Beyond the “Stupid Pilot” View of Safety!

You have undoubtedly encountered the “stupid pilot” statistic endlessly repeated during safety meetings: human error is responsible for 80% of aviation accidents. This statistic is true if you only study and quantify aviation accidents but this is a very small part of aviation activity. This short-sighted methodology is like “studying divorce to understand marriage.” An obsession with errors and omissions – “never do this” – is a reactive, command and control approach to safety – a “whack a mole” strategy with no end. It ignores the fact that most of the time in aviation, things go right! And undervaluing the positive pilot contribution leads increasingly to engineering the pilot out of the cockpit and losing the largest contributor to flight safety – the pilot. Positive progress in safety requires not just “focusing out harm” but empowering and enabling pilots to be resilient and successful more of the time.  Proactive “Safety 2.0” works with this bigger picture and puts the pilot as the center.

In Focusing [Just] On What Pilots Do Wrong, We May Be Missing Valuable Lessons From What They Quietly Do Right -FORBES

Dr. Jon Holbrook, at NASA, terms this approach “productive safety,” and examines all the ways pilots actively contribute to safety during complex and challenging operations. “For every well-scrutinized accident, there are literally millions of flights in which things go right, and those flights receive very little attention,” said Holbrook. “Safety 2.0” deconstructs the expert performance of “things going right”  and provides a bigger toolbox of safety strategies. Studied in this manner, pilots are the constantly active “fixers,” flexing and changing plans to create greater safety during an ongoing process of monitoring and maintaining margins. When was the last time one of your flights went exactly as planned?

When we analyze “all flight activity,” safety requires constant awareness and the continuous creative modification during preplanned missions. These are most often not herculean interventions but small continuous changes adapting to unforeseen challenges. Safety 2.0 leverages this more positive focus rather than trying to create a beautiful statue by reassembling the broken pieces. Since I first wrote about “Safety 2.0” a year ago there has been tremendous progress in this field (everywhere but in aviation!) See “Doing Safety Differently” for examples of this approach in other industries.

A command and control view of an incident depicts this check airman as a stupid pilot whereas a more productive “Safety 2.0” approach might actually reveal how automation defeated the efforts of a cautious pilot crew that ultimately resolved the confusing situation safely!  This YouTube leverages Safety 2.0 in the medical world.  Fly safely (and often)

“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Thanks to All; SAFE Surveyed #1

SAFE recently celebrated a 10th anniversary and just this spring polled #1 in an FAA national survey as the top resource for pilots and CFIs! At this special time of year, we offer sincere thanks to all the amazing people who have worked so hard throughout these years to enable SAFE’s growth and ultimate success. Though SAFE endured some tough financial times through the years, there were some amazing “home runs” as the organization grew.

The Pilot Reform Symposium in 2011 shook the aviation industry and led directly to the development of the new FAA ACS. Our Pilot Proficiency Project grew into the nationally available EAA 365 initiative. The CFI insurance program SAFE created continues to be the best value in the industry; also gratefully used by the 100+ DPEs in our membership! SAFE has worked very hard to improve aviation safety with industry leaders like Doug Stewart and Rich Stowell testifying on behalf of SAFE in front of the NTSB for aviation flight training. Our participation in FAA national forums has been a constant force for positive industry change. Thank-you to these important individual leaders!

“SAFE members are the movers and shakers of the flight training community!” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt at SAFE Symposium 2011

Since its founding in 2009, SAFE has been the “scrappy underdog,” frugal and struggling, supported entirely by member donations and lots of “sweat equity” from generous volunteers and industry sponsors. Great thanks goes to all our generous sponsors who have enabled our growth. Incentives like the 1/3 off Foreflight go a long way toward inspiring membership!

It was a wonderful shock and validation of our efforts when SAFE was finally recognized as the #1 source of aviation proficiency resources this spring. The FAA WINGS program commissioned a comprehensive survey conducted by AOPA to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in their program and also discover what pilots and CFIs needed and valued in the industry. SAFE came out on top! We are so grateful for this honor and thank all our members and sponsors for getting us to this leading position in the aviation industry. In so many ways, this is just the starting gate for many amazing projects ready to grow and bring new value to the industry.

The Toolkit App, introduced in 2015, was only intended as a short-term substitute until our website was remodeled. This tool grew to became our flagship offering that now supports thousands of daily users. This single resource also spawned this SAFE blog and initiatives like SAFE CFI-PRO™. Held initially at KFDK last fall this program is now offered to flight schools and universities.

Most recently the very popular SAFE Checkride Ready!™ was launched on the app and is growing at an exponential rate. Thank you for using and supporting all these programs and contributing your ideas and suggestions. (The “responder” on the app comes directly to my phone!)

