Unchecked Ego in the Cockpit

The crash of Czar 52. Photo credit U.S. Air Force

As a U.S. Air Force pilot, I was issued: ego, (1) each, to go along with my flight suits, gloves and helmet. It was part of the standard Government Issue (GI) kit. Over the years to come, I learned to appreciate the importance of that ego in military and non-military situations. It is easier to overcome obstacles if you believe you can, before even starting the attempt. Yes, what we are talking about here is confidence in one’s own abilities and talent. But what happens when that confidence exceeds one’s actual abilities and talent?

The term “ego” comes from the Latin word for “I” but has come to mean an unhealthy belief in our own importance. It is an arrogance that feeds a person’s need to not only be better than others but to be recognized for it. I suspect it is a necessary personality trait for any professional engaged in high-risk activities. Consider a surgeon about to open up a patient’s chest cavity armed only with a few sharp tools and an even sharper intellect. Also consider a police officer walking into a dark alley equipped only with a flashlight, a gun and a search warrant. And finally, consider the professional pilot.

I once landed at minimums with a passenger in the jump seat who never saw the runway until I lowered the nose onto it. Before he left, he asked, “How do you do that?” As I started to explain the magic behind the humble instrument landing system approach, he interrupted me. “No, I don’t care about that. I am asking how you get up the nerve to fly onto a tiny strip of runway that you cannot see until mere seconds before you land?” I suppose the answer is ego. As that great philosopher Minch Yoda said --yes, that was his first name--“Do or do not. There is no try.”

The Case for Ego: A Military Perspective

It has been said that the U.S. took more losses in training during World War II than in combat. That is true in terms of aircraft. The U.S. lost 65,164 airplanes during the war, but only 22,948 in combat. The remaining were due to accidents in training or other types of accidents. The U.S. suffered 52,173 aircrew combat fatalities, but another 25,844 died in accidents, 15,000 of those in training in the U.S. While accident rates in the military have plummeted, training remains a not entirely safe activity. And yet men and women continue to volunteer for military cockpits. Why? To become pilots, of course.

Tom Wolfe, in his brilliant book The Right Stuff, likens this willingness to accept the odds to the “single combat” in the Old Testament story of David and Goliath. The gigantic Goliath, the Philistine champion, would battle all comers and the outcome of the one man versus another would determine the fate of nations. (Spoiler alert: David defeated Goliath.) The story is completed by legions of young men wanting to join the corps in defense of their nations. The nations, in return, granted these young men honor and glory before the fact, before they were sent off to fight.

We place upon our modern-day military pilots an honor and glory in a similar fashion. What you are about to undertake is difficult and could be hazardous. Please accept these wings of silver or gold, strut about with the iconic flight suit, and accept our thanks for what you are about to give.

Having been one of those young pilots donning a flight suit for the first time over 40 years ago, I don’t recall a conscious thought about any of this. During my year in pilot training (1979) the Air Force lost four Cessna T-37 primary jet trainers and four Northrop T-38 advanced jet trainers with a combined nine fatalities. As news of each crash hit the flight line, I don’t recall anyone quitting, what the Air Force called a “Self-Initiated Elimination.” We just soldiered on. That government-issue ego worked its magic.

Is there a similar “pay it forward” aspect to civilian flight training? I think so. You may have heard that flying airplanes is safer than driving a car. That isn’t entirely true. Flying in an airplane with a professional pilot at the controls is indeed safer than driving a car. But flying in an airplane with a general aviation pilot at the controls has a fatality rate closer to that of a motorcyclist, which is to say much worse than driving a car. So why do we volunteer to do that?

Many of us become pilots for the ability to identify as such. “What do you do for a living?” “I am a pilot.” (Accept the look of awe, but try not to be smug about it.) If you are a pilot without an ego, you are a rare pilot indeed.

Ego is our friend; it soothes our worries and tells us what we want to hear: We can handle whatever is about to come our way. Getting rid of ego is scary; it forces us to confront our shortcomings.

One of my favorite ways to get a rise out of an audience is to put my ego on display. I begin by saying, “Every time I get into the captain’s seat of an airplane, I know the finest pilot in the world is in control of that aircraft.” (Cue polite laughter combined with hostile murmuring.) Then I say, “The only problem is that it seems I am very often confronted with evidence to the contrary.” It is OK to have an ego. In fact, I would argue it is necessary. What you must avoid, however, is an unchecked ego.

