I’ve Been Watching You…

And I have been taking notes. Over the course of many years I have had the opportunity to watch pilots at work. As an instructor I have seen students of every skill level flying and working the system. In flight simulators I have seen pilots handle problems that we hope we never face in the air. By collecting and grouping these observations, I think I have a fairly good idea of what good piloting is. For most, good piloting is one of those things you have a hard time describing, but you know it when you see it. Well, through prolonged engagement, I have seen the traits that make up skilled piloting … and the traits that indicate the problems.

After sifting through many flight lessons, simulator observations, notes, journals, audio and video tape, I grouped pilot traits into categories and named them. The names I came up with reflect the characteristics that define the category.

  • The Information Managers
  • The Non-Assertive Decision Makers
  • The Snowballers, and
  • The Lost in Space.

In the coming weeks I will introduce you to these groups. The group characteristics are a composite of many pilots — no pilot resides completely in one category. Human performance varies widely from day to day, even hour to hour, so at one point a pilot could display the traits of the Information Managers, but the next day be Lost in Space. As you read through the characteristics that make up each category, you certainly will see yourself. If you are a pilot, consider this a self examination. If you are a flight instructor, use these characteristics to identify problems with your students and design strategies to attack those problems.

CATEGORY 1: The Information Managers
Piloting an airplane was once considered a physical task. It involved the moving of levers and switches and flight controls. Today the pilot must be much more. The pilot is an organizer, a planner, and a systems manager. The job of piloting has shifted along a spectrum from physical to mental tasks. Recently I had opportunity to observe 75 general aviation pilots in a simulator scenario. Those pilots who flew safer and with more confidence were those more able to make the shift from physical to mental action. The pilots who flew mechanically, simply following instructions, and “driving” the airplane around, sometimes became dangerous. My observations made it clear that the job of safe piloting is no longer restricted to the safe operation of a machine, but also the safe and efficient management of information.

The Information Managers are skillful handlers of incoming information. They successfully use that information to make their flights safe and relatively uneventful.

Characteristics: Members of this group were characterized by their ability to anticipate. They displayed the ability to control the airplane/simulator without nearing a mental saturation point. This left them with the available mental capacity to think ahead and plan for upcoming events. These participants never seemed to be in a hurry yet they were always doing something. They never let a free moment go without planning or doing something that would help them out later. The pilots of this group performed the “extras” and little things that made the job easier.

Timely completion of necessary tasks.
Example: Tuning a navigation radio to a frequency for use during an instrument approach. Without that frequency the pilot would not know where to go, so tuning that frequency is an absolute necessity.

Preparation for potential alternate outcomes.
Example: Pre-reading a missed approach instruction. This insures that, should circumstance necessitate execution of the missed approach procedure, there will be no fumbling for the proper chart while the airplane is somewhat out of control.

Situation awareness management — the primary indicator of the Information Manager category.
Example: Dialing in an additional navigation radio frequency on a second radio even though the second radio is not required for the flight procedure at hand. The information is used to more clearly determine position. With this knowledge the information manager would be aware of his or her relative position throughout the procedure and is able to call on this knowledge.

Observations: Information Managers in the study I observed would at times turn with a tighter radius in order to make a smooth course intercept. The only way these pilots could have known that a tighter radius was called for was through intimate knowledge of their relative position. With the course intercept smoothly made, 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 information manager was constantly and predictably completing extra “third level” tasks. The result was that the procedure appeared effortless and everything was under control.

One commonalty that all the Information Managers had was the ability to physically fly the simulator/airplane without using up all their mental energy. These participants were able to hold altitude and heading when that was required and still plan ahead. When physical workload increased (such as a affecting a turn or descent or a descending turn, or a course intercept), Information Managers were capable of keeping pace both with the physical task of manipulating the airplane controls while also keeping up with the mental tasks. 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.

