Spread Your Wings!

As pilots, we have an amazing diversity of “flying machines” available to us.  Unfortunately, most of us never take the time and money necessary to explore these unique experiences. In other articles here I have advocated for “envelope expansion” in your regualr piston flying. This builds skills and enhances safety. But other categories and classes of flying machines are also a pathway to build transferable skills and also provide new perspectives. To stay safe in aviation, it’s essential to challenge our skills regularly and also reexamine our procedures from time to time with a fresh perspective. In this article I hope to inspire you to get out of your comfort zone a little and explore some new kinds of flying machines. This could be as simple as finally taking up your friend’s offer to experience flight in their Long-Ez – or try a glider ride at the local soaring school.

After a while in the air, everyone gets first ‘proficient’ at what they do regularly, then ‘comfortable’, and the very next stop is often ‘complacency.’ With complacency also comes the boredom of the “same-same round the pattern” flying and a diminishing safety margin if a surprise occurs. Very few of us challenge ourselves on a regular basis to get out of our “comfort zone” and build skills. The original excitement (and even the twinge of fear) from the new adventure soon goes away and we can get stale and rusty if we are not careful.

Not only is complacency damaging for safety, there is a definite trend of pilots dropping out after a bunch of years after they lose the original excitement of flight – the secret to longevity and growth is exploring new aviation adventures! The AOPA is currently partnering with the Recreational Aviation Foundation to encourage back-country flying From Peaks to Pavement: Applying Lessons from the Backcountry”  This is an excellent opportunity to  restore challenge and adventure to your flying while building skills transferable to your everyday environment.

The amazing Ron Bragg when I got my DPE…years ago!

I learned to fly in 1970 and after acquiring all my ratings I ran a 141 flight school for 25 years. By necessity that means a lot of the same kind of repetitive flying. After 5 or 10 thousand hours of dual given, there is diminishing level of new input in this flight environment (ask any CFI). No matter how conscientiously you approach each day as a “fresh learning event” there is limited novelty and the human machine tends to stereotype each repetitive experience. As a pilot and especially as an instructor, you inevitably get stale and start “pattern matching” or stereotyping. This is a natural neurological process called “normalizing” – it’s complacency at work and not only is this bad for the piloting skills, it is also destructive to the instructional environment and safety. How many burned out CFIs have you experienced?  I could feel the excitement diminish hour by hour, day by day and year after year!

Fortunately, I discovered gliders (and then everything else that flies) could provide not only a lift in excitement and motivation, but also a unique set of skills to reinvigorate my daily world of flight. Once you are a proficient glider pilot (or instructor), the way you understand (or teach) a power failure in a piston plane is increadibly richer and more detailed…what a unique perspective to bring to a piston lesson.

Maybe you are a Zen Master and can approach each moment as unique, but I found the easiest path to escape “normalizing” is exploring a variety of new aviation experiences. Humans adapt readily to each new environment and we stereotype internally  without knowing it as part of our predictive perception. After a very short time, the scary edges and unusual procedures neurologically disappear and we get “comfortable” – even in the strangest environments – through normalizing. This process is a huge problem for safety because any pilot can subliminally adopt unsafe procedures through “drift” in everyday operations. Anything we do repeatedly becomes the “new normal.

Long EZ N26SB Sport Aviation Assignment

Exploring other aviation environments  – and especially seeking instructional oversight and guidance with a creative professional – is necessary to gain perspective on our previously comfortable groove. We all need a shot of insight and excitement from time to time. I would encourage you to seek out and try some different flying. This experience will pay you back with new insights and skills that improve our skills and outlook. You will come back with a new perspective and fresh appreciation for your “normal” experience. Fly safely (and often!)


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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 facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

Situational Awareness: 3 Keys to Safety!

