Ethics and aviation: dilemmas frequently arise

Donald Anders Talleur


A lot of talk about ethics in aviation has surfaced over the last few years. That’s not to say that it wasn’t around prior to that, but perhaps we’re ready to more formally define those things that pilots have been doing “right” all along.

Naturally, any good definition tells us what a word means, but sometimes it’s also important to define what it doesn’t mean. After all, it’s sometimes difficult to list out all the “right” things to do in such a way that entirely precludes any “wrong” things from slipping in daily practice.

In general though, many agree that the basic philosophy behind aviation ethics boils down to doing the right thing when no one is looking.

I know what your thinking, and this philosophy doesn’t mean, if someone is looking that it’s ok to do the wrong thing!

Ethics is more than simply doing the right thing however. It’s also about promoting the correct piloting philosophy to those around us; other pilots for example. This month I’ll try to explain what I think aviation ethics is and how to live up its intent.

Let’s start with an example: I once knew a pilot who logged his instrument currency requirements (holds and approaches within the previous six months) by flying his airplane alone in VFR conditions. One day I inquired as to how he went about doing this and his reply was that he simply didn’t look out the window during the flight (this is a good spot in the story to note that I was at least happy to hear that he wasn’t wearing a hood while solo!).

Regardless of the whether this way of logging proficiency was legal (which it isn’t) and was practical (which it’s probably not due to peripheral cues that are still available for “cheating”), it wasn’t the ethical way to do it.

This pilot was cheating himself out of decent instrument experience as well as potentially endangering others by not scanning for traffic in visual conditions. This pilot did not do the right thing while no one was looking! Part of any code of ethics must include a provision that pilots maintain their flight proficiency by following the rules and to do so in a manner consistent with safety.

Sometimes we think we are doing the right thing during a flight, but there remains some doubt in our minds. For example, a story was related to me about a pilot, after experiencing a mag-check that was slightly out of tolerance, who had decided to continue to his destination. Although he wasn’t positive about the cause of the problem, he figured that whatever it was would not likely become a serious issue prior to getting home, so he decided to forgo having a mechanic check it out.

Was this the ethical thing to do? Well, certainly it wasn’t the safe thing to do, so if we are supposed to be promoting safety in aviation then it wasn’t the ethical thing to do! However, the pilot who told me this story was using it as an example of what not to do. He explained that sometimes certain pressures try to trump good judgment and that we need to be careful to think about the possible ramifications of our actions.

This pilot showed that he understood aviation ethics. On the other hand, considering our pilot in the story, you’ve got to worry a little about the pilot who is always in a hurry; the ones who don’t have time to get problems checked out properly.

Ethical dilemmas frequently come up in aviation. Sometimes we deal with them directly during flight, and sometimes we become indirectly involved when observing ethical misconduct from a distance. How we deal with either can be quite different.

In flight, we are the ones in direct control of our ethical conduct. We frequently deal with problems of an ethical nature; such as making a decision to tell air traffic control there is no icing in the clouds, when there really is. One can imagine a pilot lying about this because he is flying an aircraft not approved for flight into ice.

Often times, the fear of getting in trouble leads us into this type of unethical behavior. But in reality, we are actually less likely to get into trouble because of the lie than to get into trouble because a situation develops in flight that is beyond our control. The ethical approach to take during flight is to inform those people in a position to help of problems as they begin to develop, not as they reach a climax.

Ethical dilemmas that are a result of something we observe another pilot doing are perhaps the trickiest to deal with. One case in point: consider witnessing a pilot do something that is downright dangerous. If you have the opportunity to call him or her on it, should you? That’s a tricky question.

Personally, one aspect of this I worry about it that if that numskull is dumb enough to do what I just saw him doing, maybe he’s dumb enough to try an take a swing at me for calling him on it.Confronting the “numskull” is a judgment call and it’s one I can’t provide any clear guidance on.

Anyway, ethically speaking, it’s our job as ethical pilots when observing unsafe behavior to stand up and do something about it. Usually this means making a simple remark to the pilot along the lines of “that didn’t look very safe, were you experiencing some sort of problem…” or something to that effect.

However you decide to confront the pilot, plan to do it in private. If you think you need an audience to confront someone safely, then it’s probably best to handle the problem through official channels.

I did the later once by reporting something I saw to the FBO operator, who happened to be the boss of the person flying the airplane in question.

Don’t think for a second that the law will catch up with someone who is breaking flight regulations. The people who police pilots are in no position to monitor even a fraction of what goes on from day to day. It’s true that they do catch people in the process of breaking the rules once and a while, but many times it takes an accident or incident for the wrong-doing to come to light.

Sometimes those accidents take innocent bystanders with them! I believe it is for these reasons that we need to act when we witness a pilot engaged in unsafe or illegal behavior.

One promoter of aviation ethics is a firm believer that the types of pilots one hangs out with has a great deal of influence on the level of ethical conduct engaged in by that pilot. Although I’m not sure the research is entirely conclusive, there seems to be an indication that attitudes about risk taking are largely influenced by peers.

We would hope that pilots are better than the average “Joe on the street” at not being talked into taking unnecessary risks, but there is evidence that many of those “Joes” are also pilots. Associating with the right kinds of pilots is not always easy, but one way to tell if you’ve associated with the wrong bunch is by watching their behavior. For starters, pilots who blame everyone and everything else for their performance are ones to avoid. Pilots who brag about the courageous fetes of flying probably took on risks that they were simply lucky to live through.

Although it may be easy to admire a pilot who defied the odds, ethical code should mandate that we do not promote this sort of behavior. Some of the best pilots to hang out with are those who regularly engage in flying, instructional activities, skill enhancement, and may also be part of a larger commercial flight or instruction organization.

Being part of a group that flies for a living generally means having pilots with regular interaction, and those pilots who don’t make the grade, as generally necessary for the company’s survival, are less likely to be employed for any extended length of time. Having experienced both general aviation and being employed by my state’s largest flight school I can say with certainty, that it’s much easier to spot the bad apples when you have the full range of quality to compare them to.

Small weekend pilot groups limit the viability of making such a comparison. This doesn’t mean that if you’re one of those weekend pilot types that you should give it up however. Rather, consider getting some additional exposure to pilots/instructors outside of your local group to do a spot check on your skills once and a while. We rotate yearly proficiency instructor assignments within my organization for that very reason.

An ethical code of conduct for aviation isn’t about running a checklist to be sure that you’ve done everything right. It is more about living a philosophy that promotes the concepts I’ve discussed above, and probably ones I’ve missed entirely.

Proper ethics does not preclude the possibility of an accident or incident, but it acts as process that mitigates risk and lessens the potential for that accident or incident. Inevitably, even if something does go wrong, it may boil down to friends saying, “I have no idea how that could have happened,” instead of them saying, “Well it was just a matter of time!”

This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 180 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.