Tuesday, April 17, 2012

They Fly Among Us

Clear-blue sky and calm winds on a Saturday after a long period of rain should strike fear into the heart of GA pilots, because this is when the skies are most likely to be filled with pilot zombies. Apparently undead, these zombies blunder about, creating danger in the skies and on the ground. Undead pilots can be found at most any airport, towered or non-towered, and their exact intentions are unclear. No one is quite sure what causes pilot zombieism, but the rest of us should assume the worst - they mean to kill us. And we living pilots need to be prepared. Here are the warning signs of pilot zombieism, some strategies for dealing with undead pilots, and steps you can take if you believe you or a friend is becoming a pilot zombie.

Identifying Pilot Zombies on the Ground

Undead pilots tend to be less dangerous when they are operating on the ground, but they can still ruin your day. Since you can't always see a zombie pilot, it's important to learn to identify the undead by how they talk on the radio. Zombies are particularly dangerous while they are taxiing. Here are just a few of the telltale signs you may be dealing with a pilot zombie:

  • Rushing about, in a hurry to get to the aircraft
  • Vacant look in the eyes combined with an odd, incessant smile
  • Talking loudly about being "on a mission"
  • Preflight briefing? Fugetaboutit!
  • Skips preflight inspection or
  • Performs preflight inspection with the engine running
  • Often has aircraft with a undead battery
  • May attempt to single-handedly hand prop an aircraft
  • Uses engine start and taxi to prop blast others
  • At non-towered airports, makes no radio call prior to taxiing
  • At towered airports, doesn't get the ATIS, appears lost
  • Taxies at a high rate of speed
  • Seems intent on colliding with other aircraft
  • Rambling, disorganized radio communication
  • Eschews proper radio phraseology
  • Embraces CB phraseology and other sorts of lingo
  • Says "roger" at the beginning of every radio transmission
  • Parks so as to block others from accessing self-serve fuel pumps
  • Sits with engine running, blocking taxi lanes, run-up areas, etc
  • Blinds others with their strobe and landing lights at night

Remember that a pilot zombie who is not yet behind the controls of an aircraft can still be a threat to your safety on the ground. The best defense on the ground is to avoid eye contact or, if possible, avoid all contact. If you must come in contact with an undead pilot, use the techniques described in Neutralizing a Zombie Pilot below.

Pilot Zombies in the Air

A undead pilot is most dangerous right after takeoff and just before landing, but they can wreak havoc in any phase of flight. Here are just a few of the telltale signs.

  • Flies with inoperative equipment
  • Broken transponders and bad radios are popular with undead pilots
  • Flies with out-of-date charts or no charts at all
  • Always flies WAFDOF - wrong VFR altitude for direction of flight
  • Blunders into TFRs, parachute jump areas, aerobatic practice areas
  • Attempts to subvert air traffic control with rambling requests
  • Attempts to subvert air traffic control with missed radio calls
  • Doesn't know their position or reports position incorrectly
  • Doesn't listen to the ATIS, but often "has the numbers"
  • Enters non-towered airport pattern randomly
  • Doesn't mention their intentions when making CTAF calls
  • Uses the wrong common traffic frequency (see out-of-date charts above)
  • Drifts into parallel runway approach or departure path

Remember that some zombie pilots are shy and seldom use their radio or ask for flight following. Just because you don't hear them doesn't mean that they aren't out there. Always assume that undead pilots are lurking, flying west at 3500 feet, just waiting to ruin your day.

Neutralizing a Pilot Zombie

The head is key to neutralizing a pilot zombie - not literally, but figuratively. If you can get an undead pilot to start thinking, they may actually start living again and if you succeed in this endeavor, congratulations! You have saved another pilot from the wasteland, but attempting to get through to an undead pilot is an arduous and dangerous process.

Another approach is to quickly identify zombie pilots and then give them a wide berth. Like zombies in any other walk of life, undead pilot fear the new, the unknown, and anything that might appear complicated. If you suspect you are in the company of a zombie pilot, don't make any sudden moves with flashy, techno objects like smart phones and iPads. Keep those devices in your flight bag and out of sight. Next, avoid talking about new products and services. And for heaven's sake, don't make disparaging remarks about NDBs, LORAN, or VORs.

If you find yourself actually in the cockpit with a pilot zombie, you're in a tight spot. First, turn down the volume on your headset since the zombie pilot's ancient headset and microphone placement will doubtlessly require the intercom and radio volumes to be cranked up pretty high. Avoid sudden moves and talk in a calm manner. Zombie pilots often have good aircraft handling skills, they just may be unable to make safe and rational decisions. If you see them making a bad choice, suggest an alternative course of action in the form of a question: "I wonder why everyone else is using runway 15? Maybe it's a better runway to use than runway 33?" You may also choose to remain silent and avoid interrupting them as they blunder through the skies. Whichever course you choose, your goal should be to get the aircraft on the ground at the first available opportunity.

If you find that you yourself are beginning to exhibit the signs of pilot zombieism, there are several things you can do to reverse the process. Review the Aeronautical Information Manual, especially the Pilot-Controller Glossary and keep it near for protection. Dust off and use your checklists. Take a gander at your aircraft's Pilot Information Manual or Approved Flight Manual, review normal and emergency procedures as well as systems operations. If none of these approaches seem to be working, consult an authorized flight instructor as soon as possible. Just beware: There are zombie flight instructors, too.

You have been warned.


Ryan said...

Ha, good post. I once came face to face with some zombie-pilots who cut off my King Air 300 in the pattern at an uncontrolled airport (Ukiah, CA). It's as if they had no clue what they were doing. I almost walked over to them after I let myself cool off and gave them a few words of my mind!


Ryan Spinks (africanbushpilot) said...

I think every pilot is guilty of being a "zombie pilot" at some stage of of their career....we are after all only human.
I believe these "Zombie pilot" just need to change their overall attitude to their job / recreational flying.

John Ewing said...

Ryan S.,

I didn't get into this, but there can be zombie air traffic controllers, too.

Ron said...

I've had the misfortune of coming across a few zombie pilots in my day. Had my plane worked on by zombie mechanics, too, I'm afraid. Nothing like finding your flight controls jammed right in the middle of an aerobatic sequence...

John Ewing said...

Mechanic zombies! How could I have forgotten them ...