The Snowball Effect Category

After observing pilots in action for several years I started seeing trends in how they handled stressful situations. These trends made it clear that pilot performance varies widely but can loosely be broken down into categories. In the two previous articles on these trends, I characterized pilot performance groups as the “Information Managers” and then the “Non Assertive Decision Makers.

Important: These categories do not represent any one pilot and the traits observed could be seen in any pilot from time to time.

Main Characteristic: Members of this group were characterized by being “behind the airplane.” Members of this group were aware of what was going on but could not keep up with the workload. Very often the reason they did not keep up was directly due to their lack of preparation and wasting of time.

Example: These pilots would hear “expect ILS 32 approach” from the controller (which is controller jargon for “get ready!!!“) but often waited up to five minutes to select that approach’s frequencies and otherwise set the cockpit to be ready for the approach.

Snowballers in Detail: Members of this group did not anticipate. They were reactive rather than proactive. The idea of the snowball is that it starts off small but as the snowball rolls down hill it gets larger and larger. This analogy fits to members of this group because a small mistake or oversight caused them to first get slightly behind the demands of the workload — once behind, they would not ever catch up. The problem just worsened with time getting larger and larger as time went on.

The Root of the Problem: Members of this group routinely would miss a radio frequency change, fail to comprehend a weather report, or fail to look at an item on an approach chart, not because they did not think it important, but because they simply did not have time to do it. And it is this facet that is the source of the problem. By the time one item was taken care of, two others should have already been addressed, and by the time they ever got around to dealing with those two items, six others would be overdue.

Saturation: Members of this group struggle between the physical demand to control the simulator / airplane and the mental demands to think and plan ahead. Many would make comments like “I knew better than to do that” but they were simply too workload saturated to do everything or think of everything. Many of the problems are self-inflicted. Because these pilots are unable to take in new, incoming information and utilize this information in a timely manner, they are constantly making the task harder for themselves.

Pilots that I classified into this group had one thing in common: The simulator session or flight was a constant, frustrating struggle. Often it is like watching Lucille Ball try to keep up with the chocolates coming down the conveyor belt … and losing the battle — unfortunately, in the case of the simulator, it was more frightening than funny. Every possible mistake is witnessed, but more often than not, the mistakes are made not because the participant did not know any better, but because they did not have enough time to get to it. These pilots seldom if ever get past the first task level (see first task level from “Information Managers“). The first task level, are the absolute minimum tasks. These pilots never have time to get to the second level tasks, and they were so burdened mentally that they never thought of any third level tasks – the “extras.

Snowballing Errors (like I said, they make a lot of mistakes):

  1. Not properly setting up radio frequencies.
  2. Not anticipating a course intercept and flying through the course to the other side, which in turn required a re-intercept, and a loss of time that could have been used doing something else.
  3. Not aware of position relative to the instrument approaches or airport or traffic pattern.
  4. Not properly setting up headings.
  5. Rough control of the airplane.
  6. Over correcting for courses, and altitudes.
  7. Failure to descend once established on an approach course.
  8. Missed radio calls.
  9. Flight past a missed approach point with no action taken.
  10. Requesting one particular type of approach, but tune in the frequency for a different approach.
  11. Failure to reduce speed and consequently fly the approach faster than the enroute speed.
  12. Failure to report passing certain points when asked to do so by the controller.
  13. Misunderstanding of headings. Example: assigned the heading of 020 and they would fly 200 instead.
  14. Could not make calculations for time, or cloud heights.
  15. Misread the approach chart instructions.
  16. Did not find time to even look at the chart.
  17. Could not find a particular approach chart in the book. The charts are arranged in alphabetical order, but when mentally saturated with workload it appeared they could not remember the alphabet.
  18. Track to a radio station, but upon arrival was unprepared to act beyond the radio station.
  19. Failure to comprehend the impact of system failures.
  20. Failure to take any action that could have reduced the impact of system failures.

The Snowball Effect group does not offer many quotes while scenario are in progress, they simply did not have time. What was said was often broken sentences that trailed off as their mind raced to something else. One pilot said, “If the glide slope were and I…” followed by silence.

The frustration of knowing what to do but not being able to react fast enough to do it changed some pilot’s moods. Some respond to controller instructions with an angry tone of voice. One pilot became so frustrated when he could not find the proper approach chart during the simulator session, that he ripped the chart from the book and climbed out of the simulator in mid scenario (he essentially bailed out without a parachute!).

Once the simulator scenarios are completed, some pilots just sat in the simulator to collect themselves. The quotes during this time fell into two groups. A large group wanted to justify their poor performance by blaming the simulator or the scenario.

This simulator is not like my airplane.
This thing should have an auto-pilot.
I’m not used to where things are in this simulator.
I had never flown those approaches before.
The simulator was too sensitive in pitch.
I though the light (systems failures) was just your ‘distracter’ and not something I needed to worry about.
I would have done better if this had been a real airplane.
If this would have been for real I would have done things differently.

The other group (non-snowballers) seemed resolved to the fact that the scenario was more than they were prepared to handle, and blamed themselves.

I am so rusty, I looked like a beginner in there.
I got behind the airplane and could not do anything
Do you think I would have crashed?
I needed this, I really needed this.
Wow, was that a workout!

Watching “snowball” pilots was almost as painful to me as it was to them. I really did want to throw them a life ring. The scary part was that in some cases I knew I was watching what would have translated in the air to the last minutes of someone’s life. The random journal entries I have made of these pilots reflect the frustration:

It is like watching a person juggling three balls and you throw them a fourth – the problem is their best is only three.
Many of these pilots can either make decisions or fly the airplane, but they cannot do both.
There is a direct negative correlation between tasks accomplish and aircraft control. When they encounter a distraction their airplane control suffers. When I notice in the warm up that they are having a problem with aircraft control, I watch later when I give them the transponder code and without exception when they are distracted by setting in the code they get off their altitude 200 feet.
Some get an angry tone in voice
When they are concentrating on keeping the airplane straight and level and nothing else is going on they are fine, but when problems come up their mood changes.

Often after a simulator scenario I have the pilots write their thoughts on the session while its still fresh in their minds. Here are some samples from the Snowballers group:

Distracted by problem, got disoriented.
Settled down just a bit, still disoriented
If (this were) actual (airplane) may have had a mishap.
Main thought: to fly and keep aircraft under control.
Distracted from details of the approach – trying to think what to do.
Did not recognize (system) failure.
I was overwhelmed with the simulator and approach.
I didn’t take time to double check everything.

And two pilots wrote:

Battery Dies and Pilot,
Set downtown Smyrna on fire.

THESE ARE THE SNOWBALLERS. They did not have enough foundation skills and knowledge to function in the system and they were unable to put it all together. The solution: improve your skills with practice and improve your knowledge by talking to others, attending safety seminars, staying current, and reading iPilot!