SAFE is finally nearing the final integration of our new website as the developer installs recent changes to plugins that will finally allow us to migrate our membership database from over to Stripe around January 2021 (can’t wait!) The courses and resources available on this new site are amazing (but no wine before its time…)!

So thanks again and wishing everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving. Your amazing support through the years has made all this possible.  Please consider an additional gift to support our website transition or help fund our STEM scholarships. Just click on our easy Give2SAFE portal. Additional gifts to SAFE, outside of the usual membership dues, are completely tax-deductible through our educational not-for-profit status. Have a safe holiday and thanks again for your support: #flySAFE

“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Planning (not “Plans”) – Essential to Safety!

Recent headlines addressed the General Aviation accident rate and compared them to other types of aviation. Relative to the airlines and the military, why is GA so much more prone to accidents? Having been lucky enough to have flown a fairly broad mix of military and part 121 operations I will try to answer that question with one word: Planning!

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
(General/President Eisenhower)

As a CFI conducting a recent flight review, I observed the pilot while dealing with a training diversion. We had talked about this event for a couple of days, he knew it was coming. Yet when I said, “Divert” it was as if I’d suggested we divert to the backside of the moon. He was totally unprepared for it. Down went his head to the iPad. Searching and searching for who knows what. It seemed like the longest time before I suggested that he at least look out the front window for a moment to do some clearing.

It doesn’t matter what your next event is, you already have some fairly broad ideas of what may or may not happen. Private Pilot check ride? Chances of a divert on a scale from zero to 100; any takers? My money is you really need to be prepared to find some frequencies, find some weather, calculate time and fuel, maybe run some form of either normal or emergency checklist, determine runway suitability and perhaps another task or two on the way to your divert airfield (it is in the book!) It really helps if you’ve at least looked at these things beforehand.

Does it have to just be a Flight Review or a Checkride? No, but EVERY flight needs to be adequately planned. Just doing a couple laps around the pattern? No problem, nothing will happen on that flight, right? WRONG, that’s the most likely time to have troubles. Those flights are the perfect time to really dig deep on preparation and planning. You shouldn’t have to spend too much time studying taxiway and runway orientation if it’s your home field. Instead study the weather, winds aloft, go back to the Airplane Flying Handbook and re-read a couple chapters on the traffic patterns and landings. I could easily offer a review of chapters 5, 7 and 8 for your pattern only review. If you’re off to another airport for that $100 hamburger there are more chapters worth going back through.

The word of the day is planning. There are rarely times when you get scrambled on a do or die mission that requires you to launch into whatever is lurking outside the door. When does planning start? I’ve got a flight later this week that I’ve been planning for at least ten days. It’s going to require four legs, every leg is adjustable to some degree which means that I’m looking at several different airports for each leg. I’ll be flying a plane that is new to me, so I intend to be very conservative on every point.

On my four-leg journey, I entered the airport where I’ll pick up the plane and the airport of my final destination. That gives me a long straight line. Based on fuel considerations I decided that I’d do four rather than three legs. A big part of that decision was the location of two Class Bravos that will impact my VFR operation. For each of my interim stops, I’d like them to be as close to the original magenta line as possible.

With the legs roughly designated, now I’m going to start getting a little more specific with each airport. At first glance, I just used the airport date block from the sectional to determine the basics. Next up I’m going into the A/FD to make sure that each airport I plan on stopping at has everything I think I might need. Hopefully, each stop will be nothing more than a “gas and go.” But it is nice to know if maintenance is available before I set down. There are several applications available but I’ve learned to love ForeFlight and all it offers.

With a couple days to go, I’ve got a rough plan. As the day approaches, I’ll start focusing on the weather and NOTAMs. If you’ve failed to plan, you’ve planned to fail. Don’t let that be you. I’ll send some pictures of my upcoming delivery flight. Be SAFE!

“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

“Hope, Luck, Appearance” – Dangerous Delusions!

In aviation, we meet people every day that carry certificates and endorsements that should guarantee a certain level of knowledge and performance. Unfortunately, this is often not entirely true. In our modern society, hope, luck and trust in outward appearance are the norm. But beyond the surface facade, facts often reveal that people are really renting that fancy car (or girlfriend) and their amazing house is way behind on payments (or owned by dad). Most people in our modern society are not exactly what they pretend to be (or think they are). Dishonest presentation may be intentional but sometimes people are unaware of their deception and are fooling themselves as well.

