Symptoms of The Pilot Disease Worse Than COVID-19

With COVID-19, our world is facing one of the worst crises in recent history. The virus itself is bad enough, but its economic impacts threaten even longer-term effects. I don’t want to make light of the pandemic, but in the interest of making a point to a bunch of pilots, I’m going to make light of it.

As bad as coronavirus may be, we pilots are susceptible to an even worse disease. This pernicious canker turns otherwise good pilots into useless lumps. It kills promising career progression, brings great shame upon our squadrons, and puts the lives of others at risk. What do we call this horrible pandemic? Copilot Syndrome (or Wingman Syndrome for you fighter types).

Table of Contents

  1. Signs and Symptoms
  2. Long-Term Prognosis
  3. Effective Therapies (Next Week)
  4. Ineffective Therapies (Next Week)

Signs and Symptoms

If you’re reading BogiDope, you’re probably astute enough that you implicitly understood what I meant when I gave you the name of this syndrome. However, some pilots catch this disease without realizing it, and the symptoms progress so slowly that they fail to come to terms with their condition until it’s too late. As we look at the characteristics of Wingman/Copilot Syndrome, take a few moments for self-inventory to see if you might be infected. (Don’t worry if you are, we’ll discuss the cure later.)

At its heart, Copilot/Wingman Syndrome is apathy, become habit. A pilot with this syndrome probably has decent stick and rudder skills at any given moment. However, his or her overall level of interest in and attention to the big picture, the mission, or aviation overall, is low.

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Knowledge

What’s your knowledge level as a pilot? How well do you really know your aircraft’s systems, operating limitations, and characteristics? Can you recite your unit or company’s Tactics, Techniques, and/or Procedures (TTPs) from memory? Can you quickly find references for each piece of your knowledge in your publications?

A victim of Wingman/Copilot Syndrome will dread being asked questions about any of this stuff. He or she knows what it takes to get by from day to day, but won’t be able to provide much detail without digging into pubs. Speaking of the pubs, this person will require extra time to find a reference for anything in those pubs because they’re so unfamiliar.

I saw this type of Copilot Syndrome on my very first deployment as a brand-new U-28A copilot supporting Special Operations Forces (SOF) over Afghanistan. My Aircraft Commander (AC) was a nice guy who I enjoyed hanging out with. He’d been around for a while and was slated for Instructor Pilot upgrade when we returned to the States.

Part of the U-28A’s mission is to coordinate all the aircraft in the “stack” supporting a given ground mission. The SOF teams always had A-10s, AH-64s, and/or an AC-130 for Close Air Support (CAS). They would get some combination of U-28A, MC-12W, MQ-1, MQ-9 or civilian contract assets for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). There’d usually be an EA-6 or EC-130 for jamming. Finally, most operations also got a pair of F-16s or F-15Es for additional CAS.

A U-28A running the show.

Until the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) was on the ground, someone had to make sure each of those aircraft got to its assigned position and had its sensor or targeting pod tasked to watch a useful part of the target area. The U-28 had a great sensor of its own, the ability to broadcast and receive sensor feeds, and lots of fancy radios…making the U-28 AC the ideal person to do all of this coordination.

As part of this process, the U-28 AC had to keep track of the weapons that each aircraft had available. When the JTAC first showed up, the U-28 pilot gave him a run-down of the stack, including all the firepower at his disposal.

You’d think that a prerequisite to this job would be knowing what all of that armament was. I’d been a B-1B copilot before joining the U-28 community and was intimately familiar with all manner of weapons. I blithely assumed that any other pilot dealing with combat airpower in support of SOF would have similar knowledge. I was wrong.

One day, on a slow mission without any boots on the ground, this particular AC turned to me and said, “Hey Emet, you were a bomber pilot so you know a lot about weapons, right?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“Yah…I’m supposed to upgrade to IP pretty soon. Before I do that, I need to have you teach me about that because I’m pretty clueless. I run stacks full of aircraft all the time, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between a GBU-38 and a GBU-12.”

Can you identify all the weapons this Dude is carrying? If not, you aren’t ready to run a stack of aircraft.

I almost choked on my Gatorade. Here was an Aircraft Commander, in a position of authority over me, leading a crew of people, coordinating a stack for of weapon-carrying aircraft for a poor 20-something-year-old JTAC hiking through the mountains of Afghanistan in the middle of the night while getting shot at…and this AC hadn’t even cared enough to learn about the weapons in his stack.

It turns out that this disease isn’t limited to affecting just wingmen and copilots. Don’t assume that just because you’re an Instructor, Evaluator, Weapons Officer, Squadron Commander, etc. that you are immune.

