I watch Air Safety Institute videos online, and it's disturbing how many fatal case studies are caused by the tenor of interactions between air traffic controllers and pilots. Is this simply inevitable?

In one instance, a pilot spends hours traversing dangerous weather systems, squeezing beneath an ever-descending cloud layer until he winds up twisted around a tree. ATC states that they advised him against continuing his flight as planned, but the transcript reveals that they only stated repeatedly that it "would not be advised." In another, a man is low on fuel and unable to land in overcast conditions. Unable to understand terminology like "IFR" and "IMC" in moments of high stress, he repeatedly agrees to attempt to land at an airport he simply cannot see. Out of time, he asks if it would be "possible" to land at a nearby VFR option: a field belonging to the US Air Force. ATC states that it would be impossible to do so except in an emergency. He later declares an emergency, just a few short minutes before plummeting into the woods two miles short of the runway. In a third example, a woman flies into a busy airport only to be obediently shuffled between incoming 737 jets and from runway to runway until, overwhelmed by the traffic pattern, she forgets how to fly her plane and retracts her flaps well below stall speed—while throttling back.

In every case, both the pilot and passengers of these aircraft lost their lives, and these are not the only cases I have reviewed; they're just the ones I rewatched tonight. These and other similar cases resonate strongly for me because, at any point as these tragedies unfolded, the whole progression of events could have been brought to a halt by either of two people: the pilot or the air traffic controller. Someone could have said, "Do not try to fly under that snowstorm. Your family needs you to make it home alive." The military ATC could have said, "Absolutely. Declare a fuel emergency and I'll vector you in." The man shuffling those 737 cargo jets could have simply told his Cirrus pilot, "We're really busy right now, so how about you divert to X? It's a much better option for you."

You might notice as you read these comments that I have specified that ATC, in every case, could have said something to prevent the fatal outcomes of these flights. That's because the trend I have noticed in these case studies is that the pilot is obedient and deferent to the point of obsequiousness, and that in many cases he or she pays with her life as a result.

Take for instance the demise of a powerful single-engine turboprop that fell due to ice accumulation. The pilot knew of "moderate" (the FAA definition for "moderate" is explicitly fatal for any aircraft not equipped to deal with ice) icing conditions, but obediently climbed to an at-risk altitude when instructed to do so by ATC. He then waited at that altitude until ATC could clear him for a climb. Even more egregious, he repeatedly requested "higher, as soon as possible," to which ATC's response was, "Yes, we'll get you up there as soon as possible."

Reality check: when someone asks us to do something, we always do it "as soon as possible" in our own minds. What is "possible?" When I was a kid, it might be, "After this episode of Looney Tunes is over." For ATC, it could be, "After I clear this Airbus," or even just, "Lemme finish with this PIREP right quick." Is that absolutely as soon as possible? No. But these words don't have real, technical definitions. The pilot did not indicate the true severity of his situation (indeed, he may have been unaware how severe it was), but his repeated request makes his fear unmistakeable, even if he maintained a calm facade for his passengers, and he was right to be afraid: less than a minute after his second request, just as ATC cleared him for his climb, icing overwhelmed his aircraft.

The plane didn't even make it to the ground before it was literally torn apart.

In the end, these situations arise from two causes:

  1. ATC defers to pilots, because pilots excercise "Pilot in Command" authority.
  2. Modern pilots, neutered by our broken society, are incapable of exercising authority.

One of the fundamental foundations of civil aviation is that pilots bear a huge responsibility not only for their own safety but for the safety of their passengers and of other parties in the air and on the ground. As a result, it is accepted that pilots have a moral authority to make command decisions overriding other structural authorities set in place by, say, the Federal Aviation Administration. The system is built with this authority in mind: pilots are human, and fallible, and when given instructions may sometimes be unable to comply safely. If, on your third go-around, you feel too frazzled to carry out ATC's instructions safely, you are not merely allowed to but are expected to respond with, "Unable," and then to fly yourself out of danger and return only when you deem it appropriate. This is your moral obligation to yourself, your family, your passengers, and that schmuck in the parking lot outside Terminal B who doesn't want your Cessna to fall on him. Civil aviation in the West is built on the idea that individual actors can and will rise to the challenge posed by this combination of authority and responsibility. But can they?

Certainly, when these systems were put in place, they could. But, for instance, the average testosterone level of a Western male has fallen precipitously since then, with a corresponding drop in self-sufficiency and a rise in deference. It is clear that both men and women today are less independent and less capable than men and women of a half century ago, which raises a fundamental question: can a system intended to function on the basis of a given capability continue to function with the addition of actors who lack that capability?

No. Of course not.

The situation is only made worse by the bureaucratic tendency to push off responsibility onto someone else whenever possible. As a result, ATC will often invoke the word of some nameless, spectral third party who "would" advise you against your current course of action. You know, if you were to ask. Which you didn't. So the advice was never actually given. At no point is anyone ever willing to confront the hapless pilot with the ugly facts of his reality: that his plan is idiotic, and his only chance of survival is to turn back now, schedule be damned. How many lives could be saved by a simple change of tone? "That would not be advised," to, "Don't do that, it's not worth it."

I don't only watch the tragedies. They also have a series of survivor interviews. One of the best featured a man who committed the cardinal sin: flying VFR into IMC ("Visual Flight Rules" into "Instrument Meteorological Conditions," i.e. flying into clouds without knowing how), which is the deadliest mistake a pilot can make. Moments later and already frantic, he called ATC to state that he was upside down and couldn't make head nor tail of what was happening.

Another pilot, not even an ATC, broke in on the channel to say, "Nose down and let go of the wheel."

Our survivor complied, and the aircraft—designed, as are all civilian aircraft, to be stable—leveled itself and straightened out. His moment of panic over, the unfortunate but still thankfully alive pilot was able to exit IMC and get down safely. This happened because someone, not the pilot, took control of the situation.

This problem goes far beyond the relationship between private pilots and Air Traffic Control. This problem has infected our daily lives, eaten away at the core of our being, and will absolutely destroy the everything our forefathers have built.

Now, what the fuck are you gonna do about it?