The Case Against Unchecked Ego: It Blinds Us

Besides causing a loss of friendships, there are two reasons having an unchecked ego is a problem for pilots. First, such an ego blinds us to our own shortcomings. If you think you are great, no amount of evidence can convince you otherwise. Second, an unchecked ego will alienate your crew and all who work with you; it will cripple crew resource management (CRM).

A common saying among those with unchecked egos is, “It isn’t bragging if you can do it.” What they fail to see is that “doing it” might be more about luck than ability. This is especially problematic when the braggart in question is in a position of authority. I believe that was the case of B-52H pilot Lt. Col. Arthur Holland.

In 1994, Holland was the chief of the 92nd Bomb Wing Standardization and Evaluation branch at Fairchild AFB, Washington. In that position, he was in charge of evaluating the performance of all other B-52H pilots on base. On June 24, 1994, he crashed his aircraft during a practice flight for an air show scheduled for the next day, killing all on board. It was a tragic event on multiple levels.

The crew consisted of Holland as the pilot in command, Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan in the copilot position, Lt. Col. Ken Huston as the weapon system officer/radar navigator, and Col. Robert Wolff in the jump seat as a safety observer. It was Wolff’s last flight before retirement. His wife and many close friends were at the airfield to watch the flight and participate in a postflight ceremony. McGeehan’s wife and his two youngest sons watched from their backyard at their house on base.

The flight was planned for a series of low-altitude passes, 60-deg. banked turns, a steep climb and a touch-and-go landing. Tower sent him around prior to the touch-and-go landing because a preceding aircraft was still on the runway. Holland requested and tower approved a left 360-deg. turn around the tower. During the maneuver, he apparently realized he might overfly a nuclear weapons storage facility, which was restricted airspace. He tightened his maneuver, flown at 250 ft. above the ground. About three-quarters around the turn his bank exceeded 90 deg. and the aircraft descended rapidly, hit the ground, and killed all onboard. The photo shows that McGeehan attempted, but failed, to eject (his escape hatch is near the vertical tail). Wolff’s seat was not ejection capable. There is no sign Holland or Huston attempted to eject.

Subsequent investigation showed that Holland had a history of this kind of reckless behavior, which had been reported up the chain of command, but no formal disciplinary action was ever taken against him. A few months before the accident flight, Holland flew a training mission over the Yakima Bombing Range to provide an authorized photographer with shots of the bomb release. The minimum authorized altitude was 500 ft. Holland’s aircraft was filmed crossing the ridge at 30 ft. The copilot testified that he grabbed the controls while Holland laughed. The crew refused to ever fly with him again.

McGeehan, who was the squadron commander, reported the incident to his boss, the wing’s director of operation, Col. William Pellerin, and recommended Holland be grounded. Pellerin refused. McGeehan decided that his crews would no longer fly with Holland, causing tension between him and Holland. Pellerin was scheduled as the mission copilot on the accident flight but bowed out at the last minute. That left McGeehan as the copilot that day.

Holland’s case has become textbook fodder for Air Force leadership and CRM classes. He was, for the most part, a capable pilot. When given a position of leadership and the opportunity to fly often with little oversight, Holland’s ego became unchecked, allowing him to fly dangerously with the leadership’s blessing. His role in death has been to provide the rest of us with an example of how not to behave as professionals.

Holland would have argued that he had excellent stick and rudder skills. He might have been right, but his unchecked ego blinded him to his recklessness and the poor example he was setting from his perch as a leader. His conduct shut down any efforts at CRM.

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…


This reminds me of Sex and the Naval Aviator. Another Good-ol-boy pilot who everyone knows is an accident waiting to happen, but leadership does nothing to prevent.
Excellent! Exactly why I advocate for the crew to own and learn from our mistakes at the post-flight debrief. I make plenty, and while it is a humbling thing to my ego, I know my crews appreciate and respect that I acknowledge and own my mistakes. It not only builds a team, but it reinforces the learning so that mistakes aren't repeated. In the Fairchild accident the safety culture failed, and we are now all learning from it. Great article!
B52 crash
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