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Mission Planning

Another sign that you might have come down with this syndrome is that your mission planning suffers.

Do you really consider your flight plan’s validity, or do you just assume that your wingman or copilot got everything right? How much conscious thought do you put into your preflight briefing, and how much of it is just reciting standard garbage in case your DO happens to be passing by the briefing room? Have you ever started taxiing without actually looking at and thinking about your destination’s weather and NOTAMs? If you are a copilot or wingman, and your Flight Lead or AC dropped out at the last moment, do you actually know enough about your mission’s plan to run the show?

Don’t get me wrong here…I believe in moderation in all things. I think that Weapon School culture has taken the concepts of mission planning, briefing, and debriefing too far in some cases. The concept of marginal utility applies to this stuff, and at some point you’re better off just stepping to fly, or ending a debrief and going home to your family, than spending another hour (or two or four or eight) talking about it. I believe the key is to find a happy medium.

Let’s look at another story:

I had another buddy in the U-28 whom I love and respect. We’d deployed together many times and flown combat missions together. At one point in our careers I’d been made an Evaluator Pilot (EP) while he was still just an AC. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shows you where this story is going.

My buddy, let’s call him Steve, had some less-than-stellar performance on a couple missions downrange. At home, people seemed to notice that he just didn’t seem engaged in preparing for flights. A flying squadron is a small place and the commander heard enough about it that he directed me and another EP to give Steve a no-notice checkride. The boss was most concerned about Steve’s mission prep, so the checkride was just that – a tasking to plan a theoretical mission. We both liked Steve and knew that this shouldn’t have been a challenge. We lobbed him a softball…a local mission to a nearby Army base for a training exercise.

We gave him a day’s notice, and he had nothing else scheduled. The next morning, he briefed a mission with decent detail, but we weren’t wowed. We started digging, asking relatively basic questions about his plan and it was obvious that he hadn’t worked that hard on his plan. It shocked me a little, because he knew this was a checkride. However, I was also worried that if he was being so lazy for this, he could be putting people in danger by being even lazier on actual training missions.

That checkride did not end well for Steve.

We had a long talk about why the checkride happened in the first place, and how he thought it had gone. He admitted that he’d gotten complacent and not put enough effort into his flying overall, or this event in particular.

This is not Steve, but the look on his face was somewhat like the one you see pictured here.

The outcome of the event necessitated we repeat the process a couple of days later. The moment we showed up we knew that it was going to end a lot better. The briefing room was covered in materials, yet professionally and thoughtfully organized. His briefing was far more thorough than we would have expected the first time through, but we appreciated his efforts this time around. We made a point of digging deeper into his plan with follow-on questions, and Steve was able to immediately answer everything…and show the references in his mission planning materials.

Steve obviously passed this second attempt with flying colors. That made the first time around even more disappointing though. He is a great dude and a great pilot. Nothing about his knowledge or skills prevented him from passing the first checkride. His poor performance was entirely due to his attitude…his Copilot Syndrome. He continued to progress in that squadron and flew many more effective combat missions. However, his failure on that first checkride is now a permanent blemish on his record. Whether he aspires to join a Guard or Reserve unit, or work for an airline, he’s going to have to tell this story to potential future employers for the rest of his life. I hate that it has to be that way for him.

Don’t be like Steve. Take a couple minutes to think about your mission planning and consider ways to do better. I’m not saying that you should become that crazy pilot who spends endless hours buried in minutiae, or the Weapons Officer who loves to hear himself talk for hours on end while everyone else in his flight fights to maintain consciousness. However, I want to make sure that you don’t wait for a no-notice checkride or Part 121 line check to be your wakeup call.

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Delegation

Another very insidious symptom of Wingman Syndrome is how much you delegate. Are you too good for mission planning? How about attending Instructor Development or other enrichment briefings? How many times during the mission planning process do you allow yourself to be interrupted for very important, official business? How often do you show up to the step desk or gatehouse without having looked over the mission planning products that your wingmen/crew have put together?

I saw this strain of Copilot Syndrome on another checkride. I was tasked to do a regular, old, annual instrument/qualification checkride for Mark (an AC) and Walt (a copilot). Mark showed up to the mission briefing at the absolute last minute. His excuse was, “Hey guys, sorry to be pushing it to the last minute. I just finished up some leave since I’m deploying in two days.”

That squadron was pretty laid-back, and we were extremely busy with deployments, so I didn’t think much of it at first. We all had to take leave when we could. We chatted for a few minutes before I said, “Cool, how about we get started?” Walt (the copilot) looked expectantly at Mark (the AC) and was met by a blank stare.

