I’ve been trying to figure out how the five personality traits recognised by psychologists affect the safety and harmony of a flight. 

Here they are again. 

  • Conscientiousness 
  • Agreeableness 
  • Neuroticism 
  • Openness to experience  
  • Extraversion 

You have three main lines of defense against them: 

  • Brief them properly. 
  • Treat them like talking cargo. 
  • Never trust the buggers. 

Unfortunately at the extremes of some of the personality traits we can find some seriously dangerous individuals. Neuroticism is the worst. 

The sad story of Daft Donnie 

If you fly long enough you will find yourself really scared in an aeroplane. It happened to me when I was the big cheese at 43 Air School. 

The cause of the trouble was a guy who I will call Donnie so as not to upset his friends and family. He was a big, tanned, tough outdoors sort of guy from Zim who had served in the bush war. He seemed a hell of a nice guy, I liked him from the start. He had recently settled in South Africa and had come to 43 to do his PPL training. 

The first hint of trouble was when Paul Leaker, my very sharp ground-school lecturer, told me that Donnie had raised his hand during a PPL Nav lecture. Paul asked Donnie what he wanted, thinking it would be a question about navigation. Nope. Donnie said the most extraordinary thing. He said, “I’m not here.” 

Paul, somewhat taken aback, asked Donnie what he meant, to which Donnie simply repeated, “I’m not here.” 

“Hmmmmm, okay” said Paul, a little uncertainly, and carried on with the lecture. 

Ten minutes later Donnie again raised his hand, and when he had Paul’s attention, said, “Okay I am back again now.” 

When Paul told me about this my first instinct was that it was probably meant to be a joke. But Paul assured me that it was deadly serious. 

The next flag was when Donnie’s female instructor told me didn’t want to fly with him. She said she was scared of him. It wasn’t a male/female thing. He wasn’t molesting her. She just said he was a nervous pupe and she was scared that he might take the controls and overpower her – particularly during stalls and recoveries. 

Now, I’ve found people are only nervous in an aeroplane if they don’t understand what’s going on. She was a newish instructor and I suspected she was simply not briefing him properly. I said I would fly with him. 

This turned into the most scary decision I ever made. I briefed the guy very carefully on the ground and took particular care to describe the air exercise, including exactly what the stall would feel like – the whole deal. 

We climb to 4000’ over Port Alfred. I remind Donnie of the briefing and start doing the HASELLL checks. Suddenly he rests a big hairy hand on my shoulder, looks me in the eye and says, “So if I do it wrong I could kill us both – right?” 

Something in his tone said “This guy is bonkers and he’s deadly serious. If I do or say anything he doesn’t like he’ll strip a cog.” 

What makes it really scary is that he is mad – but he’s not stupid. If he sees I am scared he’ll probably escalate his cat and mouse game. I can see the threat in his eyes. I need to break the tension and change the dynamic. I have to get him focused on something else immediately. I know that if I rock his boat the accident investigators will never find out why we dived into the ground. It was bloody terrifying. 

All I can come up with is a simulated forced landing. I haul the throttle back, tell him to find a field and show me what he could do. We are within easy gliding distance of the airfield and he judges it well. 

“If a pupil freezes on the controls you need a weapon” 

Afterwards I realise I need a better strategy for myself and for my instructors. If a pupil goes potty or freezes on the controls you need a weapon. And you actually have a good one – the fire extinguisher under your seat, if you can only remember how to unclip it and get it out smoothly and discreetly.  

Anyhow back to Donnie. I know we can’t fly with him again and I must give him a reason, it’s obviously not enough to say we think he is dangerously mad. I set up a meeting in my office with Donnie, his wife, Paul Leaker, myself and Steve Goodrick – my CFI. 

As we sit down Donnie takes charge. “Okay guys, what language shall we speak?” he asks. I say, “Donnie, we are all English speaking so…..”  

He cuts me off. “No, man should we speak moon language or computer language or what?” 

It’s an extremely painful business. I tell Donnie we were worried about his mental state and reminded him of some of the peculiar things he has done. After a lot of resistance he agrees to see an aviation shrink in PE. 