Observations of pilots who were classified within the Information Managers group include the following actions:

  1. Pilots set the VOR radio to an outbound course before arriving at the station.
  2. A pilot asked for an updated wind report when turning on the final course.
  3. Many tuned in a back-up navigation frequency on the number two radio.
  4. Before flying into an air traffic control sector the pilot observed on a chart the communications radio frequency for that upcoming sector and tuned in that frequency on the number two communications radio (when the workload was light). When the time came to switch to the new frequency it only took the flip of a switch and the workload at that point in time was reduced.
  5. When faced with a decision regarding the weather, the pilot asked for a weather report from multiple surrounding airports before arriving at a final decision.
  6. One information manager, while experiencing a heavy workload, asked the controller to relay a frequency. Otherwise, the pilot would have had to look the frequency up in a chart directory. The pilot believed it was better time management to delegate the task and asked.
  7. The pilot recognized the fact that the cloud bases were lower than the instrument approach would legally allow and began making contingency plans early.
  8. One pilot turned to the observer who was sitting just outside the simulator and spoke to the observer as if the observer had been a passenger in the airplane while in flight. The pilot requested the passenger to turn to a particular page in a chart directory. (This came during a particularly high workload event.)
  9. Several pilots, switched the number two communications radio to listen to prerecorded weather broadcasts (ATIS – Airport Terminal Information Service).
  10. These pilots started and ended timed segments of the flight properly.
  11. Many of these pilots made/took the time to listen to the Morse code identifying broadcast of navigation radios.
  12. One pilot arrived at the lowest safe altitude at the bottom of an instrument approach and was still in the clouds. He asked the control tower to tell him the current altimeter setting. He knew it was possible that this setting could have changed and with the proper setting he might have been able to descend lower in hopes of getting underneath the clouds and landing safely.
  13. When one pilot was unable to land due to low clouds at one airport he asked the controller if other airplanes had recently landed on an instrument approach at a nearby airport. His logic was that if other pilots were landing it would be also possible for him to land as well. This helped make the decision as to which alternate airport to proceed.
  14. Pilots in the Information Managers category asked for reports from other pilots who had flown the course ahead of them for additional information.
  15. Almost every pilot in this category did not hesitate to discuss with the air traffic controllers problems that arose.
  16. When airplane malfunctions occurred, these pilots took appropriate internal action and advised controllers on their situation and what impact the malfunction had on the remainder of the flight.
  17. In one scenario a pilot had a rough running engine and needed to get down fast — but his destination airport had just suffered a gear up landing and the airport was closed. The pilot said to the controller, “Well you may have had one accident down there, but you are getting ready to have another one up here — I coming in to land!” That pilot knew that as Pilot in Command he had the authority to open any closed airport in an emergency.

The participants who were classified in the Information Managers group did little talking during the session except engaging in necessary conversation with air traffic controllers. (They very often talked to themselves however.) These quotes were characterized by reminders and questions to themselves.

I’ve got that set up in number 2.
I’m ready to make the turn outside the marker beacon.
Can I get a DME reading off of Nashville from here?

These quotes were not addressed to the controllers, but rather are quotes of thoughts spoken out loud. One pilot even said that he talked to himself while in flight and would that be all right in the simulator. I was able to more clearly see the planning that these pilots were conducting through these quotes.

When the pilots of this group did address the controllers they often had suggestions for the controllers. (Often it is the controllers who suggest to the pilots.) Some examples were:

Can I get a 320 heading now?
Give me a tight turn-on to the localizer.
Say again the ceiling at Nashville.

Confirm you want a left turn, my chart indicates a right turn on the missed procedure.

These pilot suggestions were made professionally but forcefully. The fact that the pilot knew enough about the situation to be making suggestions to the controllers was evidence of their awareness. The Information Managers all calmly and logically solved problems or found viable alternatives. During the sometimes trying simulated flights, all Information Managers landed safely.

Conclusion: The pilots who formed the Information Managers category were the living definition of Pilot in Command. Watching these men and women apply their skills to this work is an honor and a pleasure. They were what we all should strive to be and what all flight instructors should train their students to become. Unfortunately the Information Managers represented the smallest sub-group. Next week the: Non Assertive Decision Makers group.