When The Rules Don’t Apply

I’ve taught hundreds of pilots in airplanes and simulators and, to my horror, one of my students died flying his airplane.

Max (not his real name) was a rancher from the West, and owned a nice, turbocharged Beech Bonanza. Many years ago his insurance company decided they’d better manage the risk of insuring this pilot by requiring that he attend the factory-authorized training for the type. At the time, I ran that program…

Max Didn’t Hold An Instrument Rating, but he did fly his Bonanza on business “all the time.” Well equipped, the Beech had a three-axis autopilot, and Max wasn’t afraid to use it. In fact, as Max volunteered to me (very early in the week), he had no qualms about letting the autopilot get him to his destination even if the weather was worse than he was qualified to tackle. On the way to Wichita for training, Max almost boasted, he’d started out VFR on top of a cloud deck that gradually filled in to overcast, then began to increase in altitude. With a turbocharged engine and on-board oxygen, Max trimmed his autopilot for a slight climb to keep above the cloud tops. As Max climbed above the 18,000 foot floor of Class A airspace (above which all airplanes in the U.S. must be on an Instrument Flight Plan and flown by an instrument rated, current pilot), Max turned off his transponder to avoid transmitting his illegal actions to the ground. Talking to no one, violating Class A airspace, Max eventually hit 21,000 feet to remain in clear air.

Trouble Was, There Was No Break In The Overcast. Did Max turn around and fly home? Did he call Air Traffic Control, confess his dilemma, and negotiate a safe passage to the ground (though facing probable enforcement action if he did)? No, Max chose a third alternative: With his transponder still off, and transmitter still silent, Max used his autopilot to descend through over 15,000 feet of clouds along fairly busy airways before he broke out a few thousand feet above ground. As if nothing happened, he called Approach and flew a visual approach to an otherwise “normal” landing.

What Amazed Me Was That Max Told This All With Relatively Little Emotion, as if it was perfectly acceptable and, frankly, no big deal. Even more amazing, he related his story to me and other students in the class within a couple hours of meeting any of us. I spoke with Max privately about the hazard he presented to himself and others, but after a point what are you going to do? Max obtained a “VFR completion” from the training and flew home in great, visual weather. A couple years later, Max flew his Bonanza into a mountainside, autopilot engaged, in instrument meteorological conditions. Ironically, his passing came after he scheduled to earn his instrument rating. Unfortunately, fate has no respect for tomorrow’s good intentions.

Some time later I was the guest of a former Air Force fighter pilot who flew a cabin-class twin. Another passenger called “shotgun” for the copilot seat on the trip, so I sat in the back. There was a scattered cloud layer about 1500 feet above the ground, with layers above. The pilot, with his military history, was tremendously qualified to fly “on instruments” and the airplane was extremely well equipped. There was a twist, however. Our destination airport was scheduled to shut down for a few hours that afternoon.

Unfortunately, the pilot had an important meeting scheduled before the airport would open back up.

We Were Late Getting To The Departure Airport and, not wanting to be “shut out” of the destination, the pilot chose to cut corners by flying under Visual Flight Rules. We took off and popped up between the lower clouds, soon leveling at 9500 feet in smooth air. I skimmed a newspaper and watched the clouds streak past underneath. Unfortunately, the scattered lower layer was becoming broken, then nearly overcast, and its tops were rising although they did not reach our altitude. We neared the destination, less than 20 minutes to go before the field closed… but still about 15 minutes out.

The Pilot Was Talking To Approach Control, But Apparently They Were Playing A Game of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about flight conditions. It would have been extremely easy for the instrument-rated pilot to simply ask for a clearance to descend through the clouds under IFR. Instead, he tried to weave his way through the very few breaks in the clouds, regularly busting into IMC for a minute or two — or longer — during the descent. Eventually we broke out; the pilot expedited his approach and got in just before the field closed. Sure, Approach was keeping instrument traffic away from us (since we were “participating” in radar services as a supposedly VFR airplane), but why flaunt the rules and unnecessarily increase the risk when an instrument clearance would have been so easy to obtain?


  • THE RULES DON’T APPLY TO ME: We’re all under pressure; we all have a schedule to meet. Pilots want to get the best use of their airplanes, to use their expensive equipment to the limits of their capabilities. Admittedly, Max seemed much less safe than the Air Force veteran, but both pilots broke the rules. Both fell into the trap of thinking that the rules did not apply to them. Every time they flaunted authority and did what they pleased… and got to where they wanted to go… without pain or punishment, they were rewarded for taking unnecessary risk. There are plenty of pilots in line to meet Max, and on any given day you have the opportunity to be one of them.
  • ANTI-AUTHORITY PILOTS: The Federal Aviation Authority tells us that defying authority is one of the “five hazardous attitudes” of pilots. In reality, none of us would fly at all if something inside us didn’t buck convention — authority figures and “common sense” tell us that flying is foolhardy and dangerous. In some ways, only by fighting “authority” did we wind up in a trainer in the first place.

Given that we all have a bit of the rebel in us, we must recognize that this essential pilot trait can urge us into real danger if we let it. Think of the Federal Aviation Regulations as your conscience. Most pilots know when they’re pushing the rules (even Max knew to turn off his transponder to avoid getting “caught” by the Feds — perhaps there are more watchful eyes).

The trick is to have the discipline to listen to that inner voice, and act immediately to get back within the envelope of acceptable risk.

BOTTOM LINE: Very, very few of us are flying in combat. We therefore have almost total control over whether we might get killed in airplanes. No one should have to die in pursuit of this tremendous sport, these fabulous freedoms. The rules do apply to us all. Know your limits, respect that the rules are part of them, and stay inside the envelope. Follow your conscience, and fly safely.

Editor’s Note: We’re all prone to some poor judgement every now and then and if you — or someone you know — seems more prone than most, please see also:

Paul A. Craig’s ‘Why do bad things happen to good pilots?’


Jeff Pardo’s ‘…And Bold Pilots’

Please pass your favorite along, it’s not always that a little reading can add years to a life.