After the meeting I phoned the shrink – told him the problem and set up the appointment. A few days later he called back to say that under no circumstances should Donnie fly. He had already contacted CAA and the medical mob and Donnie’s medical had been cancelled. 

C182 makes a great jumpplane for parachuting.

Eighteen months later I see from my office window Deon Kraidy’s Cessna 182 taxi in to the fuel pumps. Deon has a parachute jumping business 30 miles away in Grahamstown. As I watch, who should get out of the aeoplane? Not Deon, no – it’s Mad Donnie.  

I phone Deon and ask if he knows that Donnie is flying his aeroplane, and if he knows he cannot have a valid pilot license because he has lost his medical on account of pottyness. And the PE shrink had explained that he could never get it back. Deon knows nothing about this. Donnie works for him as a drop-pilot and has never appeared loopy. 

“Donnie went on to set fire to two of Deon’s aeroplanes, beat up his wife and then take his own life” 

Unfortunately, over the next year or so Donnie went on to set fire to two of Deon’s aeroplanes, beat up his wife and then take his own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. 

I have to say that I liked Donnie, he was well brought up, bright and interesting. Most of the time he seemed totally normal.  I guess he was suffering from some sort of PTSD as a result of his time in the bush war. 

The sad story of Ken Teubes 

Ken, was also a hell of a nice guy. He was one of these people who always dressed immaculately and did everything properly – just the sort of pilot we should all aim to be. Very high on conscientiousness and agreeableness 

He was flying a Twin Comanche on a daytime charter from Wonderboom to Bloemfontein in a cloudless sky at flight level 85. This put him a good 4000’ AGL. He had one passenger, a guy named Roderick who was the boss of a big motor company called Roderick and Brook (or it may have been Roderick and Botha). 

A Freestate farmer, the only witness, said he saw the aircraft put its nose down vertically and dive into the ground.  

After an accident, usually not much wreckage exists.

The board of enquiry were mystified. They had little more than a hole in the ground, but measuring the distance between tiny fragments of red glass on one side of the hole, and equally tiny fragments of green glass on the other side told them that the wings were still attached on impact. 

This was at a time when there was an AD on Twin Comanche windscreens as small cracks were inclined to develop around the edges. It was concluded that the windscreen had probably broken and smashed into Ken’s face and incapacitated him. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story because a year later Angus McKenzie, whom I knew well because he also flew for Placo, had a windscreen failure when he flew into some hail. The interesting thing was that the windscreen didn’t smack him in the face. In fact it caused no damage. It seems the pressure in the cabin prevented anything dramatic from happening, and Angus flew back to base without a problem. 

This obviously meant that the Ken Teubes finding was wrong, so the DCA had to revise their finding on that accident. The short story is that Mr Roderick was off the end of the neuroticism scale. It seems he was having financial and domestic troubles and decided to end it all by pushing on the stick and taking poor Ken with him. 

Andreas Lubitz, the 28 year old copilot on the Germanwings A320.

The unbelievable story of Andreas Lubitz 

Remember him? – he was the 28 year old copilot on the A-320 Germanwings flight 4U-9525. He did the same in far grander style – killing 150 people. What is really scary is that he had a history of nuttiness but had apparently been able to conceal this from both his friends and his employer. 

He had visited a number of shrinks, but had either failed to tell them he was an airline pilot, or the shrinks had viewed his condition as classified under patient confidentiality. He had even been diagnosed as suicidal. 

Friends and neighbours described him as a “quiet” but “fun” character, who enjoyed his job.  

After the disaster, investigators found a very different side to his character. Police found torn-up sick notes in his home, including one covering the day of the crash.  

His friends claimed that he appeared to be in good spirits. But the final report by French investigators found he had suffered from a psychiatric condition and had been taking medication before the crash. Fearing he was losing his vision, he had hidden the evidence from his employer. 

According to Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, Lubitz had a break in training about six years previously, lasting several months. Spohr refused to explain the reason for this gap but said he had been reassessed and Lubitz had resumed his studies.  

