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 risk mitigation procedures just like a student on a flight test- – funny how that initial training works. Modern technology is great but it is increasingly important to have a “thinking monkey” to operate it thoughtfully for safety.

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 in the field, importing 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!

Reflect and Redirect; “Double Loop” Learning!

Pilots are a “different breed of cat” as you well know. As a personality type we are confident, higher than average in intelligence, tend toward dominance and are almost never wrong about anything! (ask my wife…) “Never wrong” is “sort of” a joke but you know our tribe; pretty self-assured and assertive, with perfectionist tendencies. And though it takes confidence to pilot effectively, pilots also hate to admit to errors (as do most professionals in all fields). This very feature makes pilots and other high-performance professionals remarkably bad at learning. And as experience and hours pile up this problem gets worse not better; success becomes an impediment to further learning. This is a well-known problem in the “C-suite” of business too. Read Teaching Smart People How to Learn by Chris Argyris (a Harvard Business Review Classic) for a great analysis of this problem. Experts and professionals are remarkably good at problem solving but amazingly bad at learning.

Double loop learning is part of action science — the study of how we act in difficult situations. Individuals and organizations need to learn if they want to succeed (or even survive). But few of us pay much attention to exactly how we learn and how we can optimize the process.

Even smart, well-educated people can struggle to learn from experience. We all know someone who’s been at the office for 20 years and claims to have 20 years of experience, but they really have one year repeated 20 times.

Finding and trapping errors is only the first basic feedback loop where we analyze, correct and revise our plans or techniques. This “problem-solving” level is characteristically directed outward, largely analytical, and psychologically painless. Creating and following SOPs or regulations is part of this process. Compensating for changing conditions and  “re-trimming” our activies back to the desired flow is all part of a normal day.

Real progress and improvement (learning and not just problem-solving) occurs at a higher level and involves tweaking the mental models and preventing the error in the first place. This requires time to reflect critically on our own behavior and failings, solving deeper thinking/scripting problems. Level two or “double loop” learning freely admits to errors and fixes our inner OS that is usually the root cause. Every error should be viewed as a “double loop opportunity” to dig deeper and reflect on our assumptions and test the validity of our hypotheses. Only though “reflective learning” can we access and correct our normally invisible implicit level of learning.

For professionals, inward directed reflection can be initially psychologically painful. Professionals and expert performers are used to being “competent and correct” but “double loop learning” requires we admit, accept and correct personal failings. In addition, this is often only the first step. Accepting instruction, taking wise counsel humbly (and happily) is the key to real and rapid improvement. So we need to soften that pilot wall of confidence a bit and admit to personal failure to achieve growth. Learning happens at the “double loop” reflective level. A sure sign of this is when a good pilot say “thank-you” when an error is pointed out, and in the debrief not only makes a “note to self” to correct the obvious goof going forward but also resolves the deeper assumption/hypothesis that was the root cause.

     Highly skilled professionals are frequently very good at single loop learning. After all, they have spent much of their lives acquiring academic credentials, mastering one or a number of intellectual disciplines, and applying those disciplines to solve real-world problems. But ironically, this very fact helps explain why professionals are often so bad at double-loop learning.
     Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.

As humans, evolving over millions of years, we are internally hardwired with all kinds of implicit reactions and biases that serve us amazingly well in survival against primordial threats and historical environmental challenges. Unfortunately, this deep imprinted learning is subconscious and only becomes visible in action. We need to reflect, accept, adapt and rewire these internal systems with double loop learning if we want to function accurately under pressure in each specific aviation environment.

As aviation educators, it is also essential to develop these”double loop” corrective abilities in our clients. Once they are competent and approaching independent flight, it’s necessary (and initially excrutiating) to allow our these pilots the time and opportunity to discover (struggle) and correct their own errors! The #1 beginner CFI mistake is to immediately intervene and correct every mistake and not allow a “learning opportunity” (genius in the right seat). Your pilot will never develp the metacognitive capacity to self-correct and improve ; they will need a CFI forever. Our educational goal should be to create confident, independent, lifetime learners in every pilot.

And as educational professionals, we all need to continually learn and improve. Challenge yourself and add a Master Instructor Certification to your “do list” this year. Pursue personal improvement and excellence in your flying (and teaching), we have your back! See you at AOPA-Santa Fe (get a free Sporty’s FIRC with sign-up) and enjoy 1/3 off Foreflight (member benefit) which more than pays your annual dues.


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!