Humans are excellent liars. We don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of lying; it hurts us too much to admit. So we lie to ourselves about that, too. …this type of dishonesty is far harder to detect and admit. It is the kind of lying that comes from not being psychologically strong enough to be honest with ourselves about who we are.

As pilots we cannot afford this deception or “magical thinking.” Our lives depend on honest skill and verification of factual data. The primary job of a DPE giving a checkride is verifying (checking) the endorsement by the recommending CFI that the pilot applicant meets the ACS standards. DPEs don’t teach, they just say “yes” or “no.” And this skill in one every CFI (and even pilot) needs to develop and exercise daily for safety.

To be effective as an aviation educator, step one is to interrogate and validate the certificates, experience and talent presented by your learner. This assures an honest baseline level of ability and makes the instructional process much safer and more effective. The “missing elements” are usually well hidden and need to be actively searched out in the first flight together. A worn 50 mission leather jacket does not assure any pilot competence (more likely the opposite). And teaching to an “assumed level” of skill is not only useless and frustrating, it can also become a dangerous experience. If a complex maneuver is not working in flight, deconstruct it and try a more basic version using the same skills. If the patternwork has a problem, deconstruct the elements and practice them individually away from the pattern pressure. Then reassemble the “pattern pieces” on return. It is amazing how effective simple slow flight (at altitude) can be to solve “flare and landing” problems.

I was hiring a new CFI from a large university aviation program who energetically demonstrated an aggressive “skid to landing” when he believed he was slipping. Another super-CFI landed everywhere on the runway (except the centerline) and thought my guidance to “hold the centerline” was the demented dream of a grumpy CFI. Flight tests provide similar surprises in a more calibrated environment. Every day in flight has its surprises. Again, the goal is to discover these oddities and missing elements before they become dangerous.

We are all familiar with the FAA lesson plan form in the FAA Instructor Handbook. I always advocated for an important addition to this boilerplate form. Adding “prerequisites” before the new lesson content assures that foundational requirements are present *before* we attempt new growth and progress. Whether we realize it or not, every flight lesson assumes a level of competence as the point of departure. If the pilot you intend to teach chandelles cannot coordinate a simple climbing left turn out of the traffic pattern, your lesson plan is doomed before you even begin. It is essential to determine and teach to the actual skill/knowledge level of the pilot, not just what their certificates tell you. Courage and self-confidence are necessary piloting traits to a degree, delusion and hubris are just scary. Fly safely out there (and often!)

“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Teaching “Average” Prevents Effective Learning

Good aviation education is not a process of standardizing *people* but *procedures*. It is critical to remember that every person walking in the door to learn to fly is a unique individual and there are many pathways to achieve the necessary skill, knowledge and judgment we need to be safe. Teaching to an “average learner” is a huge mistake, often caused by lack of imagination and laziness (we all get jaded after a couple thousand hours…), but standardization of everything is also how our human brain works. We process our diverse sensory input by stereotyping (predictive perception). But to be an effective educator we need to force ourselves to see and appreciate the unique differences in every learner. This requires effort and imagination every day to succeed. Our build-in impulse to “teach average” is a huge reason for our 80% drop out rate in aviation. This happens in all our educational pursuits. High schools lose 1.2 million people every year (sound familiar?)  Of these high school dropouts, 4% are known to be “intellectually gifted!”

Todd Rose was a high school drop out and eventually went on to be a Harvard professor. His Ted Talk uses the original Air Force human factors adaptability studies of Gilbert Daniels. He rated pilots on 10 dimensions and discover “there is no such thing as an average pilot.” I think every aviation educator should watch this important Ted talk:

Once these and other design solutions were put into place, pilot performance soared, and the U.S. air force became the most dominant air force on the planet.

I hope this inspires a new way to think of your everyday educational challenges. Create excitement and challenge in your daily instructional life! Fly safely out there (and often)!

  Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Where Do We Lose It? The *Real* Threat!

Ask yourself a question: where do most stalls occur? Take a moment. Write down your answer.

Almost everyone probably wrote down “in the base-to-final turn.” The ubiquitous stall scenario is overshooting the turn from base leg to final approach, and (perhaps subconsciously) adding too much rudder to try to slew the airplane’s nose into alignment with the runway centerline in a skidding turn.

The resulting overbanking tendency may incite the pilot to apply aileron opposite the turn. The upward deflected aileron on the wing outside the turn decreases that’s wing’s angle of attack compared to the wing inside the turn. If the pilot also pulls back on the elevator control in this turn—another instinctive response to an overshoot—the inside wing may reach its critical angle of attack. It suddenly stalls while the outside wing is near its maximum coefficient of lift. The airplane snap-rolls toward the inside of the turn with nowhere near enough altitude for the startled pilot to recover.

