Fly Like a Pro: Part 8 – The Real Pros

As the project continued — and the General Aviation pilots continued to have problems — I became interested in what an “expert’s” performance might look like. So during the project, I invited other pilots who would be considered experts to come and give the simulator a try. I defined an “expert” for the purposes of the study as a person who regularly flew as a normal function of their job. The experts I invited were FAA inspectors, corporate pilots, Part 135 on-demand charter pilots, scheduled air cargo pilots, and active instrument flight instructors. The experts were given the same first LOFT scenario as the larger group of GA pilots (Fly Like a Pro – Part 4). The experts were given the same instructions, the same ATC procedures … the same exact set of problems. Did the experts do a better job in the scenario? The difference between the GA pilots and the experts was profound.

The expert pilots flew the same scenario that was “killing” the GA pilots but every expert pilot landed safely. As with the GA pilots, a timer was kept on the experts during their flight scenario. The expert’s time interval between the onset of the problems and resolution of the problems, varied to some degree, but they ultimately all made the same decision. One hundred percent of the expert pilots landed without incident after following essentially the same decision sequence. After observing the same performance again and again I became convinced that I was watching “expert flight behavior.

It was clear that expert pilots and novice pilots were different, but how different? If it was known just how close or how far apart these two groups were, it would help in understanding how big a job it would be to raise the novice pilot performance up to the level of the expert. To help answer this question I designed an “expert scale.” Only the first simulator scenairo’s performance was used for this comparison because both the experts and novice volunteers flew the first session. I constructed the expert scale by using a calculation that statisticians would call a “transformed Z score.” The expert scale was calculated by transforming the average expert decision time into the 100th percentile on a scale from 0 to 100. The novice pilot’s performance was transformed in the same fashion and placed into a percentile rank relative to the expert’s performance of 100. As you would expect some of the novice pilots did better than others. Some even came close to equaling the standard set by the experts, but…

  • On average the novice pilots took twice as much time to come to a decision as the experts.
  • The average ranking on the expert scale of all the novice pilots taken together was 51.835%.
  • That means that the participants as a whole ranked approximately at the 52nd percentile position in comparison with the expert performance.

What it means: This interprets to mean that on average a novice instrument pilot is only about half as fast in making decisions as experts. Described another way, experts make decisions approximately twice as fast as novices. And remember these experts were not just making fast decisions — they were making correct decisions.

The expert pilots were able to anticipate and prepare far greater than the novice pilots. The experts controlled the simulator with ease never coming near a mental saturation point. This left them the mental capacity available to think ahead and plan for upcoming events. The experts never seemed to be in a hurry yet they were always doing something. They never let a free moment go without planning something or doing something that would help them out later. This group did all the “extras” and little things that made the job easier.

In any flight procedures there appeared to be several task layers. There were tasks that absolutely had to be done if the flight procedure was even possible. An example of this would be tuning in a navigation radio to a frequency that was used for an instrument approach. Without that frequency the pilot would not know where to go, so tuning that frequency was an absolute necessity.

Then there appeared to be tasks on a slightly higher level that, although not absolutely required, made the procedure run smoothly. An example: the experts pre-read the missed approach instructions so that when the time came for the missed approach procedure to be executed they calmly added power and began the procedure without immediate reference to any chart. The non-expert pilots rarely were that prepared at the missed approach point. They would often fumble around looking for the proper chart while the airplane was somewhat out of control.

The third task layer that was observed involved situation awareness management. One example of the expert at work would be dialing in an additional navigation radio frequency on a second radio and even though this second radio was not required for the flight procedure at hand, they used it anyway to more clearly determine their position. With this knowledge the expert would be aware of their relative position throughout the procedure and were able to call on this knowledge. At times they would turn with a tighter radius in order to make a smooth course intercept. The only way they could have known that a tighter radius was called for was their knowledge of relative position. With the course intercept made smoothly, the approach procedure began under control and no time was wasted passing through the course followed by an attempted re-intercept from the other side.

The experts were constantly and predictably completing these extra third level tasks. The result was that the procedure appeared effortless and everything was under control. They would not miss a radio call. They were assertive and clear with radio transmissions. They would not miss an altitude change. They reduced speed when they should have. They were in command.

The experts never seemed to “get behind the airplane” but this was no accident. They were always planning ahead. They were always doing something that was not actually mandatory at the time they did it but it paid off soon thereafter. Expert pilot behavior then involves the ability to fly the airplane and still have enough “brain-space” left to plan ahead.

BOTTOM LINE: How can inexperienced pilots fly like a pro? Start doing what the pros do. Work on flight proficiency so that flying the airplane takes up less “brain space.” Then you will have to hone your cognitive skills — know what to expect and what’s coming — and you will have more time to accomplish those third level tasks.