The Difference Between a Good Pilot and a Hero Pilot

A montage of the pilot when she was a naval aviator, and the Southwest 737 with the failed engine.

The incident last week when a Southwest Airlines plane had an uncontained engine failure was massively exacerbated by the astonishing embellishment of having a passenger half sucked out of a window that shattered, before being pulled back into the plane, and then tragically dying of her injuries.

For once, it seemed to be ‘just like in the (disaster) movies’ – the trope of the airplane window being broken and everything in the plane then being sucked out in a deadly whirlwind of destruction.

This unfortunately caused the event to seem massively more dangerous (to everyone else) than it actually was, and the press erupted into a round of hyperbolic hero-worship, predictably anointing the pilot as a hero and deeming her a masterfully skilled pilot; virtue signaling that was clearly notched up further due to the pilot being a woman rather than man, and a former naval aviator.

May we disagree about both her heroism and her masterful skills (but we’ll concede her femininity!).

She was no more a hero than anyone else on the plane, although definitely more heroic than the flight attendants who burst into tears; not exactly a sight designed to calm the passengers at all!

Remember, we are brusquely told if we ever dare to complain about poor service from the flight attendants that they are primarily there for passenger safety, not for passenger service, and made to feel guilty that by asking for a refill of our glass of water, this in some way might cause the plane to uncontrollably fall out of the sky after we so sinfully distracted one of the flight attendants from their passenger safety tasking.

In general, we never want to have a hero pilot up front on our flights.  A good pilot – yes please.  But a hero pilot – no way!  The reason we feel this way illustrates why it is somewhere between unlikely and impossible for any commercial airline pilot ever to be a hero.

What exactly makes a person into a hero?  Does safely doing one’s job well, involving neither feats of physical strength nor mental prowess, and with no unusual risk, make one a hero?  We suggest not.

A hero is someone who voluntarily accepts optional and unnecessary personal risk to do something to help someone else.  It is very difficult for a hero to earn that title after acting for selfish reasons.  Heroes accept risk for unselfish reasons, putting others before themselves.  For example, a man who dives into the water to save a drowning child is a hero.

The passengers who left their seats and oxygen masks to go and attempt to rescue the lady who was sucked half out of the plane were definitely heroes, but somehow the press found their story to be less compelling.  And if the pilot was indeed a hero, ummm, wasn’t there a co-pilot seated just to her right, also being heroic?  What about him?

So what optional and unnecessary personal risk did the Southwest lady pilot accept to qualify for the accolade of hero?  What extra danger did she place herself in so as to save other people, possibly at the cost of her own life or wellbeing?

Didn’t she just simply stay in her seat, put on her oxygen mask, and then fly the plane as she has been taught and as she has practiced many times, and as per the checklists for exactly that sort of event?

What is heroic about that?  Nothing.  And, in doing her job as she has trained to do, isn’t she also protecting herself too?

As for the (non-pilots) who rushed to acclaim her brilliant flying skills, we don’t consider the flying skills required at all worthy of comment.  Losing an engine is not an altogether uncommon experience.  Sure, it is indeed happily much less common to have an “uncontained” engine failure where bits fly off the engine, break out of the engine housing, and then cause damage to other parts of the plane, potentially including control surfaces and landing gear hydraulics (which can be very nasty) and, much less commonly, but in this case, to the plane body and a window too.  But choosing to power down an engine is much more common, and most of the time, passengers might not even realize it has happened, other than for a change in the volume and tone of the engine sounds.

Sure, the ultimate two nightmares that most anxious passengers have are ‘being sucked out of the plane’ and ‘the wings falling off’, and this event definitely involved the former (and apparently the unfortunate lady victim was even wearing her seat belt at the time, too – I’m still astonished by how this happened) and had a measure of elevated risk for the possibility of the latter.  So, at a visceral level, it was a terrible experience – for the passenger who was killed, for the other passengers, and even for people reading about it in the safety of their own homes but imagining what it must have been like.

But, was it dangerous in the sense of continuing to fly and land the plane?  No, not at all.

Any 737 can maintain perfectly controlled flight for many hours on only one engine.  That is why “ETOPS” ratings now allow twin-engined planes to fly as much as 5 1/2 hours away from the nearest emergency landing field, because twin-engined planes fly just fine on one engine.  Sure, they fly a bit slower, they descend to a slightly lower altitude, and they burn a lot more fuel, but as long as the other engine doesn’t also fail, or the fuel run out, they’re in a perfectly safe and sustainable flight mode that requires neither heroics nor uncommon skill on the pilot’s part.  Adjust the rudder trim a bit, and get on with the job.  End of story.

Flying a plane which lost both engines at an early stage of its initial climb, and landing it in the Hudson River – that truly was some of the greatest flying imaginable, and something that pilots used to never be required to practice.  However, while requiring astonishing skill, I don’t see any heroism in that, either, just a pilot doing what had to be done so he too could go home that evening after work.

As for a one-engine landing subsequent to the other engine failing at cruise altitude?  Yawn.  That’s Flying 101.  Sure, scary for the passengers, particularly with the flight attendants in tears.  But for the pilots, no big deal.

Remembering the definition of hero – someone who voluntarily accepts optional extra personal risk – and remembering that in 99% of airplane problems, a risk to the pilot is the same as a risk to the passengers, we don’t want hero pilots.  We want cowardly pilots, ones who avoid any and all risks, to both them and their passengers.

As the saying goes, there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between a Good Pilot and a Hero Pilot”

  1. Greetings David,
    I enjoyed reading your 4/27 report and have a few comments.
    1. If Virgin Atlantic still flies its 747 to SEA, I’d wait for a break in the fare. I have NO interest in riding in a two engine commercial airline across the Atlantic or Pacific. That said, did you investigate hitching a ride or chartering a bizjet? Yes, I know that’s two engines, but at least I don’t put up with screaming kids, surly cabin staff, other pax with BO, or the flu in the recirculating cabin air.
    2. Agreed about the engine failure on the 737. The crew did what what was expected; having been trained for the problem. No heroics here. Just another example of the dishonest media hyping a non-issue.
    3. BA is an octopus having a long history of buying airlines to solidify their semi monopoly. I don’t fault their business acumen, I just don’t like the resultant bad service and attitude from BA staff. If Norwegian sells, routes will disappear as BA again attempts to remove competition.
    4. I won’t ride on ANY third world airline that does not have American, British, or German pilots on staff. NO exceptions. Airbus designs airliners that any third world pilot can safely fly …… until something goes wrong that is not covered in their memorized flight manual. AF447 is a prime example.
    5. Daddy’s delinquent daughters have certainly revealed the lack of integrity that in previous generations was so famous to orientals. In another era, Daddy would have immediately resigned in disgrace over the first incident or maybe even seppuku to regain his honor.

    1. Hi

      Thanks for your comments. Some in reply, same numbering system.

      1. Of Virgin Atlantic’s 45 planes, it still has 8 747 planes, but they are now in a ‘high density leisure configuration’ and don’t fly to the US. It also has 7 A340 planes. The SEA flights are on 787s.

      Alas, bizjet costs are out of my league. By an order of magnitude.

      4. You’d not fly on a plane piloted by Aussies or Kiwis? That’s a shame.

  2. John Scott Mgebroff


    You are exactly correct. The term “hero” is thrown around to casually today by people who don’t even know the definition. Thanks for providing a definition for your uninformed readers. Another example: a. teacher who throws her body between a shooter and a student is a real hero.

    1. Hi, Scott

      Thanks for your comments. I like to think most Travel Insiders are probably well informed rather than uninformed!

      But your point is valid, and I totally agree about your teacher example.

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