A base-to-final turn gone bad is a deadly Loss of Control – Inflight (LOC-I) scenario. However, LOC-I in the base-to-final turn is one of the least common stalls in the accident record.  

The truth about stalls was quantified by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute in a 2017 study titled  “Stall and Spin Accidents: Keep the Wings Flying.” This report “analyzes 2,015 stall accidents between 2000 and 2014, and concludes with recommendations for prevention, recognition, and recovery from stalls while offering ideas on a shift in focus for stall awareness, prevention, and recovery.”

AOPA notes: “Perhaps surprisingly, more stalls occur during the departure phases of flight (takeoff, climb, and go-around) than in the arrival phases (approach, pattern, and landing).”

Using the AOPA-ASI data, which in turn derives from NTSB conclusions, I created some images that describe the true nature of traffic pattern stalls.

The first image details real-world stall data on the arrival end of a visual traffic pattern. The commonly cited base-to-final turn, and stalls in the turn from downwind to base leg, together account for only 3.8% of all NTSB-reported stall events. Now these stalls, when they do occur, are quite deadly: 66% of the downwind-to-base stalls are fatal, and 80% of base-to-final turn stalls result in death. That stands to reason; if a stall occurs in one of these places there is little room to recover. Still, these most commonly considered turns are low-probability, high-severity events.

Stalls on the downwind leg or the wings-level portion of the base leg almost never occur, only 0.8% of the reported LOC-I events in the circuit. A little over half of these resulted in death, still a low-probability, high-severity event.

Stalls after completing the turn to final approach are almost twice as common as stalls in the turns. Still, they account for only 6.1% of traffic pattern stalls, 40% of them fatal. This becomes a low probability but moderate severity type of event.

Stalls in the landing flare are much more common than any of the others on the arrival end of the pattern: 21.2% of the pattern stalls total. Close to the ground, these stalls usually do not devolve into spin rotation, and vertical movement stops before the airplane accelerates to a deadly descent. We call these stalls a hard landing—only 8% of stalls in the flare kill people. These are high probability but relatively low severity events.

Put them all together and LOC-I in a visual arrival account for 31.9% of all traffic pattern stalls. Another commonality: these are generally power-off stalls, the type most pilots and their instructors are far more comfortable practicing and tend to practice more often.

This second image plots AOPA-analyzed NTSB data to show stalls during a go-around and during the initial climb. This is the surprising part: takeoff and go-around stalls, power-on stalls, are far more common than power-off stalls during the approach and landing. About 18% of the reported stalls happened during a go-around. Because these LOC-I events are close to the ground, a quarter of these stalls are fatal…but three-quarters of them are not.

Many types of airplanes, when trimmed for final approach speed, have an elevator trim setting that is more nose-high than the takeoff trim setting. Some types are trimmed very nose high on final approach. Meanwhile, in many airplanes adding power causes an upward pitch movement.

So at the beginning of a go-around, many airplanes will pitch up into a high angle of attack. It may take forward pressure on the controls to fly the correct initial attitude and airspeed. Pilots who do not practice go-arounds routinely may not be prepared for the control inputs necessary to avoid a stall.

However, half of all traffic pattern stalls happen during takeoff and initial climb. 40% of these losses of control prove fatal. These are high probability, moderate severity events.

The major commonality here: these are power-on stalls. You know, the ones that are uncomfortable to fly, and may seem unrealistic is flown the way they are prescribed in the Airman Certification Standards. For the stalls that will get you, full power stalls during takeoff or a go-around, are often flown with some flaps and with (in retractable gear airplanes) gear extended.

Such an airplane, combined with nose-up trim, may reach the critical angle of attack at a pitch attitude much lower than is required to fly an ACS-style power-on stall (pg. 43). The “dirty” airplane configuration often results in a more dynamic, more dramatic departure from controlled flight than a clean, ACS-style power-on stall. And full power adds to the rapid departure from controlled flight, compared to the often reduced-power power-on stall taught at altitude—power application can introduce yaw and roll, and countering that movement with aileron (a common response) sets the pilot up for that same skidding-stall scenario we discussed back in the turn from base to final.

My third diagram interpreting AOPA’s report compares where we think we’ll stall to where we actually stall, based on NTSB accident history:

About half of all NTSB-reportable stalls are power-on stalls during takeoff and in a go-around. Almost 90% of all stalls—add the hard landings to the power-on stalls—happen over or beyond the runway. We think if we’re going to stall it will be in the pattern before the final approach. We actually stall over the runway and on the departure end.

