The Poor Fliers Sub-Group

Watching pilots at work can be very informative, but sometimes you see things you didn’t want to see. The past several articles have chronicled pilot observations that I have made over the years in both airplanes and flight simulators. With careful observation and notes, patterns started to appear. I eventually grouped the patterns and named the categories. The broad categories were 1) The Information Managers, 2) the Non Assertive Decision Makers, 3) the Snowballers, and 4) The Lost in Space – see previous iPilot articles. But I also identified two sub-groups and one of these I call the Good Decision Makers/Poor Fliers groups.

Good Decision Makers / Poor Fliers (sub-group)

A small group of participants who made good initial decisions but flew the simulator and / or instrument approaches so poorly that the outcome was unfavorable even following a favorable decision. Examples would be a failure to descend on an approach that if flown properly would have ended successfully. This group was the smallest of the groups identified indicating that the physical control of the simulator / airplane is much less of a problem overall than the mental ability to reason out problems and anticipate.

In one study, only two participants out of the sixty-five pilots who flew a scripted flight scenario were unable to control the simulator well enough to complete the scenario. These two lost control and crashed before any challenges from the scenario were produced. The majority of the ‘poor fliers‘ group, however were able to complete the scenario, but their lack of airplane control skills prevented a successful outcome.

Often their decisions had brought them to the correct place in time, but they could not execute a plan of action. Their mental work succeeded, but their physical work failed.

Poor Flying Hurts Two Ways

Another characteristic that emerged from this group was that poor flying actually influenced future decisions that were made. When a procedure was flown poorly the pilot did not get the same information that they would have received had they flown the procedure correctly. An example would be a pilot who did not descend all the way down to the altitude allowed on an approach. If they had flown all the way down they would have discovered that the clouds were still too low for the approach and another attempt would be a waste of time. But having never gotten that low this information was not available to them, so often they would attempt a second fruitless approach and in doing so further reduce their options. The second attempt was a poor choice, but it was made without the information that might have shown the pilot it was a poor choice.

PLUS: In this sense a correctly flown first approach that does not end in a landing is still not a total loss, because the pilot, although not gaining a landing, gains information that could be used in the next decision.

MINUS: So a poorly flown procedure robbed the pilot of vital information necessary to achieve an ultimate solution. A poorly flown procedure became a double-edged sword. The struggle deprived the pilot of both aircraft control and information, which were both needed for a favorable outcome.


The Good Decision/Poor Fliers (sub-group) pilots made these representative comments during observation:

Full scale needle deflection, I’m going around.” (The “full scale needle deflection” indicated that the airplane was off course to such a large degree that the instrumentation could no longer identify position).

Now I have lost the glide slope again.” (The participant was flying an approach that had an operating glide slope, but flew the approach too high and over shot the proper descent path. The error became so large that the airplane’s instrumentation could no longer identify position).

There it goes again.” (The participant was commenting on the fact that the needle that defined the approach course was swaying back and forth rather than holding steady. This was happening because the pilot was inadvertently making turns across the course).

The participants in this group were completely aware that their poor aircraft control and inability to fly the procedures with precision had cost them a safe outcome. The comments made by these pilots included:

Second try too high — go around.”

Essential to make best possible approach.”

High — go around.”

Decided I was too high on first approach. Second time get down sooner!

Misread localizer (approach). Thought it was inoperative so I asked for a vector back for a second localizer.”

I did a poor job of navigating the ILS and flew through the glide slope. Time ran out. Plane crashed on airport.”

The Bottom Line: So after all these observations and grouping are made — what is the point? What is the value in identifying groups of pilot characteristics? Next week we will pull it all together and in doing so, hopefully, we will all be better pilots.