Ex­cep­tional judg­ment or ex­cep­tional skill?


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Bret Koebbe

Imag­ine I asked you the fol­low­ing ques­tion dur­ing your next flight re­view: If you had the choice, would you rather fly di­rectly through a line of em­bed­ded thun­der­storms along your planned route of flight or use datalink radar im­agery on your iPad to de­vi­ate around the weather sys­tem?

You’d prob­a­bly take a cu­ri­ous look at me, think it was some kind of trick ques­tion and, of course, choose the op­tion to go around the weather. Fly­ing through the storms would add un­nec­es­sary risk, and it would take re­fined fly­ing skills along with a lot of luck to keep the air­plane up­right and in­tact on the other side.

Put an­other way, would you rather choose to ex­er­cise sound avi­a­tion judg­ment or rely on heroic fly­ing skills to get from point A to point B in this sce­nario? This is a bit ex­ag­ger­ated, but it’s a great ex­am­ple of how our ap­proach to fly­ing has evolved over the past 50 years thanks to ever-evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy that pro­vides a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing and aware­ness of the en­vi­ron­ment around us. In pre­vi­ous eras, the “best” pi­lots were those who could will the air­plane through any cir­cum­stance, planned or un­planned. Any­thing less was a sign of weak­ness. To­day, bet­ter judg­ment wins ev­ery time.

Richard Collins re­cently wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ences in the 1950s in­struct­ing cadets in the Air Force, where the of­fi­cial train­ing man­ual taught the pro­ce­dures for fly­ing through a thun­der­storm if there were no al­ter­nate routes avail­able to carry out the mis­sion for the day. The train­ing process re­quired pi­lots to de­velop the nec­es­sary fly­ing skills to han­dle an in­ten­tional thun­der­storm pen­e­tra­tion, pre­vent air­craft struc­tural fail­ure and emerge un­scathed with the blue sky up.

The fo­cus to­day is ap­pro­pri­ately on prevention, and de­vel­op­ing pi­lot de­ci­sion-mak­ing and judg­ment skills to keep you out of sit­u­a­tions that re­quire ex­tra­or­di­nary fly­ing skills.

Take a look at the re­cent avi­a­tion weather ac­ci­dent trend and you’ll see clear signs that pi­lot judg­ment is in­deed im­prov­ing. The most re­cent AOPA Joseph T. Nall gen­eral avi­a­tion safety re­port shows weather-re­lated ac­ci­dents de­creased sub­stan­tially be­tween 2009 and 2014, which is the most re­cent data set avail­able. I think it’s safe to say that im­prove­ments in the weather tools avail­able for pre­flight brief­ings and the avail­abil­ity of af­ford­able in-flight datalink weather have had a pro­found im­pact on the safety record. Pi­lots of all air­plane shapes and sizes fi­nally have the tools needed to ex­er­cise proper judg­ment in flight with fewer un­knowns.

Un­for­tu­nately, tech­nol­ogy hasn’t done as much to im­prove pi­lot judg­ment on other fronts. Take a look at some­thing more rou­tine and less ex­cit­ing, but just as im­por­tant: fuel plan­ning. There have been sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances in per­for­mance-plan­ning web­sites and apps over the past 10 years, al­low­ing pi­lots to quickly cal­cu­late fuel burn for a spe­cific model of air­craft to within half a gal­lon for a cross-coun­try flight. Fuel to­tal­izer sys­tems will

mea­sure ev­ery last drop that flows from the tanks to the en­gine, pro­vid­ing pre­cise fuel-burn in­for­ma­tion in flight.

De­spite these ad­vances, AOPA’s Nall re­port shows no sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in ac­ci­dents re­lated to fuel man­age­ment dur­ing the same pe­riod. It states that “nearly two-thirds re­sulted from flight-plan­ning de­fi­cien­cies such as in­ac­cu­rate es­ti­ma­tion of fuel re­quire­ments or fail­ure to mon­i­tor fuel con­sump­tion in flight, lead­ing to com­plete fuel ex­haus­tion.” You could ar­gue that tech­nol­ogy might ac­tu­ally be work­ing against pi­lots here in some cases, lulling us into com­pla­cency where too much trust is placed on flight-plan­ning pro­grams or the fuel-man­age­ment sys­tem on the air­plane. Both of these sys­tems de­pend on the pi­lot en­ter­ing the proper data for the flight, whether it’s the per­for­mance of the air­plane in a mo­bile app, or how much fuel is ac­tu­ally on board for a fuel to­tal­izer. Af­ter all, garbage in equals garbage out.