We spend a lot of time and effort teaching the power-off stall, avoiding accelerating the stall (pulling back on the controls, which increases G load and therefore angle of attack for a given pitch attitude) and emphasizing rudder coordination to keep both wings at the same angle of attack, avoiding the snap-roll scenario. This emphasis may be why the most commonly cited stall scenario, the base-to-final turn, is in reality one of the least common stalls in the accident report. Don’t stop training, practicing and thinking about these stalls. Training and awareness work.

We need to add training and awareness of stalls that occur over and beyond the runway, and practice realistic simulations of a power-on stall in the landing and takeoff configurations, to guard against the most common stalls. Get as comfortable recognizing and recovering from these stall scenarios as you are with power-off stalls more commonly practiced, to avoid the traffic pattern loss of control threat.

Professional CFIs should take special notice of the *real* pattern threat – high power/high nose – and train these areas more assiduously for pilot proficiency and confidence. Fly SAFE out there (and often)!

Thanks to Tom Turner, a charter (and lifetime) member of SAFE, for sharing this important article here. This was originally published on Tom’s Mastery Of Flight Training website which publishes weekly “Flying Lessons” (subscribe for free). Tom is also the author of many books and articles as well as Executive Director and Chief Pilot of the American Bonanza Society.

  Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Ideas for Improvement from Redbird Migration!

There were many great presentations and breakouts at Redbird Migration that will take weeks to digest and present here! The significant AOPA presence almost eclipsed the whole Redbird contribution, especially the new AOPA Flight Training Advantage App now in Beta test (more on this soon). For all pilots, Joe Brown masterfully modeled a pathway to greater safety in flying through discipline and regular proficiency.

Only 4000 Professional CFIs in USA!

SAFE member Eric Crump recorded an excellent breakout digging deep into FAA statistics and revealing that despite the 114K flight instructor certificates, there are surprisingly, only about 12K truly “active flight instructors” (working with pilots toward ratings). Of these, 2/3s or all CFIs are brand new (8K new CFIs last year). And most of these CFIs are hour-builders transitioning to another career. We have only about 4,000 professional CFIs in the US that are continuously active in the aviation industry for more than a year. This means only about 4,000 instructors in the field building their professional skills and carrying institutional knowledge forward from year to year. 2/3 of CFIs on the job are inexperienced. True lifetime educators in the business are increasingly rare! This points out the critical need for SAFE mentoring program and SAFE CFI-PRO™ This also explains the rarity (and value) of Master Instructors! The geographical listing of SAFE members is here.

Error-Based Learning and Constructive Criticism

Another helpful breakout session for educators was the validation of educational practices undertaken by Chris Moser as part of his Master’s Degree at Embry Riddle.

Leveraging and analyzing AOPA’s extensive survey data, Chris scientifically validated the importance of Syllabus Usage, Pre-Lesson Preparation, Error-based Learning and Constructive Criticism. Though the first two (syllabus and prep) are well-accepted aviation tools, both error-based learning and constructive criticism are rare (and were found to be even more important). These two tools are underappreciated by educators and also mentioned in the SAFE breakout.

Error-Based Learning is often missed by new aviation educators since it is not covered in the FAA Instructor’s Manual. And there is a tendency for inexperienced CFIs to overcontrol most flight lessons both on the yoke and the radio preventing any experimentation and wandering by the student. But a well-established necessity in learning skill-based activities is for the learner to explore, and discover their own errors and self-correct. Constructive Criticism (and guided reflection) after a lesson guides the corrections to ideal standards and suggests “opportunities for improvement.”

The SAFE breakout reinforces the point that new CFIs seldom allow “constructive exploration” by the learner. Most aviation experience for new CFIs up to the point of CFI certification mandates precision and accuracy in every flight; additionally, the “pilot personality” is most often competitive and emotionally cold (whereas “compassionate coach” is a better model for success). It is often shocking for new CFIs to be going sideways and frequently off altitude in their new world as a learner explores their abilities and controls! (See the previous blog on “Two Certificates-Two Skill Sets!“) Another recommendation in the SAFE breakout is leveraging “incremental mastery” to motivate and inspire students to increase retention. Fly safe out there (and often)!

  Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Airlines -vs- GA: Safety Solutions!

Comparing the safety record of “big iron operations” with general aviation is a very common but also inherently unfair contest. The airline “safety sales pitch” goes something like: “airlines have a near-zero accident rate due to some superior skill, secret sauce or magic techniques (buy it here…)” But in fact, the General Aviation piloting job, by its nature, requires more diverse skills and responsibilities in a more demanding safety environment. The airlines have incrementally “engineered out” the risk for efficient transportation – which is indeed the goal of safety. But they have achieved this by limiting the flexibility and opportunities in flight that are the beating heart of GA flying.

