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Breaking Bad

What to Do When You See Someone Doing Something Wrong

Source:, By Sabrina Woods

Every once in a while the FAA Safety Briefing staff gets an email from a concerned reader who wants to know what to do when a fellow aviator is engaging in shenanigans. The circumstances vary from entertaining antics, to mild mischief, to downright unlawful undertakings. In each email the question always remains the same:

What do I do when I see someone doing something wrong?

I always feel for these individuals because I know if something warrants emailing the FAA, it really has to be bothersome. Still, everyone knows that no one likes a “snitch” so the risk of being labeled one is likely a big concern for the person. Aviation people can have a pack-like mentality and tend to want to stick together, so I commend those who are making every effort to ensure the safety and security of the National Airspace System (NAS). To the pleas about what to do I offer, “it depends.”

“It Depends”

I know, I know. It can sound trite and noncommittal, but your possible courses of action really do depend on the circumstances you are witnessing.

Maybe it starts in a relatively simple way. You see your buddy with the magnificent Beechcraft Baron being less than diligent in his preflight checks. Instead of actually checking the fuel level and calculating burn rates, he takes it for granted that he’s “only going up for an hour or so.” Complacency is when an individual loses vigilance in monitoring important aspects of a system or a process simply because it has become mundane, routine, or even boring. It can be exacerbated by a “nothing has ever happened before, so why would it now” attitude towards the process. Unfortunately, this human factors pratfall is also what can turn that twin-engine Baron into an impromptu glider.

Or perhaps it’s the fellow aviator making preparations to head out into what looks to be some gnarly weather. A quick check on confirms your suspicions but your “fellow aviator” seems oblivious. Or worse, she seems anxious and in a hurry and quickly rushes through her preflight before flinging her flight bag into the cockpit and climbing in. She is entirely focused on getting to where she is going, but you have serious misgivings that anyone should be going anywhere any time soon. Get-there-itis has claimed more than one life in general aviation, as the overwhelming desire to continue on one’s course overrides any external input that indicates continuing is not such a great idea.

The pilots who give in to these kinds of risky behaviors are not inherently bad people — they just aren’t engaging in very good decision-making at the time.

Positive Peer Pressure

Then there are the thrill-seekers. Unfortunately, most of us have likely encountered at least one person who seems to engage in more than their fair share of “stupid pilot tricks.” It might be his constant endeavor to seek the perfect selfie while on short final in Class B airspace. It may be her attempts to “buzz” her parents’ house out on the rural Alaskan tundra. For the most part, it ends innocuously. Nothing bad comes of it except terrifying those who have to bear witness to the act. It’s when something does go bad that the results can quickly go from puerile pranks to mishap and mayhem.

Prior to letting any of these situations get to that point, I encourage you to think about applying a little positive peer pressure. Easier said than done, I realize. In addition to general condemnation of the snitch, no one seems to appreciate the “butt-in-ski” either. Regardless, studies have shown that when it comes to offering gentle correction (emphasis on the “gentle” part), people react and respond better when it comes from someone they view as a contemporary. This works particularly well once you convey that you only have that person’s best interest in mind.

Positive peer pressure is what makes things like group workouts and fellowship programs so effective. Trust me on this one. Not getting up at 5 a.m. to go run by myself is easily forgivable in my mind. But disappointing my running group that meets every Tuesday evening at 6 p.m., and is expecting me to be there, is just this side of anathema. Their expectation motivates me to be there.

Attending courses hosted by the FAA Safety Team (FAAST), and joining type clubs and aviation advocacy groups are great ideas for you and for your buddies if you can encourage them to do so. The clubs often provide safety and new technology seminars; advice about equipping items or traversing new routes; and who doesn’t like gathering around the coffee pot and telling “there I was” stories? Don’t have anything like that at your particular FBO? Then start one! Investing in a like-minded safety-oriented aviation group reinforces good behavior and provides great cross-tell and a chance to learn from one another’s experiences.

In addition to engaging in group activities, always consider leveraging the experience and insight of your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). The men and women who work at the various FSDOs around the nation are dedicated to growing the field while ensuring the safety of the NAS. In particular, FSDO FAASTeam Program Managers are focused on proactive safety promotion and advocacy. Now, under the FAA’s new compliance philosophy, all FSDO inspectors have even more latitude to work with an individual in what may be a lack of understanding or preparation, a flawed procedure, a miscommunication, or even a simple mistake. Under the agency’s new compliance philosophy, the FAA is dedicated to conducting root cause analysis and creating new and better ways to mitigate risk, rather than just issuing enforcements.

That Being Said ...

While most of the letters we receive fall in the “bad-decision” category, every once in a while we get something that needs much more attention than a little intervention from some comrades. This is when the threat to the individual, and/or the threat to public safety are such that either the FAA or possibly even law enforcement has to get involved.

For example, what happens when that bad-decision pilot routinely goes from buzzing the countryside, to buzzing the countryside while “buzzed?” The first is a risky maneuver that could end up in tragedy, and under the right circumstances can warrant a visit from a representative of the local FSDO. The other is downright illegal and absolutely should warrant a visit from the local authorities. Tolerances for things like alcohol and drug use, potentially debilitating medical conditions, and levels of proficiency are far more stringent for aviators than they are for operators of other vehicles. They have to be due to the higher level of risk that is inherent to the operation itself. The FAA is dedicated to using compliance actions for inadvertent violations, but violations involving intentionally reckless behavior, falsification, and repeated failure to comply cannot and will not be tolerated by the FAA — and you shouldn’t let it go, either. After all, it very well could be your life that the willful behavior endangers.

Just to reinforce the point, here’s something that happened one beautiful spring day in Massachusetts. A Beechcraft Super King Air on approach entered a steep left turn and flipped almost completely upside down before it leveled briefly, then entered a steep dive and impacted a building. The subsequent investigation and toxicology report on the fatally injured pilot determined there was a considerable amount of anti-seizure, antiviral, antidepressant, and antibiotic medicines in his bloodstream. In addition, the pilot frequently complained of debilitating pain that he was treating with a combination of morphine, codeine, and heroin.

The post-mishap report reads like a horror story, but what possibly is even more disturbing is that while the pilot neglected to disclose any of the disqualifying information on his application for a medical certificate, several people who were personally and professionally related to the pilot were aware of his condition. It appears as though they were hesitant or unwilling to raise any alarm about his willful misconduct. As a result, the pilot and several passengers were killed and occupants of the building were gravely injured.

Being a Good Steward

Having the tough conversations, holding each other accountable, and reporting criminal behavior is an essential part of being a good steward of aviation. The Aviators Model Code of Conduct (see Learn More) recommends practices and behaviors designed to enhance the quality and safety of general aviation. Let it be your guide and solid foundation to build upon in dealing with the sticky issues that you see flying in and around your chosen FBO. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact your local FSDO, or the FAA aviation safety hotline (see Learn More) if you need even more guidance. Together we can drive the general aviation safety mishap rate down and keep each other flying safely and happily for many years to come.

Learn More

FAA Safety Team Website

FAA Compliance Philosophy Order

FAA Aviation Safety Hotline

Sabrina Woods is a guest writer for the FAA Safety Briefing. She is a human factors scientist with the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. She spent 12 years as an aircraft maintenance officer and an aviation mishap investigator in the Air Force.

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