Expert Commentary

Problem Personalities in the Air

What if you could predict who would most likely crack up an airplane? Whether it is a simple runway overrun, an airframe overstress, or ultimately a controlled flight into terrain, the upshot is this: in retrospect, practically all accidents these days are avoidable.

Corporate Aviation
February 2016

The hard reality of the times and culture we live in is that we tend to struggle to ask for help. Sure, we have a Safety Measurement System (SMS), wellness programs, etc., but there's no denying that we've all flown with people in a fair bit of pain, whether they are inflicting or receiving it. Imagine a way to see and deal with such problems before they affect actual, not-simulated operations.

The short answer is that we need to know people. In this vein, I was thinking of my friend and mentor Mike Heaton (NH61—Chester, NH), who has dealt with people of all stripes in safety-sensitive areas. A question I once posed to Mike was simply, "How do you manage people problems?" After years with trucks, planes, and even trains, his answer was simple and relevant—"Adam … are there any other problems?"

When operating high performance aircraft, whether they are personally flown turboprop aircraft, like a King Air B200, or something a bit more expensive that requires a type rating, like a Phenom 300 or Cessna Citation CJ 4, the fact is that the pilot will be asked to travel to Dallas, Morristown, or Montreal for some training. The instructors are well paid to teach flying techniques. Their number one priority is to teach standard operating procedures and satisfy the requirements of a checkride. They don't get paid to improve pilots' attitudes or demeanors. Yet, poor personal relations in the cockpit can lead to accidents.

How the Horsemen Ride

In the world of managing relationships, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" approach to couples therapy was developed by Dr. John Gottman as a way to help identify and deal with problems with people and personnel. These four indicators can be key to understanding best practices for your flight deck (as well as your other business and personal relationships).

The four horsemen—criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt1 —historically have been tacit but unspoken points of any crew resource management (CRM) analysis of a crew pairing. They can also be used by human resource professionals to see if a specific crew member is perhaps facing more stress than usual and needs more support than he or she is accustomed to asking for.

While flying professionals aren't married (usually) or sharing a bed (even rarer), they must manage the flight deck like a married couple, which is why Dr. Gottman's research is so applicable. Sure, the long legs can be boring and routine, but the way we communicate (both verbally and nonverbally) can be the difference between a routine flight and an incident or, worse yet, an accident.


How you relay feedback is everything in any relationship. Dale Carnegie made this most famous in his book How To Win Friends and Influence People. Decades of human interaction analysis reveals that criticism never works as intended.

There is no value in sputtering stuff that can be construed as demoralizing. If you play the role of instructor, you want the student to actively think about better practices, not resenting, avoiding, or tuning out what you just said. Avoid phrases such as "you always..." or "what's wrong with you?" Anything that puts the problem inside the body of the receiver will trigger a negative response when Pilot B is around Pilot A … especially if Pilot A has a tendency to dispense criticism in such a personal fashion.


When under attack, a natural response is to defend oneself. The problem with defensiveness is that it prevents the receiver from listening to what the other is saying. No autopilot, in the history of flight, has denied, questioned, or ignored a human entry. Autopilots also offer a color (for older ones, a light) indicator to show that they are acknowledging the human's request.

Unfortunately, humans aren't always so accommodating. If Pilot B suggests that a quick peek at the scoreboard (where the automation status and indicators live) might show the problem, the reaction could go either way. A positive response comes from colleagues who acknowledge they need to form better habits (e.g., "Ah, of course, I hit 'set' but not 'engage.' Thanks."). A negative response, though, could be spoken (e.g., "I did that already. Why are you hassling me?") or unspoken (e.g., a shrug or dismissal).

What is the root of this defensiveness? This is the question to directly address to build better practices in cockpit communication.


Typically, if pilots are stonewalling, it is because they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm themselves due to another cockpit member's probing/attacks. Mitigate stonewalling by communicating—suggest it might be best to discuss the situation later, preferably on the ground. The key here is to diffuse the tension by recognizing that (a) it is happening, and (b) it is okay, so long as the situation is discussed later, with a key caveat being that "later" doesn't jeopardize the flight.


The most serious horseman, contempt implies that Pilot A sees very little value in Pilot B's opinions, insight, thoughts, feelings, and probably flying ability as well. Rolling of the eyes, sneering, or any expression that trivializes another is indicative of contempt. Contempt is toxic, since it implies "I'm on higher ground than you," and any time someone up front is thinking that way, you're going to have problems.

A rotating door of first officers could be a clue, or maybe just an emotionally drained first officer hanging in there quietly. Reducing, repairing, and eliminating contemptuous exchanges is the only way to a truly risk-free environment.


The best flight department audits or small department assessments should provide some way to measure the presence of any of the above horsemen. Crew resource management (CRM), at the end of the day, is painfully simple when looked at objectively. Pilots, however, like the rest of us, can become emotional when either small or large decisions are being made, especially without their input.

Compound these horsemen with a rapidly evolving technological landscape and the increased gulf between visceral basic flying and near complete automation, and it is possible to see how alienation between crew members can impair the safe flight of aircraft.

If best practices, wellness, and human factors interest you as much as they interest me, don't hesitate to contact me via email at , or text me at (617) 901–3245. If you believe you can never stop learning about safety, give us a shout.

1The Gottman Relationship Blog; The Four Horsemen, blog entries by Ellie Lisitsa (

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