By Jannie Matthysen
Are you one of those "yes-men"? It must be great to always see the glass as half-full. It seems wonderful to constantly look on the bright side. You live by the mantra of "stay positive". Nice... Not me. I'm cynical. I'm permanently reminded of Murphy's Law. My cloud's silver lining seems a bit dull, and in the cockpit, I'm forever expecting things to go wrong.
I was not always like this. I remember a time when I thought I could do no wrong. The weather was always going to be good, the fuel will never run out, and Mr. Murphy was not on my passenger manifest. I was invincible. Life was good, and my deepest concerns invariably revolved around the next weekend's social scene. Looking back now, I realize how my state of oblivion influenced my decisions as a pilot. Sure, the passengers were mostly happy with their can-do pilot. The boss never complained, as we were always able to squeeze another passenger in or take that extra bit of luggage.
So what changed? I guess I got older. I'm not sure about older and wiser, but with age I started questioning my own methods. I also lost a friend or two along the way. The shock of learning about a friend's death in an aircraft accident is dwarfed only by the state of total distress in realizing that I never expected a pilot of his talent to make a fatal mistake. I knew that he was a much better pilot than me, and we were both invincible once...
One of the most valuable skills I learnt over the years was never included in any training syllabus. No one ever taught me to be cynical, and most importantly, no one ever taught me to say: "NO". Why is this critical? Here's my story: I once worked as a corporate pilot for a large company. The principals in this organization were very wealthy entrepreneurs who did not understand the meaning of the word "no". Their sheer determination elevated them to the highest echelons of corporate structure, and their vast influence ensured that they always got what they wanted. I was flying their state-of-the-art helicopter and thoroughly enjoyed the status and prestige that went with the job. My Nirvana was to be irrevocably altered one typical Cape winter's day. It was a beautiful morning and we were scheduled to fly a short trip out of town and return at around mid-day. The forecast contained details of a cold front that was to hit the city by early evening. When the passengers arrived, weather was briefly discussed as is customary in Cape Town. No one expected any trouble as we were planning to be safely back at base hours before the approaching low pressure would cast its gloom over the Peninsula.
That day I spent most of my idle time keeping tabs on the approaching weather while my employers went about their business. Predictably, their supposed quick meeting had degenerated into a raucous lunch with the Cape's finest vintages fuelling their disregard for their pilot's concerns about the dark and turbulent ride home. The low cloud, rain, and high wind had arrived earlier than expected, and I knew that there was no way we'd reach our base back in Cape Town. I diplomatically expressed my doubts about the weather and questioned the sanity of our intended departure. My comments were not well received, to say the least. The long silence that followed was finally broken by a scathing slur: "What the hell are we paying you for?" I was dumbstruck for a moment. Then, something inside me seemed to snap. I lost all sense of consequence and replied with a quivering voice and a clenched jaw: "You pay me to make the decisions that keep us alive. Today, I have earned my money..."
This turned out not be a very clever way in which to endear oneself to the boss, but the little incident altered my flying career in ways that I am still trying to come to terms with. I felt a burden lifted off my shoulders and realized what I had been missing all those years: I had never said "no" before. I looked back at the countless times when I hated myself for getting into uncomfortable situations. Times when I was "up here, wishing I was down there". I thought of my departed friends who also had difficulty saying the "n" word. We all know the tales of Seneca, Chieftain, and 402 pilots who don't say "no" to flying overloaded aircraft. Few of them survive.
It does become easier with practice. If the weather looks doubtful, the answer is no. The passengers will eventually get over it, and we'll all live to fly another day. That list of snags that's supposedly OK to fly with? The answer is no. Get it fixed, it's much cheaper than funding a couple of funerals. One more passenger? Sorry, no can do. The list of wrongs is endless, and yet we all do it. Why is it so difficult for us to make unpopular decisions? Why do we nod when we should shake? It's fine to have a positive outlook on life and always try to see the good in any situation. It's admirable to consider the needs of others. It's right to diligently follow orders. It's not very clever if these traits get you killed.
I'm still not sure if it's due to age, experience, or a growing stubbornness, but those unpopular decisions are now much more common for me. I still apologise for some of my decisions, but I no longer lose any sleep over it. Murphy has been accepted as my permanent co-pilot and I'm therefore always looking for ways to curb his destructive assistance.