“Oh, do you want me to brief the mission?” asked Mark.

Hopefully, this question surprises you as much as it did me. Granted, in this particular squadron, it wasn’t uncommon to give a copilot the “opportunity” to brief a mission for his or her professional development. However, the default was always for the AC to brief, and it was Mark’s place to say otherwise.

Wanting things to get moving either way I said, “Unless you want Walt to brief it.”

“Yep, I think that sounds good. Walt, would you like to brief? You could probably use the practice anyway, right?” (Nice, dude. Have the copilot practice something that isn’t even part of his job description on his checkride.)

To his credit, Walt was happy to brief and jumped right into it. Not only was his mission briefing as professional and thorough as I’d have hoped to get from any qualified AC, it quickly became clear to me that Walt had done all of the mission planning. In that squadron, we had a habit of briefing instrument approaches before going flying. When it came time for Mark to brief his approaches, he didn’t even know what airports we were flying to that day.

We flew the checkride and it went okay, but not great. Walt had one “momentary deviation” from standards that could have gone either way. (I think we all have one of those on most checkrides). Mark flew okay, with a few mistakes, but low Situational Awareness throughout the mission.

Walt passed his checkride with a single downgrade for his mistake. It was the sticky sort of thing that I could have also used as an excuse for him to fail the checkride. If anything else had been lacking in his performance (or I was an Evaluator in Air Mobility Command) that one mistake might have done him in. However, he did such a great job with mission planning, briefing, and flying, that he absolutely earned that one mulligan.

It’s one of my greatest regrets as a professional aviator that I didn’t give Mark a failing grade on his checkride. I hammered his scores with several downgrades, but he still passed. The biggest factor in my decision was that he was scheduled to deploy in a couple days. Our squadron was already tapped-out, and there was nobody to replace him. I should have done it anyway. He had an advanced case of Copilot Syndrome. I hope my stern debrief and his ugly Form 8 were enough to cure him.

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Not My Problem

Another sure sign of Wingman Syndrome is having a mindset of “I don’t need to know that.” As a Wingman most of your life will consist of keeping lead in sight, and being on the correct radio frequency. You’ll be tempted to not learn the procedures for departing from and returning to your base. You’ll be tempted to not learn the parts of radio calls for directing setups for practice maneuvers. You’ll be tempted to not think about how you’d run a mission briefing…all because that’s not your problem. Right?

That’ll work fine until the day when your flight lead’s aircraft breaks and you have to find your way to the range all by your lonesome. Or maybe your FL had to divert because of fuel issues or maintenance and you’re called upon to speak to your flight’s part of a mission in the debrief.

If you’re afflicted with Wingman Syndrome, you won’t bother paying attention to or thinking through these sorts of things ahead of time. That’s a bad choice.

When I was a T-6A Flight Commander at a UPT base, one of my assigned IPs, Ivan, had come from a heavy community. He’d never flown much close formation, but all T-6A IPs are made 2-Ship Flight Leads no matter what.

Ivan did well enough as a flight lead when everything went to plan. However, I started hearing complaints of issues in his ability to run the show in unexpected situations. One day, he was the IP in the lead aircraft when the formation was required to execute an uncommon arrival procedure. The procedure was clearly outlined in our In-Flight Guide, and we’d all discussed it briefly. However, he’d either not studied it in a long time, or never studied it in much detail. That arrival didn’t go well. The IP in the other aircraft had to get directive, and they still had a tough time executing the procedure without getting in trouble.

You may “only” be a wingman, but don’t let this be where your Situational Awareness ends.

Ivan’s Wingman Syndrome manifested as his assumption that he didn’t need to know that arrival. He assumed that if he ended up on it, either the student would know what to do (um, no) or that he’d be in the #2 aircraft and could just follow along.

We had a chat about his overall flight lead skills. He reluctantly agreed that he needed some work. We made sure he got the practice he needed, and he improved as a flight lead. However, he got to the point where he needed help in part because he felt that he didn’t need to bother preparing for every contingency he was likely to face.

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Mother May I?

If you find yourself asking for approval or permission, especially when you shouldn’t be, you definitely have a case of Copilot Syndrome.

I was once flying with another pilot, George, on an Aircraft Commander upgrade training ride in a PC-12. That aircraft had a touch & go checklist that had to be completed while rolling down the runway at upwards of 75 knots. (That checklist was not my idea. It was written by C-130 pilots who didn’t understand the difference between a C-130 and a PC-12, but I digress….)