The report confirmed the break was caused by medical problems. He suffered a serious depressive episodes during his training, and went on to receive treatment for a year and a half. During that time, he considered suicide but was eventually declared fit to fly. 

His doctor reported that he needed special regular inspections, and his medicals were valid for only one year at a time. A note to this effect was added to his file as well as to his pilot’s licence. 

The British newspaper, the Express reported that Lubitz had seen 41 doctors in the previous five years. He was suffering from depression and loss of vision and feared he would lose his job. He was on the highest permissible dose of the antidepressant drug Mirtazapine, which also induces sleep. In an email to his doctor he said, “The maximum sleep stint is two hours per night (but now rarely achieved because I’m scared I will go blind.)”  

In civil proceedings against Germanwings and the Lufthansa flying school, the plaintiffs are demanding more compensation than the airline has already paid out. They claim that both companies failed to prevent the crash by adequately supervising the co-pilot’s medical condition.  

I still find it hard to believe that none of these shrinks had the guts to break ranks and report directly to the airline. 

The massively spread out wreckage of the Germanwings crash that impacted in a power dive.

A very green instructor 

I learned to distrust pax within half an hour of becoming an instructor. I allowed one to demolish my Tiger while I was sitting in it. Here’s what happened. 

The tyres on my aircraft were in a sad state with cracked walls and canvas showing, and it was almost impossible to find new ones. Then someone suggested I try Hennie, who owned a factory at Wonderboom that made electrical switchboards. 

Hennie had been a wartime pilot who trained on Tigers and eventually wound up flying Spitfires. Lying in the back of his factory, He had two brand new tyres for my aircraft. Better still he was happy to give them to me in exchange for a ride in my aeroplane – what a bargain. 

The day came for me to take him flying. It was a brilliant day. DCA represented by the famous Barry Radley had just tested me for my initial instructor rating. When I say tested, I use the term in its broadest possible meaning. 

The then Division of Civil Aviation s examinar Barry Radley.

I took off on runway 11, turned out left, climbed to 3000’agl and pattered him through a two and a half turn spin as directed by the great man. “No no no, you have got to recover more accurately than that.” Was his comment. “Let me show you what I mean. You don’t mind if I warm up with some aerobatics first?” 

Well that was the last time I touched the controls. Barry played aerobatics for half an hour, took us back, landed, and taxied in. We stopped next to the wooden hut that passed as a control tower.  

As we climbed out he looked me in the eye, shook my hand and said, “Well done my boy. You are now officially a flying instructor.” He signed the paperwork in the little control tower hut and sent me on my way. 

Perhaps half an hour later he was able to witness the result of his foolishness. While he and Schalk Barnard, the ATC, looked on in horror I splattered my aeroplane along 11, shedding wings and struts and wires as we went. Here’s how it came about: 

I had sought out Hennie of the tyres, strapped him in the back seat and taxied out to take him for the promised flight. 

We lined up and I was about to open the taps when it occurred to me that maybe he might like to do the takeoff. Hell, he was a much more experienced pilot than I was. So I sat in the front with my arms folded and watched in amazement as the disk of the prop got smaller. 

I was fast asleep and didn’t realize that Hennie had raised the tail too high and the prop was thrashing itself to death on the ground. 

Eventually we stood on our nose, rotated 90 degrees and cartwheeled down the runway leaving much of the aeroplane behind as we went. 

Barry and Schalk were the first on the scene – they dragged us out of the wreckage, dusted us down and helped us hobble the tower, where the first-aid kit lived. 

“Are you okay?” Barry asked me. 

“Yep, I think so.” 

“Well I am very sorry to hear that,” was his only reply. 

So much for the spirit of camaraderie that one expects to see amongst us flyers. Had a competent shrink been around to add his opinion he would have described me as low on conscientiousness and high on agreeableness – not a good combination for pilots. 

It was entirely my fault. I should have discussed the takeoff with Hennie first, and been ready to sort out any problems. I broke two of my own rules: 

Brief them properly 

Never trust the buggers. 

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