Providing Productive Challenges in Flight

 

Scenario-based training (like FITS before it) has acquired a stigma in the aviation training world though overuse– but please stay with me here 🙂 Because done properly, scenarios are the most important tool in an experienced educator’s arsenal. And they are now the required core focus of all modern FAA ACS evaluations. But unfortunately, scenarios have been overused (and abused) until many educators practically gag at the mention of the word. But please remember, the  mind-numbing “practice area experience” is equally misused and probably responsible for more student drop-outs than scenarios. Properly constructed scenarios add  a world of valuable challenges to training that more accurately resemble the real flight experience. They expand a small geographic area to the whole country (with no added cost!)

The Misuse…

The misuse of scenarios comes from inappropriately imposing the same generic scenarios onto every student without customizing the challenges.  Given the unique needs of each student this process is doomed to failure by definition (Not unlike those stock “CFI lesson plans”). Anticipated “learning opportunities” often instead become “play time” for instructors logging hours and an expensive burden for the training pilot. They turn flight training into Disney with no added educational value. The heart of a successful scenarios is a motivated and imaginative aviation educator customizing and curating the learning experience. Creative scenario generation and applicatiion creates motivating experiences proven to rapidly build skills, knowledge and judgement and result in a versatile, resilient pilots (and often at a lower cost through efficiency).

The Necessity…

The proven necessity of scenarios is simple. Your new pilot, or “rusty recurrent pilot”,  has the FAA privilege to fly day or night, anywhere in the country, for the rest of their life.  And this is despite being only trained in a small geographic area on good weather days, in daylight.  To safely meet the challenge of real life flying, a student and educator must engage together in some “active imagining.” If done correctly, scenarios transport your pilot to all the places and challenges they may encounter as a pilot.  Working together, you must mentally extrapolate from the local area to the challenges of the whole country, in different terrain and weather, over the span of a lifetime.

Scenarios Done Properly…

If properly constructed and executed, a scenario puts your student into the “struggle zone” or what educational psychologists call the “zone of proximal development”.  An effective scenario presents the optimal level of personal challenge for an individual learner and enables an educator to both teach and evaluate at the highest correlation level of learning.  Done poorly, scenarios merely run up the flight training bill and become an excuse for extraneous trips to exciting lunch destinations on the client’s dime. Buying specialized scenario books or apps to deploy cumbersome generic scenarios usually fail; to be successful, each scenario must be personal and challenge each unique leaner. To present an effective scenario, it is essential to your student well so you can craft realistic challenges appropriate to their level of skill and realm of experience. Remember, a solid relationship of trust is the #1 ingredient to success in any learning situation.  Let’s unpack the “why” and “how to” of SBT  and also provide a sales pitch for this creative way to turbo-charge your teaching.

How to…Let’s get started!

Scenario training can be as simple as scrolling on Skyvector ( or ForeFlight) to a far off state and “mentally relocating” your student to a certain altitude with a mission and set of weather conditions. Active engagement and “buy in” is essential from the learner also so adding a personal mission or application is essential; make it personal! “You’re transporting your sick dog to the clinic and need to know what airspace we are in? And what viz and cloud clearance (radio/nav equipment) are required? Who do I talk to here and how will the plane perform at this altitude?” The more personally relevant and realistic each scenario is, the more actively your student will engage and the more effective their learning. (A previous blog revealed the learning benefits of practicing in the “struggle zone”) And all this can also happen effectively (and economically) on a bad weather day when flying might not be productive at your student’s level. If you have a simulator you obviously have an even better tool and the scenarios created for the EAA-PPC are available now on-line (more on this in a future article)

So  if I am dealing with a Cornell aerospace student, a plausible scenario might start with “You are back at the Mohave Spaceport for Cornell and suddenly have an opportunity to do some personal flying in Mohave…how would you unpack the challenges of mountains and high density altitudes, unique “traffic”?” Or present the “Oshkosh Fly-In Challenge” with the Fisk arrival (this and others are in the EAA-PPC list) And remember these are also exactly the kind of challenges a good DPE is going to present during a practical test. Scenarios build a flexible, thoughful pilot that can unpack challenges and manage risks with skill, knowledge and imagination.

