Last summer, some friends and I gathered at our hangars where we met our new next-door neighbor. He was a fairly new pilot, about 200 hours, and had just purchased a Cessna Skylane. We invited him to join us for lunch at another airport’s restaurant, with a warning that the runway there was a bit short. Our two airplanes got a head start and we were sitting in the restaurant sipping iced tea by the time he arrived.
His first landing attempt was high and fast and resulted in a go-around. The second was better, but still too long and he flew another go-around. The third was an acceptable landing.
When he joined us at the table his first words were, “Did you enjoy my three landings?” No doubt, he was embarrassed about his landing and worried about what we thought of him as a pilot. Yes, we had talked about his skills, but only for a moment. All that was said was, “He’s smart to go around if it’s not right.” After that, we looked over our menus.
We told him he used good judgment to not continue landing once he’d overshot the approach, especially considering his new airplane and the short runway. We also asked if he noticed the multiple skid marks at the end of the runway, a sure sign of pilots who didn’t make the smart decision to go around and burned rubber to stop.
Too many accidents happen because pilots of all experience levels are concerned by possible embarrassment. They think other pilots are watching and judging, and they don’t want to seem foolish or incompetent. It’s this sort of mindset that makes a pilot pull a tight base-to-final turn even tighter after overshooting the runway, which can result in a deadly stall. Why not just go around? Too many times the pilot is thinking how everyone down below will see his botched landing and tongues will be wagging.
Guess what: No one cares about you or your wonky landing. I’m not going to regale the wife and kids at dinner about that “lame pilot who overshot the turn to final, what a mook.” Good pilots don’t care; we’ve all done it.
So, what is embarrassment and why did it evolve? What good does it do? Psychologists believe that embarrassment evolved to maintain social order, since by being embarrassed, people communicate to others that they recognize they’ve violated some social norm or rule. Embarrassment also serves as an apology and indicates that the person is bothered by the act and will try not to let it happen again. Therefore, embarrassment requires an audience; you don’t get embarrassed when you’re alone.
Additionally, psychological studies indicate that people are more embarrassed in front of their own social group and less with outsiders. Pilots are more likely to dread making a bad landing in front of other pilots than a bunch of accountants.
There’s good news for the embarrassed: Psychologists found that people who display greater outward signs of embarrassment were kinder and more generous, and others perceived them as likable and trustworthy, and wanted to associate with them. For pilots, we want to associate with those who abide by good flying etiquette and are considerate of others, our aviation social norms.
When we’ve failed, it’s difficult to just “fuhgeddaboudit,” as they say in “Joysey.” I remember a particularly gusty crosswind day when I made two go-arounds while a pilot friend watched and waited to give me a ride home. I knew in my brain that I did everything right; the wind was gusting so strongly that my Super Cub was at the limit of its crosswind component. I flew competently, was on speed and aim point, but the gusty winds just wouldn’t let the light aircraft touch down. The correct, smart, safe thing to do was to go around. I knew it and my pilot friend knew it, so why do I keep thinking about how I “botched” those landings? I did everything right.
"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots." —Frank A. ClarkFor those pilots who remember every substandard landing they’ve ever made, Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist and author, recommends, “Step back from your embarrassment and imagine how reliving the event over and over again in your mind can affect how you feel, the way in which you behave publicly, and your general mood. Likely it won’t be a positive effect. Hanging on to your embarrassing mistakes can diminish your self-esteem and how you think of yourself generally. You are not your mistakes, but, instead, your mistakes can help you learn and grow.”
Can you fuhgeddaboudit?
Mentally reviewing any flying incidents or accidents, real or imagined, minor to serious, can be helpful. However, dwelling on the past can also increase the pressure to perform and revive the embarrassment you felt. Don’t beat yourself up mentally for something you did, whether it was stumbling over a radio transmission or busting up an airplane on landing.
The flip side of being embarrassed by failure is the embarrassment of success.It takes practice and great effort to stop ruminating on an incident, but you’ll feel much better if you let the embarrassment go. Be conscious of when you start replaying events in your head; the quicker you notice it, the quicker you can cut it out. It’s best to assess what happened (just once) and move on to do something about it. If you’re a good pilot and bounced a single landing—fuhgeddaboudit! We’ve all dropped it on many times—but be mindful if it becomes a habit. If you’ve been bouncing landings for the past few flights, do something about it. Go see your instructor.
If it was just a stupid mistake, such as cutting through the edge of a Class B airspace, take your punishment, learn your lesson, and then fuhgeddaboudit. Don’t forget the lesson—which is to watch that airspace carefully—but leave the embarrassment you felt in the hangar. And, don’t be so critical that you forget to have fun.
Actually, thinking that you’ll just fuhgeddaboudit seldom works, but “getting back up on that horse” does. The best way to fuhgeddaboudit is by distracting your mind with something else. Get in the air as soon as possible and work on whatever aspect of your flying is bothering you, and make use of an instructor if necessary.
Plan a flight to some new place, make landings at unfamiliar airports, and replace the memory of a bad landing, or even an accident, with new, better, memories. If possible, plan and fly a long vacation flight, perhaps to somewhere in the Midwest. Oshkosh?
Do you care too much?