This touch & go checklist had to be completed with at least 2000’ of runway remaining. If not, the procedure was to abort the touch & go. For that aircraft, 2000’ was ample stopping room, even at a maximum landing weight around 9900 lbs.

So, George did a nice landing and called for the touch & go checklist, just like he was supposed to. As the instructor playing stupid copilot I completed the actions required by the checklist, but never verbalized that the checklist was complete.

We cruised past the three board in uncomfortable silence. As the two board approached, the corners of my lips twitched up into a smile. Just before the two board, George looked directly at me and asked, “WTF dude?”

I turned my head halfway toward him with a shit-eating grin on my face, and gave him one more second to make a decision. He didn’t. I took control of the aircraft, planted the throttle firmly in reverse, and hammered on the brakes a little harder than necessary to help make the point. We taxied clear of the runway and had a chat that I’m sure I enjoyed a lot more than he did.

“Emet, WTF?”

“I was just going to ask you the same thing, George.”

“What do you mean? I called for the checklist, you were supposed to complete the checklist.”

“I did though, didn’t I?”

“Well, yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw you do it.”

“Okay, so what was the problem?”

“You didn’t verbalize checklist completion.”

“You’re right. What are you supposed to do at the two board if the checklist isn’t complete?”

“Abort.”

“Did you?”

“Well, no. I wasn’t sure if I had to because it’s not that it wasn’t complete it was just that you suck as a copilot.”

“Valid. Were we in a safe position to abort?”

“Yes.”

“Were we in a safe position and configuration to continue?”

“Yes.”

“So, we could have safely executed either option. If (let’s even assume when) you complete AC upgrade, who will be in charge of making the decision, either way, in a similar situation?”

“Uh, me.”

“That’s right! So, why were you looking at me?”

“Oh.”

We’ll get to more on this later, but I believe one of the most important mindsets a pilot can have is “Drive it like you stole it!” If you’re in charge, make the decision! If you’re not in charge, but the person in charge isn’t making a decision, at the very least speak up. Don’t be a “Mother May I?” copilot!

You’re trundling down the runway at high speed. Your copilot didn’t say “checklist complete.” What do you do?

You may have noticed that I’ve been collecting Wingman/Copilot Syndrome stories for a long time. I could go on, but I hope you get the idea.

Many times, a pilot contracts this disease through simple, even willful, laziness. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, you end up distracted or worn-down by the parts of your life that don’t include flying. It could be conflict with your spouse, sick kids, money issues, or anything else. It could just be fatigue from a busy job and/or busy life.

Aviation has preached the IMSAFE checklist for a long time. I believe most pilots could stand to be a little more honest in using that checklist for self-evaluation before they go flying.

Sadly, the military is devastatingly effective at making us think that the non-flying side of our jobs is more important than the aviation side. Yes, you do need to take care of that part of your job. However, it’s very easy to let that queep overwhelm your existence. Remember: the US taxpayers hired you to be a pilot. If all they needed was an officer, they could have gotten a grunt from the Army infantry.

Thankfully, this syndrome isn’t an all-or-nothing deal. There are degrees of debilitation, and if you recognize your ailment soon enough, it might not take much for you to get better. We’re going to discuss how to cure Copilot/Wingman Syndrome, but first we need to consider what can happen if you let it go untreated in the long-run.

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Long-Term Prognosis

I just shared several stories about the relatively short-term effects of Wingman/Copilot Syndrome. These consequences may not seem so bad, but if left untreated the long-term complications from this Syndrome are devastating.

If you’re not progressing in your career as a pilot, you will probably get frustrated. You’ll wonder why your peers (and even subordinates) are getting selected for upgrades that aren’t even offered to you. You’ll envy their increased pay, responsibility, prestige, etc. That’s not a fun way for a pilot to live.

Some of these people go their entire careers without figuring things out. They are the Eternal Copilots or Eternal Wingmen of aviation. They spend an entire career frustrated, and then wonder why they’re bitter and unfulfilled as they approach retirement.

(There are also a few who realize their situation, but come to terms with it. Maybe they have other priorities in life, or enjoy the purity of employing airpower at the tactical-level. I don’t fault these pilots. In fact, I can identify with them in some ways. However, I feel like most of us are too Type-A to reach nirvana in that position.)

Most squadrons, though, are frustrated to get stuck with these pilots. They’re frequently okay as copilots/wingmen and worker bees, but they’re the least versatile or useful people in the unit. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these individuals don’t last long in most squadrons. Sometimes, they get “promoted” to a very important job at the Wing level or higher as soon as one opens up. When they stop by for a beer, they’ll tell you all about the great staff work they’re doing. (Note: that work rarely involves much flying.)

