New Technology’s Great Opportunity – Part 1

When I am sitting back in the coach section of an airliner (row 28F) on a dark and stormy night, I don’t much care that the airplane’s captain can execute a perfect Lazy Eight maneuver. What I care about is his or her ability to make good decisions in tight situations and get me on the ground safe and sound (at my intended destination). So if the goal is to complete the ‘mission’ of the flight, why do we place so much emphasis on ‘maneuvers’ that may or may not have direct application to the flight?

In Defense of the Maneuver
Maneuvers are used to first introduce and then hone ‘stick and rudder’ skills that are essential to safe piloting. Later, when a pilot is on a checkride, maneuvers are used to give the applicant the opportunity to illustrate their ‘stick and rudder’ skills to the examiner – how else would the examiner know if the applicant could safely control the aircraft? Many maneuvers don’t have any practical use. You will never hear a controller say,’1234 Alpha, give me a right Chandelle out there.’ But, maneuvers that do not have a practical use, do have a primary use – they can display a pilot’s ‘mastery of the aircraft.’ A properly executed Lazy Eight will showcase a pilot’s skill, while a poorly executed Lazy Eight will expose a pilot’s lack of skill. These skills are vital to safe piloting and must be evaluated before a person is allowed to receive a pilot certificate.

The Case for the Mission
Once a person passes their Private Pilot checkride they will be off with their family on flights to Disney World, or a weekend in the mountains. Your family and friends will not be impressed that you can do stalls and ‘S’ turns as much as the fact that you can be at the beach this afternoon. Once the formal training is done, pilots like to use their pilot certificate to travel – not to go back and forth to the practice area again. A retired airline captain friend of mine says, ‘the goal of every flight is to arrive at the proper gate with zero airspeed.’ He means that a safe trip is the most important thing in flying. Each flight therefore is a ‘mission’ that must be accomplished safely. During every flight/mission, decisions will have to be made that will determine the outcome of the flight. Humans get better at things when they practice those things – so why not practice decision making on every flight since that is the most important thing anyway. Knowing how to fly the perfect Chandelle will be of no service to you when you find yourself staring down a thunderstorm while enroute to Myrtle Beach. If the Chandelle will be of little help when you need it – why do it in the first place?

Maneuver and Mission Blended
Personally I believe that you can’t get by without a smart measure of both maneuver and mission training. While on your flight/mission to Disney World, you still will have to deal with a crosswind on takeoff occasionally. You will still have to handle a ‘short field landing’ when a controller tells you to ‘land runway 24 but hold short of 13.’ Stick and rudder skills are here to stay, but traditionally, maneuvers have been over emphasized by flight instructors, examiners, and the FAA. It is harder to teach and to grade one’s decision-making skills in a wide variety of possible situations than to just do another steep turn or stall series. Since maneuvers are easier to teach and to grade, maneuvers became king. But in order to be safe in the aviation environment, pilots must also be able to deal with the real world. Airline and military training has used LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training – as in ‘flight line’) for years. Many really good flight instructors have also incorporated mission-type training with their general aviation students for years as well. Maneuvers and Mission training must at least be equal partners in the training of pilots.

Glass Makes ‘Mission’ Real
The first great opportunity of the new technology is that ‘glass’ and its related capabilities can make mission training very real. Maybe it was by design or maybe this is all coincidence, but the combination of airplanes and computers lends itself wonderfully to LOFT. Technically advanced airplane have a great deal of information to present to the pilot, which means pilots can make more informed decisions – usually a more informed decision is a better decision. Pilots now must learn to prioritize the information. This will transform them to information managers in addition to machine operators (airplane pilots). And all this must take place ‘on the fly’ (no pun intended). Managing information, controlling the airplane, and doing all this in a real world situation is called ‘scenario training.’

Is Scenario Training Really Better?
Last week we discussed the NASA sponsored program, SAFER. The SAFER experiment takes beginner pilots and teaches them to fly from the very first flight through to the Private and Instrument rating in ‘glass’ cockpit airplanes. Well, in addition to the unique approach of training solely with glass, the SAFER project took it one step further. The SAFER project uses a syllabus filled with scenarios. Lesson number one of the SAFER syllabus is a flight to another airport – that’s right, a cross country on the first lesson. The SAFER syllabus was adopted from a training syllabus that was first written in conjunction with the FAA’s Industry Training Standards (FITS). The syllabus was then approved under the existing Part 141 certificate held by the Aerospace Department at Middle Tennessee State University and put into use this past fall.

The SAFER syllabus does not eliminate maneuvers. The students still have to learn to takeoff, land, fly slow, and avoid wind drift, but all these maneuvers are presented in the context of the bigger picture. It was extremely rare when the students spent an hour in the practice area repeatedly doing one maneuver after another. And here is the best part of the SAFER syllabus – there are no ‘minimum flight times’ for completion. When a student meets the proficiency standards at every level of training they move on -regardless of how many flight hours it took or didn’t take. The flight instructors of the SAFER project send students on to their FAA checkrides, when they were ready – and never look at how much flight time happens to be in their logbooks at that time. The SAFER syllabus does require solo flights, and solo cross country flights, and flights into Class D and Class C airspace, and flights at night and all the traditional training requirements, but we don’t care about flight hours, only about flight proficiency.

The Bottom Line
The new technology is great by itself, but it is also becoming a facilitator for training methods that, in the end, could be of greater benefit than the use of the new technology in the first place. The SAFER syllabus has only been approved, so far, at only one flight school in the USA – it’s an experiment. But, what we learn will hopefully be utilized in the near future by everyone who learns to fly and who wants to learn to fly better. The new technology may just make a better approach to training possible. More on another great technology opportunity next week.