Fly Like A Pro — Part 5: Results

Last week I described a project that involved volunteer general aviation pilots, a simulator, and a decision scenario — this week we’ll discuss how the pilots handled the situation. In short: Not very well.

Low-Tech Approach
Most all the research projects in the past 20 years that have involved pilot decision-making took place within the airlines and the military. These projects used high-tech, multi-million dollar flight simulators to recreate scenarios for pilots to solve. You will not find a $40 million simulator at your hometown FBO! So for my project I deliberately went low-tech. I wanted to study pilot decision making in the type of simulators — more accurately called Flight Training Devices (FTDs) — that General Aviation pilots would have access to. I used common FTD that had no visual display, no fancy projections or TV screens. Instead I rigged up a night light and extension cord. I had placed a light in the FTD’s cockpit and participants were told before the scenario began that the light would come on anytime they were underneath the clouds and a runway was in sight. They were to assume that they were still in the clouds and unable to see a runway if the light did not illuminate. Using the extension cord I could turn the light off or on from outside the FTD.

Preparing The Scenario
In preparation for the scenario I spent some time inside the Nashville RADAR room and control tower — the Nashville RADAR control provides coverage over the area of the flight scenario. I became familiar with the controllers’ procedures for the area, the RADAR sectors and their boundaries, and the communication frequencies for each sector. I wanted to provide the pilot participants with the same service they would have received had they flown in this area in an actual airplane. I actually had a script for every ATIS and AWOS within 100 miles. I was ready for them.

I also consulted several Airframe and Powerplant technicians when designing the scenario. I asked them, “How long would a fully charged airplane battery last if the alternator were to quit working?” We calculated the time interval of battery death with all the lights and electronics on and again with a reduced electrical load. During the first LOFT scenario the pilots were given time to work out their problems and end the flight safely based on these calculations. If the pilot left all the lights and electronics on after the alternator failure they were given less time than if they turned off all unnecessary electrical equipment.

Volunteer Pilots Begin The Project
On the first night of the first LOFT sessions the first pilot flew the scenario beautifully. He understood the implications of the alternator warning light right away. He first turned off and then turned back on the alternator side of the Master Switch in an attempt to bring the alternator back on line. But, I left the alternator light shining brightly. He then turned off the anti-collision lights, position lights, and all but one radio. When he received the weather report from Smyrna, and later saw the glide slope was inoperative, he understood the math. He knew that if the clouds were actually at 300 feet and he could only descend to 400 feet that he would not see the runway. But he flew the approach anyway, concluding that the 300 feet was only an “estimated” ceiling and he might fly into a higher cloud base.

At the moment he reached the missed approach point he, without hesitation, executed the missed approach procedure. When I asked as the controller, “What are your intentions?” he promptly asked to divert to Nashville (eleven air miles away) for an ILS approach there. I gave him vectors to ILS runway 2L at Nashville. When he tuned in the new ILS frequency the glide slope worked perfectly. In the scenario the glide slope transmitted from on the ground at Smyrna had been inoperative but other glide slopes would work. This pilot flew the FTD flawlessly, breaking out (I turned on the light) at 300 feet and landing at Nashville with several minutes of battery power remaining.

He did great, but I was worried. I thought I’d made the scenario way too easy. All this planning, all the letters, all the phone calls and as it turned out this was simply not a challenge. I was not going to learn anything. Then the second pilot showed up.

It was a different story with the second pilot on that first night. He flew the FTD fine. He had no problem flying a heading and altitude. But he was unable to fly and analyze problems at the same time. That second session was a wild, sweat drenching, pre-crash disaster. It was agonizing to watch, never mind to fly. This fully qualified FAA instrument pilot, did no planning, no troubleshooting, and consistently failed to make decisions when they were warranted. He asked the controllers (me) for help and suggestions because he had no idea what to do himself. The whole thing ended when he hit ground level at a high rate of speed with nose low and in the dark because the battery had long since ran out of power. I drove home that night thinking, “well, I have seen the exception” and I was right. I did see the exception that night. But it was the first pilot who had done so well. Unfortunately, I learned that the second pilot with the deadly performance was closer to the average.

Statistics After all the pilot participants had flown the first scenario…

  • 40% had experienced a complete electrical failure in flight. In other words, 4 out of every 10 pilots were unable to think their way out of the situation they were in before time ran out.
  • 60% of the pilots did not troubleshoot the electrical problem in any way! They did not recycle the alternator switch, they did not reduce the electrical load; they did nothing. Many later said that they knew the alternator light was a problem, but they did not have enough time together with the other flying duties to do anything about it. Others said that they were unaware of what the alternator light being on indicated. They were fully instrument rated pilots but were completely unfamiliar with their life-sustaining electrical system. That second pilot on that first night was among the 10% of pilots who ended the session with an uncontrolled collision with the ground.
  • Only 28% of the pilot participants landed safely without incident. Read that again. Not even one third of these pilots were able to solve the problems and make the decisions that insured the safety of the flight. All the rest had something awful happen.

Now this was a small sample of pilots. I have no mathematical proof that these pilots were the true representatives of the total pilot population. Just because 10% of these pilots crashed does not mean that 10% of all pilots in the same situation will crash. Maybe a different group or a larger group would have done much better. Maybe. But my impression as a flight instructor was that these pilots were a representative group. These people did care about their flying safely. After all, these pilots volunteered to receive extra training that was not strictly required. I can be sure of this much — the results from the first scenario were scary.

BOTTOM LINE: I believe that the problem is bigger than we once thought and we really have our work cut out for us. Next week, the volunteer pilots attend different safety seminars before heading back into the simulator. What will you do?