Fly Like a Pro — Part 9 Pattern Match

What actually is experience and what does it give you? The dictionary defines experience as “gaining knowledge through direct observation or participation.” For pilots, experience is being able to better deal with situations in the future because you have seen them in the past.

When confronting a situation people tend to fall back to what they know and this is why people with experience are the experts. People who have seen a similar situation before are more likely to remember what once worked to solve the problem and can draw on that memory to apply a fix to a current problem. Matching a problem with the proper solution is called “pattern matching.” The reverse is when you apply an incorrect solution to the problem because you have improperly diagnosed the problem.

Many of the pilot participants who flew the simulator scenarios, when faced with a situation in which a decision was called for, made no decision at all. Other participants made a decision … but there was a greater likelihood of a favorable flight outcome when the decision initiated from a correct pattern match. As the volunteer pilots came to fly the simulators, I began to see more examples of good and bad matching.

Only a few minutes into the second simulator session the participants were presented with a diminishing engine oil pressure reading (Fly Like a Pro — Part 8). The oil pressure indication eventually reached the lower red line of the indicator. Translation: the engine was no longer receiving adequate lubrication from oil. This was followed in sequence by an indicated rise in engine temperature. Eventually the engine oil temperature and cylinder head temperature indicators moved to the high-end red line, indicating that the engine had reached a dangerous level of overheat. The logical conclusion from these two indications would be that the engine’s lubricant was leaking out and an engine failure was imminent. These engine instrument indications were followed by intermittent engine roughness.

Of the participants who flew the second session, twenty-seven noticed the engine instrument readings and made a report of them to the air traffic controller. Of these twenty-seven, only six (22%) completed the session with a probable accident outcome. I took this to mean that the pilots who were aware of the true gravity of the situation made better decisions and flew safer flights.

Of the participants who flew the second session, twelve pulled the carburetor heat valve to the hot position when faced with the engine roughness. Carburetor heat is applied when ice is suspected in the carburetor. Carburetor ice can produce engine roughness and eventual engine failure, but indications of dangerously low oil pressure together with dangerously high engine temperatures are not indicators of carburetor ice. For this group, given the available information, carburetor ice was not a logical reason for the engine roughness. Pulling the carburetor heat valve to “on” displayed a troubleshooting error, which lead to a pattern mismatch. Of the twelve participants who made this error, seven (58%) concluded the session with a probable accident outcome — more than half the pilots who made this mismatch crashed. The pilots who did not properly identify the problem tried to solve their problems with remedies that did not match the situation — pulling carburetor heat to resolve a problem with engine oil does not match.

The proper pattern match in this situation created a safer situation for the pilot. If the pilot saw the engine instrument readings and understood their implication, they would also know that there was nothing that a pilot could do to remedy the situation while in flight. It is impossible, in the type airplane represented by the simulator, to add engine oil to the engine while in flight. It would also be unlikely for a pilot to have additional engine oil within reach while piloting the airplane. Therefore, the logical conclusion to this situation is that the engine will soon make an uncommanded stop and the only course of action left to the pilot is to get on the ground before that happens. Properly diagnosed, the pilot should have realized that it was a race against time. Could the pilot conceive of, and execute a plan that would get them on the ground as fast as possible? The majority of participants (21 of 27) who reported the engine oil problem to ATC matched their actions properly and concluded the session with a safe landing.

A pattern mismatch in this situation, however, created a much more dangerous condition for the pilot. In reality the participants had no time to waste because of the lack of engine oil. But those participants who thought incorrectly that the problem was not oil loss but rather carburetor ice took actions in the wrong direction. In a circumstance where carburetor ice was indeed present, the application of carburetor heat would begin to solve the problem, but this process is slow. The ice would melt from the engine over time. Over the time the ice is melting, the situation is improving.

During the second simulator session the oil loss produced a condition where the problem was deteriorating with every second. But to those participants, who mis-diagnosed the problem as carburetor ice and applied carburetor heat as the remedy, thought the problem was improving every second. Their actions then seemed to suggest that they thought they had “bought themselves some time.” After pulling open the carburetor heat and believing that they had solved the problem they were more likely to choose a course of action that would keep them in the air longer, such as selecting a more distant alternate airport. Recall that 58 percent of those who pulled the carburetor heat control eventually ended the session in a probable accident. This suggested that when the participants made a pattern mismatch they wasted time that otherwise could have been used to land as soon as possible and produce a favorable outcome.

The pattern mismatch in this circumstance set the pilots decision process on a diverging course from reality and proper solution. The mismatch set the pilot off on a course that made the assumption that “things were getting better” when in reality a proper pattern match would have created in the pilot the understanding that “things were getting worse.” The pattern mismatch created from incorrect assumptions led to incorrect expectations. Past that point the situation always became more dangerous for the pilot and it appeared difficult for them to regain awareness after they had started down the wrong path in their mind. Decisions made after the loss of awareness occurred only compounded the problem. Pilots often found themselves flying away from an airport as the engine stopped.

To make the proper match pilots must see the situation that surrounds them and be able to associate facts that relate to each other. Barring that, they must be extremely open to re-evaluating a situation with eyes unbiased by previous assumptions. Pilots must use associated groups to figure out the pattern and apply the proper match. Red line oil pressure and oil temperature does not associate with Carburetor ice. Pilots who thought it did or who never got all the facts took inappropriate action and sunk deeper into trouble. Pilots must know their airplane systems and maintain awareness of what is taking place around them in order to make the associations that will lead to the proper match. Of course, without an ample knowledge base there will be no match.

BOTTOM LINE: Pilots who have faced different circumstances can remember what it took to remedy the situation before. If they ever see the same circumstance again, they can recall what worked last time and apply the same remedy this time. This is why experienced pilots seem to have it all under control — they have been there and done that … and they know what works.

How do you fly like a Pro even though you have low time and experience? Read a lot. Go over the emergency checklists in your POH and imagine the scenarios that might cause you to run those lists. Try to replace one hundred hours of experiences in the air with one hundred “what if” questions on the ground. Ask yourself scenario questions and “war game” the answers. “What if I were flying along and I saw the alternator light come on, what would I do? What would be my options?” Then discuss your answer with another pilot, a flight instructor, and a maintenance technician. If you contemplate 100 scenarios on the ground you will be more prepared to handle them in the air — and you will start flying like a pro.