To fur­ther high­light this im­por­tance, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board re­leased a safety alert in Au­gust to draw at­ten­tion to the un­changed ac­ci­dent trend and pro­vide prac­ti­cal ad­vice for the prevention of fuel-re­lated ac­ci­dents. The alert shows that al­most 48 per­cent of pi­lots in­volved in fuel-man­age­ment ac­ci­dents hold either a com­mer­cial or air­line trans­port pi­lot cer­tifi­cate, and 50 per­cent a pri­vate or sport cer­tifi­cate. The re­main­ing 2 per­cent are stu­dent pi­lots. This clearly isn’t an is­sue lim­ited to low pi­lot time. Eighty per­cent of the ac­ci­dents oc­curred dur­ing day VMC, and less than 5 per­cent cited a mal­func­tion of the fuel sys­tem. In other words, 95 per­cent were caused by the pi­lot in good weather.

The alert has some key takeaways all pi­lots should con­sider, es­pe­cially dur­ing these mod­ern times when tech­nol­ogy seems to solve all prob­lems. It essen­tially stresses a “back to ba­sics” ap­proach, fo­cus­ing on the pi­lot’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to know and ver­ify how much fuel is needed for a given flight, and how much fuel is in the tanks at all times. This means vis­ually check­ing the fuel quan­tity be­fore take­off and us­ing some­thing as sim­ple as a timer or stop­watch to track fuel burn en route.

The most im­por­tant take-away re­lated to fuel plan­ning is that you need to an­a­lyze the es­ti­mated fuel burn num­ber out­put by your app or web­site and ask your­self, “Does that sound right for this trip?” It’s too easy to be trapped by au­to­mated per­for­mance num­bers, flight af­ter flight, with­out ques­tion­ing their ac­cu­racy. It takes just one small typo dur­ing the data en­try to se­lect the wrong air­craft pro­file, route or al­ti­tude and get in­ac­cu­rate re­sults.

It can be chal­leng­ing to teach judg­ment dur­ing flight train­ing since it is really a mind­set that is de­vel­oped over time with ex­pe­ri­ence. This is why it’s so im­por­tant that sce­nar­ios are in­cor­po­rated into ev­ery ground les­son and train­ing flight to present prob­lem-solv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to really make them think and de­velop crit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing skills. The move from the Prac­ti­cal Test Stan­dards (PTS) to the Airman Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Stan­dards (ACS) took a step in the right di­rec­tion in iden­ti­fy­ing Risk Man­age­ment items (I refer to these as “Pi­lot Judg­ment” items in­stead) in ad­di­tion to the Skills re­quire­ments for each task or ma­neu­ver.

The re­al­ity is that in to­day’s train­ing en­vi­ron­ment, we tend to spend more time fo­cus­ing on the Skills be­cause they can be mea­sured against de­fined check-ride stan­dards — al­ti­tude plus or mi­nus 100 feet, air­speed plus or mi­nus 10 knots and so on. This of­ten leads to flight lessons cen­tered on re­hears­ing spe­cific tasks, such as ground ref­er­ence ma­neu­vers, at the ex­pense of chal­leng­ing pi­lots to think through more “what-if” sce­nar­ios. Don’t get me wrong, there is just as much of a need to de­velop and im­prove the core stickand-rud­der skills to­day; loss-of-con­trol ac­ci­dents are still at the top of the list by a large mar­gin. It just shouldn’t come at the ex­pense of brush­ing over other train­ing ar­eas that aren’t as eas­ily graded on the check ride.

The pay­off for de­vel­op­ing bet­ter pi­lot judg­ment is im­me­di­ate and sig­nif­i­cant, whether it’s dur­ing pri­mary train­ing or re­cur­rent train­ing, be­cause you will ul­ti­mately feel more com­fort­able us­ing tech­nol­ogy and know to ques­tion a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion when some­thing doesn’t feel right. Sure, you won’t have any epic tales of get­ting shot out the up­draft of a thun­der­storm or land­ing on a high­way with tanks run dry, but you’ll have plenty of proud avi­a­tion mo­ments where sound judg­ment led to safe and ex­pected out­comes.

In pre­vi­ous eras, the “best” pi­lots were those who could will the air­plane through any cir­cum­stance, planned or un­planned. To­day, bet­ter judg­ment wins ev­ery time.

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