it is possible to roll this airplane.” The pilot descended down to 7,500 feet and leveled off in cruise flight, and there was no further discussion about rolling the airplane. A short time later, the pilot pulled the power back on the right engine, feathered the propeller, and they continued towards Griffin, Georgia, in cruise flight. The pilot started the engine, and they made their decent and landing at Griffin.

  2. It’s every person’s resposibility to warn potential passengers of pilot’s behavior that they consider risky. If they’ve counselled potential passengers against flying in an airplane with dangerous pilots, they needn’t feel guilty when those passengers end up dead from not having heeded their warning. And if they did not offer such counsel prior to a fatal accident, may guilt follow them to their grave – & provide the incentive to ‘not make that mistake again’.

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