What are the Airlines doing that we should be doing? The National Transportation Safety Board initially classifies 65-percent of the General Aviation accidents as “pilot error” accidents. That percentage rises to 80-percent when accidents that were first categorized with an “unknown” cause are completely investigated.
WHAT GA IS
General aviation is a very broad category — it is essentially any flying that is not airline or military. That would include everything from transoceanic business jets to J-3 Cubs. We saw last week that the majority of the general aviation accidents occur on one end of the spectrum — with low time pilots flying low and slow airplanes. In that group, accidents caused by pilot mistakes, inexperience, or lack of knowledge is 80-percent of the total accidents.
Only 37-percent of airlines accidents, depending on which numbers are used, are attributed to pilot error. The difference between GA’s 80-percent and the airlines’ 37-percent is significant.
What possible variables could be at work here to make these numbers so different? I think the difference is the combination of three factors:
- General Aviation pilots have far less experience.
- General Aviation pilots get less recurrent training.
- The recurrent training that General Aviation pilots do get is based on “maneuvers” not “missions.“
Pilots gain seasoning and savvy with experience. So the question is clear: How can pilots gain seasoning with minimum experience? We can’t do anything about factor number 1 — if you have 150 flight hours today you have 1,000 tomorrow. But we can do something about factors 2 and 3. We can continue to train past the Private Pilot Certificate and when we train, we can train better.
HOW DO THE AIRLINES DO IT?
The airlines have been the proving ground and therefore the beneficiaries of decision training and apparently have a better safety record to show for it. Airline training involves what is called LOFT — Line Oriented Flight Training. The “line” refers to the flight line and everyday operations of an airline. Instead of practicing only flight maneuvers, airline crews practice real-time flights in multi-million dollar flight simulators. During a simulated flight from Nashville to Dallas the crew will experience all manner of problems that will test their pilot skills, systems knowledge, and ability to work together. Can these methods be adapted into General Aviation with a reduction in the pilot error accidents as the end result? I believe the answer is yes, but we must learn to attack the real problem.
At some point a pilot cannot become a better decision-maker by practicing more touch-and-goes. Pilots must practice making decisions in the real world where it counts.
THE PILOT DECISION ENVIRONMENT
The environment that pilots work in is ever changing and takes place in real-time. This is a problem because conventional wisdom would tell us to spend some time thinking over tough decisions. My father would say: “When you are faced with a difficult decision it is best to ‘sleep on it.’” But in most cases the pilot, faced with a decision, does not have time to think it over, to deliberate, and to weigh the pros and cons. The environment that pilots make decisions in is dynamic not static. Decisions such as choosing a spouse, taking a particular job, or buying a house, might be examples of static decisions. When it comes to these real-life static decisions it usually pays not to “rush into anything.”
Dynamic Decisions happen under time stress and are not “one shot” decisions. Pilots make decisions that change the situation and this leads to more decisions. How decisions are made in stressful environments raises questions in many areas, including flight training. Can a person be a safe pilot until he or she reaches a level of experience that allows for good decision making? Can any training intervention substitute for experience in the mean time?
Given: It is clear that humans can get better at something the more they practice. So why not practice these high stakes situations and get accustomed to making decisions in these environments? Airline and Military pilots routinely train in real-world environments and this is one of the biggest differences between what they do and what we in General Aviation do.
Why not conduct an experiment with General Aviation pilots that would expose them to real-world, real-time, decision making and see what happens. Maybe in the end we could learn to better prepare pilots for the actual environment in which they fly. Maybe it is possible to reach the seasoning of 1,000 flight hours without having to fly 1,000 hours?
Next week — the experiment begins!