Sometimes, these individuals even get relatively choice assignments out of the squadron that you or your other friends might have wanted. Sometimes, they’re awarded flying upgrades that aren’t entirely earned, just so that they’ll qualify for these assignments. That is guaranteed to frustrate all the pilots in your unit who are pulling their own weight.

The worst example of these individuals are the ones who leave for exciting, special opportunities without realizing they’re infected with this Syndrome. They do well in their non-flying assignments and end up back at your base a few years later, on the fast-track to command.

This situation sucks for these individuals because they don’t realize their lack of credibility within your community. Their command won’t be as successful because they’ll be missing a critical element of a commander’s authority. It’ll also suck for pilots under this person’s command because he or she usually lacks perspective on what his or her people actually need to get the mission done.

Nobody wins by having these people around the military, and they threaten to make the airlines a bad place too. It’s a big paradigm shift for a retired Colonel or flag officer to start out as a First Officer at an airline. When I’m his or her Captain, I’m almost always younger, and my rank in the USAF Reserve is only Major. They are senior to me in every way, except the only way that counts.

To their credit, I haven’t had any trouble with any of the former O-6s I’ve flown with. (To their credit, none of them have even mentioned their rank, except by accident.) However, a senior military officer who lets his or her flying skills slide due to Wingman/Copilot Syndrome will have an even tougher time at the airlines. It’s important to fight this disease at all stages of your career!

On a less depressing note, I encountered another situation where a pilot had knowingly exposed himself to Copilot Syndrome, recognized its long-term effects on him, and made a great choice to fight it.

When I went through A220 training as a First Officer (FO), the Captain I was paired with was (not) named Francis. He’d been a C-141/C-17 Vice Wing Commander in a past life, but all he’d done for the last 12 years was fly as an A330 FO.

In case you’re not familiar, this is one of the cushiest jobs on the planet. The A330 always flies with at least three pilots, which means that you spend roughly 25-33% of each flight “dozing for dollars” in a crew rest facility. You don’t have to do much taking off or landing because the Captain always needs the landings.

(Francis had been to the sim at HQ no fewer than 24 times in the last dozen years to do bounces for currency. This means there were at least 24 times where he went at least three months without getting three landings in the jet!)

For the record, Francis did a fantastic job in A220 Captain training, and he was also a hoot to hang out with. The interesting thing about his choice to leave the easy life on the A330 and take a job as a narrowbody Captain is that he was in an upgrade for the very first time as an airline pilot at age 63.

Momma and Baby parked next to each other. Francis identified his Copilot Syndrome and bailed from the FO seat on the A330 (aircraft on left) to the Captain’s seat on the A220 (aircraft on right.)

Upgrading to Captain at a major airline isn’t entirely a cakewalk. The challenge is even bigger if you’re doing an initial upgrade on an aircraft you’ve never flown. It’s still tougher if you haven’t had to use the mental muscles associated with being Pilot in Command for a long time. Most airline pilots are focused on coasting by the end of their airline career. Few, if any, would choose such a challenging opportunity at such a late stage.

Francis and I talked about this over many dinners of wings and beverages. He said that he absolutely loved being an A330 FO. However, he said that he could feel himself “getting dumber” as he continued to loaf in such an easy job. He recognized that part of staying healthy as you get older is trying new things and forcing yourself to solve problems and puzzles. That played a large role in his choice to upgrade.

His Copilot Syndrome had been self-induced. He’d enjoyed very little work, and lots of time with his family. He was still able to cure himself of the Syndrome when he wanted to by choosing a particular assignment. If nothing else, Francis’ example should show you that it’s almost never too late to address Copilot Syndrome!

On that note, it’s about time we talk about how to cure Wingman/Copilot Syndrome. This post is long enough for one day, so check back the same time next week for Part 2.

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Image Credits:

This post’s feature image is adapted from this photo of Wingman Hall at McGhee Tyson ANG Base, TN: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/959587/wingman-hall.

The touch & go photo is by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash.

F-15E loaded for bear: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6104593/f-15e-strike-eagle-takeoff.

U-28A orbiting over an undisclosed location: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4951031/u-28a-flies-over-deployed-location.

T-6A from wingman’s perspective: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4430782/t-6a-texan-ii-flies-over-oklahoma.

Chagrined mission planner: https://cdn.dvidshub.net/media/thumbs/photos/1605/2575634/600x375_q75.jpg.

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