The Price of Experience?

Published on December 17, 2013 by in Essays, Interviews

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Experienced pilots in every generation have muttered the same clichés to the new guys: “You don’t know how good you have it, sonny. Back when I started flying up here …”

The implication is that pilots in the good old days were a superior breed who could see through fog and wrestle nasty crosswinds … while holding a gorgeous amorous passenger at arm’s length (or not, depending …).

Well, I also remember lots of airplanes crashing in the good old days. And lots of pilots and passengers getting hurt and killed. Maybe the old days weren’t so good after all.


When I showed up in Bethel, Alaska in 1995 (modern times to many bush pilots) it seemed like every month a plane slid off a runway, didn’t make it into the air because the load was too heavy, or had to be put down on the tundra because an engine crapped out.

Legal minimums are a 500-foot ceiling and two miles visibility, or a 1000-foot ceiling and one mile visibility. Back then, when the AWOS was calling 400 and one mile there were always 15 to 20 Cessna 207s waiting in line for the magic numbers. As soon as the official weather hit minimums everyone launched, regardless of the actual conditions, or what the weather was doing at the destination.

Yes, it was exciting. And fun, too. Type two fun.

But was it smart? Not really.

For the most part, times have changed. When I returned to Bethel two years ago, I was shocked to see that when the AWOS called 600 and two and a half, not a prop was turning. After a little while, a few planes taxied out to pick up their IFR clearances.

The newer crop of pilots are making better, more conservative weather calls. Perhaps not coincidentally, the overall accident rate for air taxis is down from where it was in the 1990s.

Working on Oddball Pilot, I’ve had the chance to talk to many air taxi owners and chief pilots over the last three years. It’s clear from talking to them that they aren’t interested in pushing pilots out the door anymore. There are many reasons for this change in attitude.

One is that the bypass mail system was revamped roughly seven years ago, and the new rules have led to fewer air taxi operators—and therefore less competition. There’s no longer the need to be the company that “gets in.” Another reason for the change in attitude is that owners have also gotten wiser. It doesn’t pay to wreck a plane—no matter how many times you get into a village.

Then there’s the human side. Most air taxi owners are good people who want to provide a good service to the communities. Many owners personally know the passengers that fly on their airplanes. When someone gets killed, it hits them hard.

Despite this newer attitude by owners and the new generation of pilots, accidents will always happen, no matter how careful we are. The question is: can we do better? I think the answer is yes. Strangely, it may require some of us more experienced pilots to catch up with the new generation.

Looking back at the last year, and even further back to the well-publicized Ted Stevens accident in 2010, there seems to be a dangerous new precedent. To me, it looks like many of the recent accidents have been happening in aircraft flown by older, more experienced pilots (in many cases much more experienced pilots). That’s a big change from what I saw in 1995, when a pilot’s first year was deemed the most hazardous.

When I left Alaska to be a climbing guide in 2008, I would have put myself firmly in the “can do/I can get in” category of pilots. But guiding changed my perception of a pilot’s duties.

As a guide, my goal was to summit a peak. But my job was to keep my clients alive, with fingers and toes intact. Those are two very different tasks. If I failed to do the first, then I failed as a guide. Events may have occurred that were beyond my control. I may have done as well as anyone could have asked. But if a client died or got injured, I would have failed to do my job.

In a similar way, as a pilot, my goal is to get my passengers where they are going. But my job is to keep them alive.

We should all remember that.

I recently had a chat with some pilot friends about these topics, and we recorded it. If you fly for a living—or want to—I think it’s a conversation worth listening to. It’s definitely a conversation worth continuing.

Have anything to contribute? Leave a comment, below.


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7 Responses to “The Price of Experience?”

  1. Brad says:

    Get killed, or your trusting passengers killed or just plain wrecking planes doesn’t do anybody any good. Good to respect the weather especially in mountainous northern country. I worked for a guy in Yukon territory last year ( where most of our hops were 25-40 mins long between strips). He had wrecked several planes himself and was telling me that when you find yourself flying up the yukon river and can’t see the opposite bank ( WTF?) , hug the riverbank you can see , program a GPS line for the safe distance from the bank on that side, turn 90 degrees fly until you see the other bank , to a quick 90 degree left turn before striking the bank , fly that side and program program another line in the GPS , now climb n that box until you are clear of the hills and go to Dawson and shoot the approach. I’m like dude , if I’m flying at 10′ and can’t see the other bank Iyou’ve f**ked up” The weather changes in the Yukon, but not that fast within 10 minutes ( the mid-point of that run). If you found yourself in that situation, you ( A) shouldn’t have departed to begin with , ( B) or if the wx was marginal when you departed, turned back when you still had a backdoor left open.

  2. Geordy Wilkinson says:

    Excellent article and interview. Like the saying goes, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”

  3. Bob says:

    I see it the opposite: the job is to get the pax to their destination while the goal is to manage the risks to make the job as safe as possible. Too often the incentives to get the job done overpower the incentives to do it safely. The results of not getting the job done are much more visible than getting it done safely. Your paycheck comes every two weeks while an accident may never happen…..

  4. Brian says:

    Excellent article and interview. It’s good to hear from active Alaskan pilots who are seeing the operators change their ways. I started reading “The Map Of My Dead Pilots” recently as a reality check on whether I want to pursue a flying job in Alaska or not. This interview paints a picture more along the lines of what I would like to see rather than the book which paints the picture from the mid 90’s which so far seems pretty dismal.

  5. driveway says:

    I have very detailed first hand knowledge of the Ted Steven’s crash. Likely was a medical event and not a old pilot pushing it. Are there a number of those guys still flying around, sure, but I just think that’s a bad example. That is my only point, that the Ted Steven’s crash shouldn’t be lumped into the category of old pilots trying to fly places they shouldn’t be.

    • Kathy says:

      Thanks so much for sharing this info. I’ve always been baffled by what could’ve happened on that flight. I’ve known of some iced up Caravans that got in big trouble, so I figured it was that, and people wanted to keep it quiet because the Caravan is relatively lucrative. But it was nowhere near cold enough.

  6. Kathy says:

    I can’t imagine BET being inactive when it’s 600 and 1 and ½. I got to BET in ’96. but I’ve never been scared in the air. I’ve had 2 close calls that were done deals by the time I realized what happened, but I did the right thing in both cases. One was over the Yukon and one was in DUT. I can’t imagine the owner/operators saying they don’t want you to go, either. It was all about getting there, and getting back, in one piece, being able to do that. I’ve lost many friends. There’s one very interesting thing in the tape: “unrealistic minimums” on the GPS approaches that are out there now. That really hints at the real truth. Once in BET, we were all on the ground, sitting around waiting for one of our co-workers to get back. He made it, and said he had landed with full power, no flaps. He was clearly shaken, but he went back out. We all went out and helped get the ice off his plane. There were at least 6″, all over. He wasn’t nuts. He was fine. But no one else would fly. Stuff happens. But it does make me sad to hear “the old days are over” and older pilots are starting to agree. Those crazy-sounding things can be done, and I’m proud, and very grateful, to have done them. Once I was out – I was the pilot they all were sitting around waiting for. But I was on the ground in Napaskiak, waiting for the wx. Often I feel like it was luck that I was able to make good decisions, in succession, everywhere I went, but it’s what I did. If they don’t run those specials – the Special VFR – out in BET anymore, no one is ever going to believe me!

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