Preventable Tragedies

by Parvez Dara, ATP, MCFII, MEI (and our SAFE Treasurer)

Pilot error is the single most important cause of fatalities in aviation. Especially when you allow the statisticians their free reign at numbers. The percentages that pile up suggest upwards of 80% of all fatal accidents are pilot related. One wonders then why these lamentable tragedies don’t ease up? If we as pilots know of all the various ways of crashing an airplane, why do we keep doing it? To get better at it? Hopefully not for that reason. There is something else here that escapes the eye. Let us dig deeper into this morass of prejudged eventualities.

Why does a VFR pilot fly into the clouds only to lose his way in the soft bitter blindness of gray? To be a little considerate of this poor bloke, let us look at how that is possible. Given the mind’s judicious use of fuzzy logic to plant an image where one does not exist, is one way. As the visibility lowers in haze, the mind continues to fool the decision maker into thinking that the buildings he was seeing are still there albeit a little hazy. He soldiers on, only to suddenly realize that the there is not there and panic sets in. I remember flying in a flight of two on a summers day with a VFR-only pilot and his companion. As the visibility lowered and my eyes diverted to the instruments, I realized that the other pilot did not have the same capability. I asked the Air Traffic Control to tell my “company aircraft” to reverse course back to our departure airfield. Upon landing, we checked the weather and further west of our 180-degree site had gone IFR.

Preflight is another big bugaboo. Multi-hundred-hour pilots will treat flight as if it is riding a bicycle. They will assuredly “kick the tires and light the fires” and off they go, as if they are exempt from the rigors of human fallacies. Most times it is okay, but then there is suddenly that one in thousand NTSB report that makes your heart sink. How could he? Why do we ignore a good and thorough preflight? Mostly because, a) we expect it to be okay, b) it is a time drain and delays our ultimate thrill to be up in the air, c) heuristics of laziness d) all others you can conjure up. But preflight is when you find all sorts of things that can go wrong: a) contaminated fuel, b) a broken spring on the landing gear, c) cowl plugs plugged in deep, d) a bird-nest e) open baggage compartment door, f) a fouled plug or a broken ceramic spark plug, g) low oil, h) a flat spot on the tire ready to go, i) a blocked pitot tube and myriad other potential maladies that can lead to those lamentable tragedies.

The pilot is the Commander of his aircraft. No one has the greater authority other than when he or she delegates to a flight instructor or another pilot in the right seat. One of the mainstays of safety is never ever to abrogate one’s authority to fly the aircraft. You are the boss. You make the decisions (you may elect to recognize another’s opinion especially if it is a contrary opinion for inclusion sake) but the ultimate responsibility still weighs heavily on the pilot. You decide if the rudder or your authority is breached in a crosswind landing. You decide on an alternate airport as the weather deteriorates. You decide on the weight and balance. You decide what is the safest and most favorable approach to a safe arrival at your destination. You are it. You are the Big Cheese! Take that responsibility seriously but with a dose of humility.

Above it all, as a pilot you must learn to respect two very important things: 1. The Aerodynamic limits of the airfoil and 2. Your own Experiential Limits. Never let the latter exceed the former and never let yourself be seduced into trying to find the edge of the aerodynamic envelope without first experiencing it with a more experienced and knowledgeable instructor. Loss of control take too many pilots.

In the end, then, all lamentable tragedies are a learning experience. They titillate the journalists into writing hyperboles but at the very core, these disasters are learning experiences. Unfortunately, others have shed blood and bent aluminum not to be rendered as a “stupid mistake” or an act of “incoherent idiocy” or be subject to the glowering mean judgmental eye, but they are to be used as a mechanism to learn from and avoid similar errors. Safety is like climbing on the shoulders of others and seeing what they have seen and learning to avoid where they might have erred.


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

CFI Good to Great; Learn From Your Students!

“Good pilots are always learning” but this commitment is also vital for good flight instructors. To improve at anything, we must be continually curious, seeking new knowledge or inevitably cynicism and a glassy-eyed complacency set in. You know this look, 70% of  US workers on the job are “disengaged”. A commitment to growth as a flight instructor does not only mean pursuing new ratings (and hopefully a Master Instructor Certification), but also learning on a daily basis from our students. Like every other certificate, a new CFI is a “license to learn.” Look at the Canadian system (four levels) to see how perfunctory our FAA preparation can be! Maintaining a “beginners mind” makes the difference between “a thousand unique hours of experience and one hour a thousand times.”

 

 

 

 

According to psychologist Dr. Anders Ericsson in his fascinating book Peak, the secret to mastery in any field is “deliberate practice” and continually seeking excellence. For example, a physician with 20 years experience that is happy with “acceptable performance” and “performs on autopilot” is less effective (and less safe) than a doctor with only 5 years of deliberate practice. Quality over quantity is the rule for mastery. In education, one huge opportunity for educators to grow and make every hour count is learning from our students.

On the most basic level this means discovering how each unique individual learns efficiently and effectively. Our challenge is to creatively adapt our presentation to a variety of people and help them learn. Notice I did not say “teach them” -we are not pouring skill and knowledge into their heads! Our job is to present appropriately challenging experiences so they can assemble and code these experiences into increasing usable knowledge and skills. Careful observation and skillful questioning will reveal if we are succeeding; when to step in and when to back off and let learning occur. That blank stare, frustration or lack of progress area critical clues. Gaining emotional intelligence and compassion is not easy for technically minded people like pilots, but it will make your teaching much better and your whole life a richer experience.

