When Others Take Charge

Sometimes in life it is important to stamp your authority on proceedings. All too often others will try to take charge despite having less knowledge than you and the result at best will be that the conclusion will be other than that which you originally intended. A classic example of this is the pressure regularly placed upon pilots by prospective passengers, friends, family and just about anyone else when loading an aircraft at a small airfield.

Picture the scene – I’m in Northern France having attended a wedding. My aircraft is at the local airport – actually quite a large airport, so there’s no runway length issues. I have a Piper Cherokee with 150 horses behind the propeller. With the tanks 2/3rd full I have 4 hours of flying at max-take-off weight. My target airfield in Essex is two and a half hours, possibly three away based on the forecast winds. So when a family member asks that I take some additional cargo on board my aircraft (which clearly isn’t full because you can see daylight through the windows!) I refuse as I know that we are already very close to max-take-off weight. Cue some pointed comments about my willingness to be a true family member and/or a human being 😦 I stick to my guns – no, I’m not taking the potted plant on board (God, how much does that thing weigh!) In the end they give up whilst cursing me as uncooperative.

We depart and climb in the manner of a pregnant duck (we were already pretty close to all up weight) into the air over north western France. The aircraft finally starts to feel responsive as we cross the French Coast at Le Touquet something like 30 minutes later.

I hope you got the feeling from that about the effect that passengers can have on pilots if they are vulnerable. Sadly for pilots employed in commercial aviation the pressure is greater because their company will take a dim view of them turning customers away, especially if they are likely to appear in the news. Sadly this circumstance cost the world one of the rising stars of R&B music (and at this point I lay aside my animosity to that musical description) I am referring to the death of Aaliyah. A tragedy that didn’t have to happen.

The NTSB report makes it clear that the pilot was out of his depth but that doesn’t absolve the passengers from guilt for the pressure that they applied. They became architects of their own downfall. A stronger pilot who wasn’t in fear of his job would have given them the finger – I would have. And it would have saved their lives.

There are a number of useless things in aviation…

Fuel in the Bowser
Runway behind you
Sky above you
Airspeed you don’t have

The Aaliyah accident rapidly took on three of those as the over-laden Cessna 402 struggled to get airborne. Perhaps leaving some fuel in the bowser might have helped but as the sky remained above and the runway behind grew Pilot Morales must have known that his time had come 😦

So for my readers I would make the following recommendation – never pressure your pilot when told that there’s too much to carry. An aeroplane isn’t like a camper van – you can’t fill it up to the roof and expect it to get off the ground.


  1. This is a very important message, Martin. I remember when Aaliyah’s plane went down, although I don’t think I knew much about the circumstances. I do agree with you that there are probably many instances when pilots are pressured to comply with a celebrity demand and out of fear of losing work, risks are taken. The public today often fails to respect the knowledge of professionals, and instead thinks they know best. You’ve convinced me that we need to listen, comply and stop complaining about the costs associated with luggage weight restrictions.

    1. Hi Debra – You can read all about it via the NTSB report but it’s not for those who find air travel distressing. Of course the truth is that I’m an amateur but I’ve experienced the public’s lack of understanding quite a few times over the years in my normal job – never mind as a pilot 😦 Even as a telephone engineer you find that the public knows best 😦 Not that many of them would know how to organise hauling a cable in when there’s an emergency πŸ™‚ In fact that applies to senior managers too!

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