Creating mountains…

And how do you create those mountains? Perhaps after some low level ground reference maneuvering, impose a hypothetical “service ceiling” on your plane in MSL (2000 over the terrain but below the hilltops) Then limit the airplane power to 2100rpm (density altitude) and now transit the “mountains”. “Can we safely transition through the hills to our home airport?  Should we divert instead>”  Similarly you can impose a solid cloud ceiling and  leave the weather decision to the student. Then accept the client’s decision -good or bad- if conditions are within your minimums and you can keep the flight safe and legal. Once  you are flying with too much wind or too low clouds, the client experiences the consequences of their folly (and perhaps log some actual or get some good crosswinds) within a safe environment (watchful eye of the educator). Share your favorite scnarios in the comments below.

The essential element in all scenarios is allowing your client to make mistakes (while carefully maintaining a margin for safety) and supplying only minimal guidance.  Allowing this famous “learning opportunity” to unfold is critical and easily ruined by too much “helping” from the CFI. As errors add up, their struggle will clearly demonstrate the consequences of bad decisions and the “accident chain”  without the safety risk.

Motivating for students and educators!

Scenarios are exciting for both the pilot and the educator adding fun and variety to the training experience; this is how Master Instructors are built. Good scenarios beat “going to the practice area for some steep turns” hands down for learning efficiency and motivation. And there is a real difference between “one hour 2000 times” and “2000 unique hours of real teaching experience”. A future blog will deal more with acquiring expert instructor skills more rapidly (are we still learning as educators?). Fly safely (and often!)


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! 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!

Command Your Technology For Safety!

Our amazing modern technology provides all kinds of enigmatic choices and challenges for directing our lives. “Smartphones” and “digital assistants” increasingly suggest or determine our every action unless we consciously intervene and take charge. Especially for pilots, taking charge and commanding our relationship with technology is essential if we want to fly safety. A little history here provides some important lessons.

Click for detailed FAA Report on TAA Safety

Do you remember all the promises that “technically advanced airplanes”  would dramatically reduce our GA accident rate? This was like a “magic bullet” in the 1990s when the first “glass panel” aircraft were coming onto the market. The promise everywhere in the news was that we would be “saved by technology.” This seemed logical given the incredible precision and quantity of information suddenly available to pilots previously depending on some pretty sketchy analog devices. With digital accuracy and data, we would be able to better see and avoid weather and supposedly never run out of fuel. But our tricky human interface largely defeated many of the benefits provided by the new technology and the same accidents are still occuring with depressing regularly.

The paradox of technology is that precisely because we have more accurate data,  pilots can reduce their planning margins and cut it even closer to the edge. In the case of fuel, we can plan tighter on time and with live weather depiction in the panel,  we often navigate even closer between storm cells. The root problem is a lack of pilot judgment. By training or by nature, pilots are mission driven and often aggressively “optimize” and thereby decrease their safety. Give us humans a sharper tool and they will shave the safety margin ever closer. The difference between what we are able to do and what we should do for safety still escapes many pilots. Clearly the challenge for aviation educators is teaching wisdom, not wi-fi.

The ACS focus on judgment and robust risk management has made a huge and important difference in the flight training and testing world. I see this as a CFI and DPE and hope we see an impact soon in the safety statistics. But because this initiative is still so new to general aviation, the benefits are still only slowly making their impact upward into the aviation charter world. I actually clearly remember the very first time I had a young co-pilot initiate his own risk management plan before a challenging flight. I thought I would fall over in gratitude. He had clearly laid out the challenges and his risk mitigation planning just like a student on a flight test- – funny how that initial training works. Modern technology in the panel provides amazing tools; perfect location mapping, real-time weather, fuel status down to the last drop. But all this will only yield increased safety if we have a “thinking monkey” operating it with a clear vision of the larger safety concerns.

A student logbook from a flight test; so good to see “personal minimums” recorded.

Another challenge provided by our amazing new technology pertains to legacy operators; pilots with years in the air, importing this technology into their flying. There is far too much reliance on autopilots and GPS with operator skills deteriorating rapidly and dramatically. Many formerly wonderful old-time pilots have become unapologetic “technology managers” driving planes in a mindless fashion. As we become “programmers”, the hand flying skills we once all depended on to be safe are no longer available as a back-up.

In the 135 charter world proficiency is enforced every 6 months in FAA-required training. In the GA world the proficiency mandate falls to the aviation educator. I highly recommend the new AOPA “Focused Flight Review” as a tool for educators. The dedicated team at AOPA, in collaboration with SAFE and other incustry players, has assembled a wonderful resource library for inspiring pilot proficiency. And this is useful for training at any level, not just the flight review. Teaching this syllabus injects risk management and judgment into the world of legacy operators who often never encountered risk management in their initital training. Too much technology magic can defeat a once proficient pilot quite rapidly. Expand your flight envelope with hands on flight training, fly safe (and often)!


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! 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!