Keeping Up With Today’s Aircraft

Don’t look now, but we’re living through the beginning of another upheaval, of sorts. Along with the more promising changes such as Free Flight, advances in avionics, or the Sport Pilot initiative, and the more discouraging aftermath of 9/11 or the graying of our fleet, there is also another, though at the moment it is one only of perception. I will call it a new age of realism.

The term “risk management” isn’t an oxymoron. (I will admit that this was the very thought that occurred to me, the first time I’d ever heard the term.) And it isn’t some scrap of spin-doctor propaganda, either. Here at iPilot, we frequently touch on the subject of safety and risk management. (One of us, Prof. Paul Craig, has written an entire book about it.) Sometimes, we discuss the subject explicitly, and although we generally put things in a positive light, we try not to sugar coat it. But sugar coating is exactly the psychological backdrop that has been foisted upon the pilot population for decades, partly in the name of profit. After all, if you mention the inherent risks of flight to prospective pilots, if you openly acknowledge a public perception of risk, well, that can open up some pretty strong emotions and there just might not be as many prospective pilots.

Problem: The entire aviation industry has come to over-emphasize two of the four components of airmanship, namely skill and knowledge, at the expense of judgment and experience.

SOLUTION: Thankfully, some emperors can smell the coffee: John King has himself (as has our own Prof. Paul Craig through his Decision Training series) called upon the entire flight training industry to better acknowledge risk, to expose students to a wider range of “anticipatory” situations requiring risk management skills, and to increase the emphasis on flexibility, internalized in advance, for decision-making.

Apparently, the FAA is going to test our judgment, in addition to our knowledge. Sometime in 2004, pilot applicants will see questions dealing with safety of flight decisions among the others, on their knowledge exams. In addition, the Practical Test Standards will also include tasks covering risk management. The FAA is ramping up its FAA-Industry Training Standards program (FITS) to meet the task of training new pilots to fly technically advanced aircraft. (They defined such airplanes as being any that have at least an IFR-certified moving map GPS and an integrated autopilot.) The program was motivated, in part, by the notion that, in practice, such airplanes having potentially greater safety might actually be less safe. The unfortunate posterchild may be the Cirrus line of aircraft which was unfortunately involved in 11 accidents over a three year span. FAA Administrator, Marion Blakey said of the new training initiative, “The core strategy of FITS is to improve safety by training pilots to fly as they would in the real world, rather than to merely pass a test.” The FITS products primarily use scenario-, risk-management, Web-based (and personal computer-based) advanced training devices.

Would an improved understanding of the workings of the inner ear, and of the vulnerabilities of gyro and pitot-static systems, as well as of situations conducive to the formation of fog and haze, itself guarantee that there will be fewer weather-related accidents? (Many of those are VFR-into-IMC, and are often followed by disorientation.) Do you suppose that simply increasing our collective understanding of aerodynamic forces will guarantee fewer accidents in the realm of maneuvering flight? If we paid better attention to airplane configuration, performance data, crosswind and short or soft field takeoff techniques as well as density altitude, could we eliminate takeoff and climb accidents? And if we increased our proficiency in stabilized approaches, crosswind and short field landings, dealing with turbulence, or our understanding of carburetor design and we were better prepared for landing at unfamiliar airports, would we have that many fewer approach and landing accidents? (The fact that accidents involving takeoff and landing occur over 10 times more frequently than their time exposure would indicate isn’t as surprising when you consider that this is where workload is greatest.)

These are all rhetorical questions, of course. I mention these four areas (weather, maneuvering flight, takeoff and climb, and approach/landing accidents) because the latest Nall Report gives these as the top four areas in which fatalities occurred in both single-engine fixed gear and retractable gear aircraft. But to get back to the question: the answer is, I believe not so much about knowledge alone as it is about improved decision-making skills working with improved knowledge and a thorough understanding of new age avionics and their capabilities.

As far as the NTSB is concerned, JFK, jr. crashed due to “spatial disorientation” … while sitting behind a panel that included (among other things) a functioning attitude indicator, a GPS and a two-axis (pitch and roll) auto-pilot.

The least dangerous types of accidents (those resulting in minor injuries and damage, such as during landing) are usually skill-related, and the most dangerous types, such as weather and maneuvering, and which often result in fatalities, are more decision-related. Think about that. The implications are profound. What that means is, don’t just learn the right skills, also learn to make the right decisions! That’s all well and good, but even though we’re obviously all stakeholders here, it still makes for only a lukewarm pep talk as far as getting ourselves psyched up about “doing” risk management. What else is involved? The FAA seems to have figured out that if all these good people keep dying, why not teach more about making better decisions? So I In the coming age of realism, this is what will probably change.

How well we mitigate against our own fallibility is determined by how well we can assess the hazards associated with any phase of a flight, and eliminate all that are unnecessary.

Don’t get me wrong; mental and motor currency and proficiency is still important safety factors. Tasks with the greatest skill loss over time such as short field and crosswind takeoffs and landings, traffic pattern operations, and navigation do require routine repetition. The very items that we can annually target in the few hours of instruction under the WINGS program (“air work, pattern work, and hood work“) are precisely those items most involved in accidents.


  • Train more, obviously. Fly with a CFI more often. If you are a CFI, try to train more proactively in terms of real-world decision-making experience regarding weather. (Consider that relatively little flight instruction is devoted to cross-country flying, where our weather decisions are made. Pilots learn about weather, but not how to apply that knowledge.)
  • Go for more ratings. Be more goal-directed regarding improvement of flying abilities and knowledge.
  • Think more about flying … you do it already, and it doesn’t even cost anything. Focus on addressing real-life decision-making situations — what you’d do and how you’d do it. And what your out would be, in all situations.
  • More than this, reflect upon each flight you make. After all, experience isn’t just what you’ve done or what happens to you; it’s what you think about what you’ve done or what has happened to you.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Flying is fun; flying is rewarding. But flying is dangerous. There is a certain caption on a well-known and often marketed photograph that shows an early 20th century airplane that had obviously been crashed into just about the only tree in the middle of a wide open field. Paraphrased, its advice is the following: “Aviation, even more than the sea, is tremendously unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.” Don’t like that one? Here’s another. When I was a kid, a police captain came to our elementary school auditorium to talk to us about bicycle safety. He asked us all if we knew the single most dangerous part of a bicycle. Several brave souls offered their opinions. “No,” the officer said; “it’s the nut on the seat.