Active listening, with a continuous feedback loop, is essential to calibrate and improve our performance. The art of providing an optimal challenge without being either boring or overly challenging is critical and only attainable with continuous feedback. Those deadly “one size fits all” lesson plans really work for no one; get creative. In the learning environment, less talking from the CFI and more listening and questioning are usually a sign of progress in education. Similarly, fewer CFI demonstrations and more student flying (with encouragement and coaching) creates an exciting and fun opportunity for real learning. Obviously we have to keep the learning environment safe, but allowing our students room to grow is critical. For learning to happen, we must allow mistakes to happen (hopefully increasingly self-corrected).

A savvy flight educator must know the boundaries of safety and always subtly guide the flight experience. This requires knowing and trusting your clients capabilities, but also maintaining an alert watch. Sometimes this is presenting a question about a forgotten critical item, or directing perception so your student acquires an insight they might otherwise miss. An expert is a person with a rich mental representation of their environment that easily recognizes patterns and meanings that would escape the naive viewer. We need to convey those meanings. A savvy flight educator knows about a developing difficulty miles before their student. Our awareness keeps this situation safe but we also must be careful not to spoil their learning opportunities. Letting a missed item persist until a student discovers it can be excruciating!

One of the most important understandings for an experienced flight educator is what the “FAA finished pilot” looks like at each level of certification. When is a person a suitably proficient to be a sport, recreational, private or commercial grade pilot? Though it is frustrating that we cannot make every person into an astronaut, we have to know when our applicant meets the FAA standards and is ready to test for their certificate or rating (and also be a safe future aviator). Just like personal minimums in piloting, in test preparation there should be a  “margin of safety” and extra capacity in every applicant to insure success (despite the inevitable stress).

Knowing the required skill, knowledge and judgment required for each test and the performance psychology of your applicant takes years to get right. This is one reason DPEs are required to have so much experience teaching to be designated as examiners. Getting feedback from your DPE is the most valuable (and under-appreciated) sources of learning for the flight educator. Search out a DPE that is willing to give you an honest, detailed debrief on every applicant and you will become a training team creating safer and more comprehensive pilots…more to come!


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

What Makes a “Great” CFI (and Can We Teach It)?

First things first, what is a “great” flight instructor? Is it the instructor with the most ratings, the most dual given or is it the person with FAA National Accolades and many Master CFI Levels? Personally, I would argue it is a passionate, professional educator who consistently prepares safe, confident, skillful pilots at many levels from a diverse pool of clients. This person does not seek the limelight but clearly stands out because they consistently develop superior, safe pilots…it’s their attitude, demeanor, and the success they create daily that makes them “great”.

Professionalism in flight education obviously requires a mastery of the mechanical skills of flying and a huge reservoir of technical knowledge, but I would argue that the critical “secret sauce” that makes an instructor “great” are the abilities of communicating, compassion and successfully conveying  consistently high standards. Incidentally, the word “instructor” implies the transfer of mere technical skills, whereas a professional “educator” implies teaching the whole person at a higher level than rote. Even the most prodigious knowledge and the best hands on the controls are useless in a CFI unless you can share these effectively and consistently with a variety of people at the highest levels of understanding for durable retention.

The “greats” are also the ones who really enjoy working with a diverse group of people and eagerly undertake that daily creative challenge of educating them. There is an obvious joy here and true passion here. Another characteristic is an immense reservoir of patience to work through the many problems and plateaus that student pilots encounter.

A “great” flight educator also has a clear vision for what the finished aerodynamic product should look like at every certificate level and they have the ability to create that from the raw material of many varying personalities. They need to inspire, motivate, cajole and create every day and successfully coach each student over the goal line to certification. The last attribute of a “great” CFI is a commitment to always learning and pursuing excellence. (Spoiler alert for next blog; hours alone are useless *if* you accept “good enough”)

From what I have seen running a flight school, the “soft skills” are the most common missing ingredient in new CFIs. Because of the technical nature of our profession, pilots become CFIs usually due to their superior talent and a passion for aviation (the flying part). They often become confused and disappointed when, as new CFIs, they realize their major daily challenges are no longer landing in a vicious crosswind or shooting an approach to minimums in turbulence. Their new challenges are instead helping a scared housewife through power-on stalls or coaching a lazy college student through subjects they should have mastered at home on their own. Many CFIs also cannot even comprehend a lack of motivation or what is “wrong” with slow learners. This is where patience, compassion and emotional intelligence are the real important educational tools. Aviation is expensive, time consuming and initially scary for many people. Coaching people through these obstacles to a level of mastery, confidence and skill is what great educators do daily.

Dave McVInnie 10X MCFI and Lifetime SAFE Member

The next (very important) question is can we successfully educate beginning CFIs to be “great”, and accelerate their learning curve so they can be successful (and happier) with less struggle and fewer hours/years on the job? Does every CFI need K. Anders Ericsson’s famous 10,000 hours to reach a level of mastery? That would be unfortunate, because in our current aviation market a CFI is considered “ancient” if they accumulate even 1000 hours teaching. Your comments and suggestions are welcome (and needed).


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!