Donald Trump might not want to take up flying. I say this knowing nothing about the gold-plated multi-millionaire’s eye-hand coordination or his ground school scores. What triggers this is a single word I’ve found while researching NTSB accident reports—all of them sad events where a pilot destroyed a perfectly good airplane. The word that links these accidents isn’t about bad weather, fatigue, aerodynamics, IFR procedures, or indeed any of the normal suspects. It is however something entirely preventable. The word is: Ostentatious.
My dictionary defines ostentatious as “characterized by or given to pretentious or conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others.” Synonyms for ostentatious include showy, flamboyant, pretentious, flashy, garish, glitzy, loud, gaudy, razzle-dazzle and splashy. The examples of its use found in the NTSB files all read pretty much the same. They say the probable cause of the accident was “the pilot’s ostentatious display and in-flight decision to perform an abrupt low altitude pitch upmaneuver” (a HU-600N helicopter, 2 fatalities). Or “a factor in the accident wast the pilot’s ostentatious display by buzzing” (Cessna 150G, 1 fatality). Or the probable cause was “the altitude/clearance disregarded by the pilot and his ostentatious display” (Piper PA-28R-180, 3 fatalities).
How many times is ostentatious display cited in NTSB records? A 20-year search yields 55 cases. They are spread over the whole United States, and include a wide range of aircraft from basic trainers to homebuilts and warbirds. Of the 55 cases, 38 were fatal accidents with a total of 60 people killed. Ostentatious things like wearing a big pilot watch or telling exaggerated hangar flying stories do not get us into trouble; but trying to show off in an aircraft with flashy flying can become deadly fast. An NTSB investigator once told me the most dangerous thing around airplanes is a video camera. The psychological urge to show off seems to short-circuit our normal risk management rationality. Warning signs are thoughts like, “just this once,” “it’ll be fun,” or “those rules are for average pilots.”
It’s not just civilian pilots that fall for this psychological trap. Remember the Marine Corps pilots in Cavalese, Italy, that flew so low in one valley they cut cables supporting an aerial cable car causing 20 deaths? They had a video camera in the cockpit filming their adventure. In another case a 24-year old F-15 pilot did a high-speed flyover of the airport immediately after takeoff while still in the external tank configuration. He executed an 8.5 G pull-up and literally ripped the wings from the fuselage. Or the parents of an F-14 aviator who video-recorded their son going vertical — first straight up and then horrifyingly tail-sliding down — low over their house. He died in the crash.
If you want to loop and roll, there are great instructors available that will show you how it’s all done safely. It’s a lot of fun, and makes you a better pilot. With knowledge and practice we can do aerobatics lower and lower to the ground. But trying something you are not trained in, or practiced at, for the first time at low altitude with the pressure of people watching is asking for trouble. Bad trouble. The low-altitude flying record stands at zero feet, and the prize forequaling the record is only awarded posthumously. The professionals practice every day to get good enough to try aerobatics close to the ground. But you need only need to try it once to crash.
All these accidents are a sub-set of the larger class of accidents that are classified as violations. These are events with a distinct difference from lapses and mistakes. Violations involve an intention to break rules or procedures that the pilot knows exist. While some violations involve complex tradeoffs — what if the rule is wrong? — this is not true for ostentatious displays. Here pilots choose to break rules just to look cool or to make an afternoon flight more thrilling.
How do we avoid making these poor choices? Consider some antonyms for ostentatious: restrained, modest, conservative, quiet or understated. These are qualities we should aim for as pilots. These are the measures of our professionalism. We must learn to feel good about disciplined personal airmanship, and not measure success by scaring the neighbors. Master pilot Bob Hoover, who flew some amazing air show routines as part of a lifetime of aviation excellence, once said in a TV interview: “it’s not how close can you get to the ground, but how precise can you fly the airplane.”
After reading all the accident reports, I’ve grown to vehemently dislike the word ostentatious. Too often in the cockpit it’s a desire that turns deadly. So while Donald Trump may have solid gold bathroom fixtures, and cuff-links worth more than my car, I stand by my hunch that he might not want to take up flying.