At his retirement from the airlines in 1949, Hamilton “Ham” Lee (who would go on to fly past the age of one hundred) is credited with saying; “Don’t be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots”. Yes, in this case bold has a negative connotation. But just how do we get to be old ________(you fill in the flattering descriptor) pilots?
For those of use satisfied just to graduate to “old pilot”, I offer yet another technique to consider. I was taught early in my flying career, the 3-D’s; if a situation strikes you as Dumb, Different, or Dangerous, it should spike your awareness; there is probably a risk (known or unknown) which can be reduced. Ignored, something bad will surely follow. I am surprised how often this is misapplied by pilots (and people in general). Now, in my humble opinion, the 3-Ds can most generally be associated with certain age groups, yet they apply to all.
First, are situations or choices (often created) which are obviously “Dumb”, and leave us befuddled as to why anyone would do such things. These make for funny movies, but should be avoided in aviation. For those who would say “how do you know if something is dumb”? I offer this: there was a judge once who said, “I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it”. When faced with these situations, those most tempted to choose the wrong option are of course the young, and in their defense, inexperienced. We have all been teenagers, and anyone with kids understands, although they may be well intended, the young and inexperienced often make dumb decisions. Unfortunately, many experienced pilots have as well, to a lesser extent. I think most old pilots would admit, they have merely “survived” their dumb decisions from years ago.
Then there are the “Dangerous” situations. These are what most pilots train for, and when proper airmanship is applied, usually results in avoidance, minimized damage, or a non-event. Unfortunately, this is the bane of the middle-aged warriors amongst us. These are the twenty-something’s who have attained just enough experience to be dangerous. To their credit, they are fearless, brave, and daring. Unfortunately, to their detriment, they are fearless, brave, and daring. They may not intentionally “create” or “choose” a dumb decision, but faced with an unexpected danger, they are likely to “press the envelope” and/or get themselves into a sticky situation. Most assuredly, old pilots have experienced danger, but tend to recognize it quicker and relying on airmanship vice bravado, are typically able to “Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate” effectively.
Finally, casting a net over all age groups are the most subtle and sinister situations of all, those that are “Different”. It can be as innocent as a clearance change, or a last minute change of aircraft, weather, or change in destination. Something is different or changed, so be aware of all implications. If recognized and accounted for these can usually be handled with skill and airmanship. Left unnoticed, or ignored, the consequences can and often are dramatic (…I just assumed the new plane was full of fuel or the new destination weather was good…). Because these situations are age agnostic, all pilots (young and old) should beware, situational awareness is key. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or something just does not feel right, or is noticeably different; use good airmanship, fly the airplane, and be ready to take corrective action. I believe old pilots are beyond complacency, have a heightened awareness, and expect the unexpected.
So, I routinely ask myself if this situation is Dumb, Different, or Dangerous. If the answer is yes, and it’s dumb, I don’t do it. For the others, I approach them with caution and handle them accordingly, with a heightened state of awareness and readiness. I think this would be good advice for any pilot, but especially for those trying to become old pilots.