Airline operations are not flown by solo pilots, but actively utilize a much larger “safety team.” Part 25 aircraft are piloted by a crew (required by certification) which all by itself conveys an amazing 8X benefit in safety! Additionally, automatic systems carry most of the pilot workload with operations to only 1% of available airports and almost always IFR.

Not only does the GA pilot usually carry all the piloting responsibilities solo, but GA pilots also cover the maintenance, planning, and dispatch while accessing thousands of non-standard airports in often challenging terrain. Airlines, by contrast, employ huge teams for maintenance and an army of licensed dispatchers doing all the planning from start to finish. And the regularly scheduled environment enables a high degree of standardization and predictability. Fortunately, though the safety comparison is dubious, there are many valuable techniques that can increase GA pilot professionalism and add safety to the challenging GA environment.

GA flying is lots more versatile (and fun), but as a result, more accidents do occur. It is not practical – or desirable – to give up the freedom and flexibility of GA flying – hire a copilot and file IFR? But there are many professional techniques and resources GA pilots can adapt to GA to increase the personal flying safety margins.- and many airline pilots flying GA are examples of this strategy. Every pilot should leverage these tools for greater safety. And CFIs reading this can build up clientele and professionalism by raising their game and developing these programs for their clients. Build your own “safety team” and become a personal professional pilot!

1) Objectively rate your flying after every flight and develop personal SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). Whatever your piloting level, define it precisely with personal limitations and minimums. In professional flying, every new captain has restrictions until the specified experience is acquired and every operation conforms to SOPs. Matching capabilities to conditions is the key to safe flying. The “reflective review” after every flight ensures you are not “normalizing”  lucky – rather than skill-based outcomes in your flying.

2) Create a personal proficiency plan and upgrade plan for skill and knowledge. One huge safety advantage professional pilots have is the required 6-month recurrent training. To leverage this in personal flying, create a personalized program for maintaining and upgrading skills and knowledge. This probably requires a CFI at certain points for upgrading and objective analysis. (and if you are a CFI, setting up a program for your clients assures regular training opportunities and growth for your skills). For new VFR pilots challenging the busier airspaces like NYC or SoCal enhances skills and confidence. The required additional planning and radio savvy often motivate private pilots toward an instrument rating.

3) Carefully plan and brief every take-off as a potential emergency.  Professional pilots are required to calculate and brief all possible take-off (and landing) contingencies for every operation. This preparation ensures that emergencies are “expected” not “surprising.” A rejected take-off or power failure on the initial climb will lead to an accident unless it is trained then briefed before power application. This training is quite rare at the GA level. Consequently, the  “pilot killers” in aviation (when adjusted for exposure time). 24% of pilot fatalities occur during this phase of flight! For the CFI, it is critical to include a rejected take-off (pull the throttle, pop a window open or release the pilot seat to create surprise). Emphasizing a “prepared mindset” for every runway operation (take-off and landing) will exponentially enhance safety; pro pilot!

4) Utilize ATC services for longer or challenging flights. Every 121 or 135 operation requires continuous “flight monitoring” from the engine start to shut-down (usually IFR). In GA, there is a cultural drive toward “lone eagle bravery” (the “Lindbergh Effect?”) that spurns the use of resources. But the advantage of another set of eyes for traffic, and assistance in the case of an emergency or weather challenge is a huge safety boost for every flight. This also improves radio skills for future ratings (e.g. instrument).

5) Thoroughly brief the weather and specifically plan alternate routes and airports.  Though 91.103 specifies planned alternates for every flight, GA pilots seldom consider and prepare other routing or landing options. (As a CFI on a flight review, NOTAM your client’s primary airport OTS enroute?)As a solo pilot facing challenging weather, call a trusted pilot friend for a second opinion (the “crew advantage”) and set objective standards for each continuation point – “a pilot in motion tends to stay in motion!”

6) Build a system for maintaining vigilance enroute,  continually watching for potential landing areas and monitoring trends. “Immediate memory items” – boldface in POH (again, professional pilots go to training every 6 months and beat this up). When the engine has problems or quits, the “pilot pull reaction” seems into the human DNA. Recent training must take over and quickly reduce the flight attitude to the glide picture (your wing cord line level with the horizon). For CFIs, this needs to be repeatedly emphasized in every flight review; “surprise!”

7) Practice take-off and landings in windy conditions: “Where the rubber meets the road” is the major cause of aviation accidents. And surprisingly, there is no requirement to test crosswind landings on any flight test! Windy landings are “voluntary professionalism”  that few pilots attempt or master. Every flight review needs to sharpen this skill set. “Tough love” from the CFI keeps pilots alive. Fly safely out there (and often)!


