Being a Better Pilot, Part 2

Learjet 45 (N279AJ) wreckage. Photo credit: NTSB

Editor’s note: This is the second part of James Albright’s “Being a Better Pilot” article. Here’s the first part.

Rule 3: Do things for a reason

When I was a fledgling Boeing 707 copilot, one of my first captains would ask me why I had done something wrong, and I would come up with an answer. He would say, “Well that’s a reason. It isn’t a good reason, but it is a reason.” That has obviously scarred me for life, but in a good way. We always have reasons for what we do. We just need to make sure they are good reasons.

On Jan. 3, 2009, a Learjet 45 crew destroyed their aircraft while attempting to land at Telluride Regional Airport (KTEX), Colorado, during a period of heavy snow. The runway wasn’t plowed, and the airport had no plans to clear it until the next morning. The weather was below approach minimums when they arrived. After holding, they attempted a straight-in approach but did not see the runway. They did spot the runway on their second approach but were too high to land. The PIC, in the right seat, said, “I mean we could almost circle and do it. Wanna try?” To which the pilot flying (PF), in the left seat, said, “I don’t.”

But they did, executing a right 360-deg. turn, still ending up too high. Their bank angle reached 45deg. at several points.

PIC: “Cut it in tight.”

PF: “I need to maintain that altitude.”

PIC: “No…you’re gonna have to please.”

After they rolled out:

PIC: “Keep bringing it down. Keep it slow. See the lead in light, ah the blinker.”

PF: “No, I don’t see anything yet.”

PIC: “There’s the runway.”

PF: “Are you kidding me?”

PIC: “You need to be down.”

They touched down 20 ft. to the right and off the runway. The aircraft’s wings were torn from the fuselage and the tail separated just aft of the engines.

The Learjet 45 is at best a Category C circling aircraft while the LOC/DME Runway 9 is for Category A and B aircraft only. It is common practice for higher category aircraft landing in mountainous area airports to use instrument approaches as approach aids leading to visual approaches. But whenever doing this, prudent crews will fully brief how they will do that and what they will do if the plan doesn’t work out. This crew briefed a divert airport prior to starting their second approach but never again verbalized the possibility. 

You can argue that the PIC’s overbearing nature prevented the PF from making any decisions at all. I would argue that the PF’s eventual silence was a decision in and of itself. The rationale behind just about every decision along the way to the scene of the accident was faulty. But in the heat of battle, faulty reasoning can blind us. It could very well be that the PIC had successfully flown into Telluride in similar conditions with a similar ad hoc circling procedure. That would only reinforce his reasoning. I’ve seen this happen on a much larger scale.

KC-135a refueling
KC-135A refueling F-4E Phantom IIs and F-105 Thunderchief. Photo credit: USAF

In 1980, as a brand-new KC-135A tanker copilot, I was flying in the fifth airplane of a five-ship formation returning from a mid-Atlantic air refueling. We called these missions “fighter drags” because we took off fully loaded with fuel and dragged a flight of fighters halfway across the ocean, giving them every drop of gas that we could spare. Another formation of tankers would meet us halfway and take over, while we turned around and went home. On this flight, there was a long line of thunderstorms between us and our destination, Loring AFB, Maine. Lead decided we needed to come left about 20 deg. to avoid the weather. I noticed our fuel reserve was just about gone. The captain in the left seat wasn’t concerned. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We got the top crew flying lead.” With each subsequent turn left I kept quiet until our heading read 180. I drew a globe on our flight plan with us in the upper hemisphere pointing to the south pole. That’s all the captain needed. We broke formation and did our best navigating through the line of weather. We made it home a little late, but we made it. The formation gave up the southerly heading almost an hour after we departed the scene. None of them made it back to base; they diverted to a Canadian alternate. One of the airplanes flamed out three engines before landing.

The squadron rationalized it as an odd situation that nobody could have anticipated, and the entire episode was written off as “one of those things.” We pilots are good at that kind of rationalization, but the experience has stuck with me whenever I am oceanic looking at a line of weather.

In the case of the Learjet or my tanker formation, wrong decisions can be made that seem right at the time. “Well, that’s a reason. It isn’t a good reason, but it is a reason.”

How do you inoculate yourself from this kind of reasoning in the heat of battle? I recommend a good war story. When you find yourself in one of those situations where you got lucky but would never make the same decisions again, don’t write it off as “one of those things.” Talk about it and let others know. At the very least it will keep the incident fresh in your mind; but it may save someone from the same situation with less luck. Another great source of war stories are accident reports. Read these with the attitude that the accident pilots were very good and that you could have made the same mistakes. As a safety officer from one of my earliest squadrons would say, “Nobody starts a flight and says, ‘today I will crash an airplane.’ Never think you are immune to stupidity, because you aren’t.”

Being a Better Pilot

I’ve always considered myself an average pilot, which I admit is a strange thing to say for someone with more than 10,000 hr. flying jets and nine type ratings. But I honestly think that, based on the evidence that just about everyone I fly with is a better pilot than me. But I think what sets me apart is a philosophy that keeps me from getting rushed in the cockpit, thinking I am smarter than the people who designed my aircraft, or coming up with ad hoc procedures in the heat of battle. We should all strive to become better pilots when it comes to the actual mechanics of flying our aircraft. But we must also focus on our thought processes that guide those methods. Paying attention to your pilot philosophy, as well as methodology, will make you a better pilot.

About This Series

I began this series with “Being a Better Student,” (Part 1, Part 2) where the focus may have been on pilots, but the lessons apply to us all. Calling this second article “Being a Better Pilot” (Part 1, Part 2) may seem to be exclusively aimed toward pilots, but I think the lessons are more universal than that. I will continue that theme with the next feature, “Being a Better Crewmember.”

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…


As always, another great lesson, another great story. Thanks for sharing.
Very important points. It is not just our actions and behaviors. Philosophy will drive methodology. I hope it is more than story telling. That is a good start, but we need to ask the question "How can we see things differently?"
Unfortunately, we were all brought up admiring the hero who can shoot from the hip and save the day. I don't see anything different in today's action movies (not that I am a fan).