The flip side of worrying about what others think, is what do you think of yourself. Many people, even if they are highly successful, never feel satisfied. I remember one pilot saying, “I flared six inches too high on that landing.”
Really? You don’t think that you’re being a bit too hard on yourself?
Being overly self-critical, having too much drive for perfection, may cause a pilot to pull an overflown base-to-final turn into a deadly spin because he just can’t accept that he “blew it.” He has to be perfect and land on the first approach every time.
Of course, it’s important to aim high (metaphorically) and strive for perfection in all aspects of our flying, but if remembering when we fell short (metaphorically) adds more stress to what is already a stressful situation (flying an airplane), then it’s not helpful. We learn from our mistakes; don’t obsess over them.
The big picture
Overwhelming self-criticism may fixate your attention on unimportant details rather than the big picture. One example in flying may be focusing on the unimportant detail of making a landing. I know you’re thinking, how’s landing an unimportant detail? It’s kind of essential. Well, no. Making that particular landing is unimportant, certainly not important enough to risk a spin or bent landing gear. The big picture is getting yourself, your passengers, and aircraft on the ground safely, whether it takes two go-arounds or even a diversion to another airport with longer runways aligned into the wind.
Don’t be overly critical of minor shortcomings; acknowledge that you flew safely and got everyone home for dinner. That’s the big picture.
You’re the PIC, no one else
Yes, there are people from every walk of life, including pilots, who spend their days being a critic. As Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do.”
The only opinion that matters is yours, the pilot in command. You’ve proven to instructors and the FAA that you’re a capable pilot and ready to command your aircraft through the sky. You’re the only one who should determine your actions in a given situation. It certainly shouldn’t be affected by any perceived criticism from other pilots, or any possible embarrassment. You’re the one with your hands on the controls, and if it doesn’t feel right to you, then it isn’t.
For most of us, it’s easy to ignore those hangar pilots who spend more time on the FBO rocking chairs than in a cockpit. However, it can be much harder to remember who’s in command when a person in authority—someone we’ve been taught to listen and respond to, such as a controller—is watching our actions.
If a controller vectors you toward a booming, dark thunderstorm cloud, remember this word, “unable”—which shouldn’t be unable, it should be unwilling or are you out of your mind? That controller is not sitting next to you flying toward a boiling thundercloud. You are the PIC; don’t allow any pressure from a controller influence you to do something beyond your abilities.
If you really feel the need to explain to those ever-listening ears on the radio waves why you’re unable to follow an ATC instruction, respond with, “November One-Zero-Five Tango is unable to turn to 335 degrees because of a big, honkin’ black storm cell in that direction.” That will be useful information for the controller and other pilots in the area; they’ll thank you for it (it’s called a pirep—pilot report—and it’s a good thing to do).
Always remember, the federal aviation regulations state emphatically that “the pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” The regulation does not say that you must follow the controller’s instructions into a thunderstorm or consult the chin-waggers on the FBO porch about whether or not to continue a landing.
The FARs also state that “in an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.” Don’t let your inclination to follow the rules and obey the controller put you in a dangerous situation. You are in command, no one else.
The same regulation also states that you may be requested to “send a written report of that deviation to the FAA administrator.” Don’t allow the possibility of reporting to the FAA deter you from doing whatever is needed to complete a flight safely. I’d rather be writing paperwork on the ground after a flight than have an NTSB investigator writing up a report detailing how I flew into a thunderstorm and my airplane broke up.
Be a pro
Last summer I was reassured that airline pilots act like the professionals they are and don’t allow any perceived judgment of their abilities to affect their decision making. We were landing in a Boeing 737 at Denver International Airport (as passengers) and I was thinking as the nose pitched down abruptly on final approach that the aircraft was not stabilized. As we approached the end of the runway, the engines spooled up and the airplane went around. That’s not that unusual, but it was when the pilot told the passengers, “We weren’t really lined up right for landing so we’re going around and give it another try.” He wasn’t embarrassed that they had to go around; he didn’t blame it on the controllers or another aircraft on the runway. I remember the incident, but I don’t assign any blame. I’m just glad the crew did what was safest for everyone.
Criticism or good advice?
In an article about overcoming fear of embarrassment, columnist Robert Pagliarini wrote, “You cannot avoid criticism, but you can learn to live with it and not allow it to have such a grip on your life.” That’s a good idea, but he continued, “you can get to the point where you care so much about yourself or your idea that you’re not sidelined by a critical comment, negative review, or raised eyebrow.”
Pagliarini wrote that it is a good thing, encouraging people to be undeterred by the criticism of others.
Those Wright brothers, they’re crazy if they think they’ll ever get off the ground with that darn contraption.
However, dismissing criticism may not always be a good idea. If your flying elicits negative comments, perhaps you need to listen. You know whether or not that bouncy landing was a one-time event. If you have any doubt, get an unbiased opinion—a proper assessment of your skills from an instructor—and then work on whatever aspect of your flying raised concern.
Good criticism should have good intentions, whether from others or ourselves. It’s motivation to improve our skills and become better pilots. Remember, one bad landing does not make a pilot. Infamously, Neil Armstrong once overshot his runway by about 40 miles, but he was flying the hypersonic rocket-powered X–15 at the time. It happens.
Dennis K. Johnson is a freelance writer and pilot living in New York City.