8) Identify and separate emotions from facts. We are all subject to cognitive bias and many “landmark accidents” clearly illustrate “magical thinking” at work. Another huge advantage of a larger “safety team” with crew-based flying and SOPs is the objective analysis of the risks. As the only planner and pilot in GA, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing what we want to see. Conversely, many pilots miss out on manageable trips because of initial fear. If a trip meets your standards and adds up to objective safety, the flight will be safe. It takes some courage to overcome initial jitters. It is also possible to dial down the challenge with a smaller mission or take a pilot friend for help. The key is to keep flying and growing skills, knowledge, and experience. Fly safely out there (and often)!

There are many more great “tune-up” skill builders in our “SAFE Extended Envelope Syllabus.” What are your favorite “tune-Up” maneuvers?

Your SAFE membership also saves you money and helps support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to access pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together to raise professionalism makes all of us safer pilots!

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”is now on the SAFE toolkit app (prepared by senior DPEs). This guidance helps prevent “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.

Fly Adaptively – TLAR Defeats Perfectionism!

Pursuing excellence and striving to be better is a positive piloting trait and the heart of professionalism. It is unfortunately often confused with “perfectionism” which is a neurotic need to avoid any perceived errors – rooted in fear and insecurity. Perfectionists seek external validation and are often driven by shame. Being perfect “every day in every way” can be seriously disabling in both life and in flying. It is also a serious impediment to learning anything new since this requires some humility and vulnerability (not a “know it all”). Perfectionism causes indecision and procrastination since no action can be taken until it is absolutely “the best.”  And in flying, “no action” is definitely the “enemy of the good.” By contrast, aeronautical decision-making strives for the “best possible” solution in a timely manner; “satisficing” not maximizing. TLAR (that looks about right) is from the military; extemporaneous improvisation in the heat of battle. The  pitfalls of perfectionism go way beyond the usual “pilot OCD.” To be safe we need to fully understand the difference.

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.”
Dr. Brené Brown

Perfectionism can cause serious psychopathology because perfectionists relentlessly drive themselves to achieve an impossible standard—no hesitations, deviations, or inconsistencies. (This is the driving force behind anorexia) They can become hyper-sensitive to imperfection (in themselves and others) and can fall easily into helplessness and self-recrimination. Perfectionists believe their acceptance from others (being a good pilot) is dependent upon never making any mistakes. For true perfectionists, there is never “good enough,” since by definition, “perfect” is always out of reach. Psychologists catalog perfectionism as a defense mechanism with a rigid set of rituals designed to avoid failure and especially shame (failure in the eyes of others). Operationally, perfectionists are vulnerable to distress and cognitive rigidity; haunted by a chronic sense of failure as well as indecisiveness, procrastination, and shame. Perfectionist pilots can be truly painful to work with since they often display an outward sense of superiority and condescension as well as an unwillingness to adapt to changing situations. In this way, perfectionism is very different from “striving for excellence!

Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals. Amanda Ruggeri

If you see yourself in some of these descriptions, don’t be alarmed. Every psychological profile is a spectrum and pilots all have “tendencies.” There are good elements that can be salvaged, it is the core negative motivation that needs to be avoided. Though we should all maintain and aspire to the highest standards and ideal outcomes, we need to fight against rigid perfectionism as a weakness that is disabling. Flying is too dynamic and fraught with variables and surprises to be amenable to the rigidity of perfectionism. Our best strategy for decision-making in a rapidly changing, high stakes environment is “the best solution in the current situation.”

TIme to playA common metaphor for decision making in aviation is the sport of football. As in aviation, football requires  hard practice, drilling skills and technique.  It similarly runs all the hypothetical scenarios and even decides the perfect desired course of action in the huddle. But as soon as the ball is snapped and the whole situation evolves, everything is changing rapidly. This fluid world of multiple variables and limited time, requires fast action, improvisation and flexibility not the rigidity of perfection. Aviation decisions require “fast and frugal decision-making” rather than rigid and constrained pre-decided planning. As General Eisenhower famously said “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Satisficing” is a decision making concept developed by a genius (and Nobel prize-winning) computer scientist named Herbert Simon way back in the 1950s. He was the first behavioral psychologist and debunked the Renaissance idea of “perfection in knowledge and action.” We live in a fast-changing world where we have limited time, resources, and information.  “Perfect choices” are impossible in a dynamic environment. Simon advocated the best choice limited by circumstances which he called “satisficing.” This is also the core concept which pilots call “aeronautical decision making” (ADM). We cannot freeze the action, we must decide on the fly and achieve the best outcome given the limiting factors of time information and resources.

