Exactly what part of the brain controls our egos, anyway? Since I’m not a shrink and simply apply what I’ve seen over a lifetime, I’d have to say that the part that controls our aviation ego is also tasked with the management of our sexual ego. This has to be the case and the reason for our egos because you get exactly the same reaction when you insult, degrade or, in any way, question a guy’s ability in either of those areas. Although I’m aware of that simple fact, I can still manage to hack off a pilot every now and again by making an insulting comment that makes it seem that I completely doubt his abilities as a pilot in command.
Incidentally, by writing the foregoing sentence, I purposely didn’t say (as all of us are supposed to say nowadays in the new, politically correct journalistic style) “his or her ability.” I’ve flown and taught several female student pilots and I’ve never noticed an overt egotism in any of them. On the other hand, a male’s ego seems to be floating just below the surface, where it’s easy to accidentally poke it, causing it to swell up.
This phenomenon was, once again, brought to my attention quite recently when I spoke with a potential student pilot over the phone. He was a fairly experienced aviator with 500 hours of total time logged in. Three hundred of those total hours were spent in a high-performance homebuilt plane, with which I’m quite familiar and knew that it didn’t translate to the Pitts as well as he thought it did.
I described my training program to him and mentioned that he must attend at least three hours of groundschool before strapping into the airplane. He, in turn, strongly questioned the need for so much groundschool. That, in itself, should have been my first indication of possible problems.
Without thinking or any filtering of words, I said, “You may think you know how to fly, but many things just happen too quickly in the traffic pattern to be able to adequately describe them to you if you haven’t gone through those hard-nosed concepts in groundschool.”
I soon found out that I offended him severely by remarking, “You may think you know how to fly.” Dumb, Budd, really dumb, I told myself. Even though it wasn’t an out-and-out insult, it was an unduly arrogant statement on my part that pricked his ego and instantly puffed it up. He got miffed, hung up the phone, and I never heard from him again.
Fortunately, most folks have an open attitude about learning to fly, so when an airplane shows them that they really don’t know as much as they thought they did, they respond to it in a positive manner. It may wound their ego slightly, but they still look at the situation as a good learning experience. It is, however, one thing to have an airplane wound one’s ego, but it’s something entirely different to have another person do the same thing.
This whole ego thing is an integral part of aviating, and most of the time, it’s a known cause of accidents, which brings us to another point: When is it a good time, and how should we approach people in order to point out that they may be doing something unsafe, inconsiderate or just plain stupid?
Most people know that this can’t be done, so we seldom try it. By pointing out another’s mistakes, we’re showing that we have more experience and more knowledge than he does, which may or may not be the case. Regardless, the very instant someone opens his mouth and says something like, “You know, you’d find it much easier if you…,” we’ve cast huge doubt on both his knowledge and ability, even though we don’t mean to, and assumed that we have the superior background and the right to point out his shortcomings. If that’s not a recipe for a poke in the nose, then I don’t know what is. All I know is that no one likes an uninvited know-it-all.
After all, you can’t just walk up to someone and correct them. Well, Chuck Yeager or Patty Wagstaff can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. Even if they really know that you’re a high-time, wildly talented, unbelievably capable flight instructor, they’re still going to resent your advice. Unsolicited criticism is never welcome. Never!
But there have been times when I just barged right in. Like all of us, I’ve seen pilots do things that clearly show that they don’t understand the potentially severe consequences of what they’ve just done, so I poke my nose into someone else’s business. And, of course, it’s the same response: “Just who do you think you are that you can tell me what to do?”
In that kind of a given situation, it’s quite impossible to establish anything credible that would be strong enough to win the argument. But I say, “I’m just a flight instructor who doesn’t want to tell your wife you just made her a widow because you did something stupid.”
When a life hangs in the balance, we aren’t doing anyone a favor by holding our tongue. It’s far better to get someone red-faced than avoid the confrontation and let fate take its course.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.