F-16_June_2008The aeronautical origin of this concept was Colonel John Boyd, the famous developer of energy management fighter tactics (and later the F-16 aircraft at the Pentagon). Boyd ran the Nellis AFB “Top Gun” fighter school for years and created the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act model for decision-making in fluid, rapidly changing (usually wartime) conflicts. This was gratefully accepted by the Marine Corps and is taught at every business school in America for business decisions. The book “Team Of Teams” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal incorporates many of these ideas employing fast-cycle iterations. When the action is fast and furious, decision making is fast and frugal.

The heart of fast and frugal decision-making is the application of “heuristics” or rules of thumb. These predetermined scripts simplify the decision-making process through mental shortcuts. Heuristics bypass the careful, rational (but time-consuming) deliberation process and occur decisively and immediately in areas with a clear need for action. These also encompass the habits we, as pilots, work so hard to embed almost instinctively in our operating system. Another term from the military that often describes this ability is TLAR (“that looks about right”) and is an anathema to perfectionists. When Apollo 13 blew up (the famous quote “Houston, we’ve had a problem”) and the playbook had to be thrown out requiring calculations on the “back of the napkin.” Flexible thinking brought this crippled craft back home with the most accurate splashdown in history. So trust the force a little and work with “satisficing” to achieve the best outcome given the circumstances. You will always be better off acting decisively than frozen looking for an elusive “perfect choice.” Fly safely out there (and often)!

Your SAFE membership also saves you money and helps support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to access pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together to raise professionalism makes all of us safer pilots!

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”is now on the SAFE toolkit app (prepared by senior DPEs). This guidance helps prevent “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.

Honesty & “Tough Love” for Safety!

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.23.50 AMThe most dangerous CFI is not the one lacking skills or with a history of safety issues. That CFI is usually locally notorious and avoided by astute (or scared) learners. A less obvious but much more dangerous CFI is the one that lacks professional standards and integrity and approves participation rather than achievement. On one level this can be a new CFI that craves approval and has not learned to properly (but gently) “deliver disappointment.” We all know that even despite hours attained, sometimes “more training is necessary” to achieve a known standard. New CFIs often lack a clear understanding of the standard or the process of getting to the goal line (see last week’s “10 Rules For New CFIs“). This is also a reason why CFI oversight and mentoring is so vital for new instructors.

SuperCessnaPanelProgressing deeper into the darkness is the occasionally dishonest “approval for a fee” method of flight training. A tip-off here is the large red flag promising “guaranteed success.” We all know the huge variety of human talents prevents any assurance of a set number of hours and dollars for true achievement. Only very careful filtering on the input side (and not just a fat bank account) can assure guaranteed achievement (and even then weather and equipment require “load balancing” for financial losses). Just look to the military for an honest example of how rigorous the intake and weeding out process in flight training can be. Honest schools present realistic cost estimates in their advertising and NO guarantees…”mileage may vary!”

Shopping for Santa Claus DPEs and granting undeserved privileges compromises the whole aviation safety culture. Our business has no room for “participation trophies” given away for “just showing up.”  And the hope that weak pilots will “get better later” never really works out! Being a professional necessitates “tough love” (honest care for your safety and better self)  and adherence to a known standard of excellence. Honesty and integrity are critical requirements of the CFI job to prevent the approval of unqualified pilots. Larceny at the DPE level are even more heinous and recently demonstrated here.

Pushy clients can always be found “shopping for a yes” in flight training. A professional CFI must set standards and carefully control expectations. The “power of the pen” is the only barrier between these pilots and their shiny new plane. Honest “tough love” can be a bitter pill that delays their “success” and also damages their ego. But all true progress comes with some struggle and personal safety hangs in the balance. CFI endorsements convey serious privileges that should be earned only by demonstrating proper skill, knowledge, and judgment.

SuperCessnaIf you are a client or student, watch out for the “pathological pleasers” and the “guaranteed results” who too easily gives away privileges you do not earn. There are no gifts in aviation – except the happy surprise of “weather better than forecast?” Safe progress requires some serious work and discipline to earn every achievement. If your CFI is overly helpful or continuously complimentary, seek a new coach on your way to your certificate or rating. And for your flight review seek out someone that makes you work hard – your life depends on it. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Your SAFE membership also saves you money and helps support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to access pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together to raise professionalism makes all of us safer pilots!

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”is now on the SAFE toolkit app (prepared by senior DPEs). This guidance helps prevent “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.