Situational awareness (SA) requires the accurate gathering of data (despite physical and mental obstacles) then filtering and making sense of this buzzing cacophony and finally projecting this all forward in time toward an intended outcome. In the context of a busy and distracting aviation environment, this is a complex undertaking. Understanding and mastering this critical mental process is the heart of aviation safety but  gets little examination or instructional focus; “you’ll figure it out…”. And though in every area of aviation our mental content will vary – be it VFR mountain flying or busy IFR in the Bravo – the mental process and tool kit are the same.

Level One SA is data gathering and being present entirely in the moment.

Given perfect situational awareness (SA) a pilot will perceive an environment completely free of physical or physiological hindrances. But human factors problems complicate this objective; is it too dark, or blinded by the sun, you forgot your glasses? And psychological problems also provide challenges; fatigue, stress or complacency limit our attention/perception. Distraction and “multi-tasking” – ATC calling, pax or pilot interaction – are a fact of life in aviation and they limit our ability to focus and filter signal from noise. And with every distraction to attention “situational awareness recovery” time is required to regain our focus.

According to researchers most errors (76.3%) occur at the Level 1 (perceptual) area – we simply miss the cues, don’t see the signs or we are naturally distracted, bored or blinded in some manner. This is the reason for “sterile cockpit” SOPs in busy environments. A defective mental model also interferes “top down” with perceptual clarity because what we see/hear is driven by what we think is important – we essentially create our own reality. Psychologists call this “attentional blindness” and “perceptual tunneling”  – we miss data that might be critical to safety.

Level two SA is developing a “mental model” and understanding/interpreting the current situation.

What does all this gathered information mean in reference to the current, evolving flight profile? At level two our brain assembles the filtered input data (<10%) and assigns probable meanings; “sensemaking.” This process functions continuously and interactively and is often entirely at the subconscious level. We operate largely “on autopilot” when we interpret our world, especially in a time-critical, high-stakes environment.

Level 2 is where “hours and experience” help a pilot assemble an accurate mental model. “I’ve seen this story before” is often how we comprehend an evolving situation. The human mind is really a “prediction processing machine” that filters and fits data into an existing mental model. “Cleared for the ILS” engenders a whole spectrum of related and relevant skills, experience and expected patterns. Without this largely subconscious “scripting” we could not function efficiently in our busy buzzing world.

But “hours and experience” is also a problem when we stereotype and  “overfit” a  model or assume everything is as it was before; complacency. Every mental model blinds us to unique occurrences in the perceptual field (attentional blindness – we see what we “expect”). These missed data may be critical to safety (NASA’s leaking “O rings”?) In studies of accidents 20.3% were Level 2 errors; comprehending the data and assembling the mental model to assign meanings.

Level 3 SA is projecting the currently evolving situation into the desired future outcome.

You would think imagination would play no role in aviation, but level three is entirely the creative extrapolation of our current situation into a desired or intended outcome; “I will intercept the LOC, couple to the glideslope, break out at 400′ etc.” As with other levels, fatigue, distraction  and lack of time can damage SA, but Level 3 SA is especially the vulnerable to these demons. Briefing expected actions and mentally testing expected outcomes is a critical safety tool that often gets skipped or overlooked when time is short. Level 3 SA is our primary method to “get ahead of the airplane” and direct a flight rather than just reacting. Level 3 SA is also where we need to step up to a higher order thinking “conscious oversight” level and test our mental model with Daniel Kahneman’s” System 2″ critical analysis. We cannot operate totally on “decision autopilot” if we want to be safe.

So how can we improve our situational awareness?

Constant, active vigilance of the level we are operating in (and where we should be) is one important method to increase SA. As much as possible, I recommend constantly shifting the levels of SA (like a telephoto lens) dynamically changing from big picture to detail view (micro/macro) in a conscious scanning manner. This is what psychologists call “metacognition” and requires both time and practice. We often get fixated at level one (fiddling with a frequency or some frustrating detail) when we should be engaging the bigger picture. “SA scanning” like an instrument scan improves with practice. We respond physiologically to shiny bright buzzers or screens and often miss subtle cues unless we consciously push our mental focus.

Another important method to improve SA is by constantly testing our assumptions (mental models) both internally and with others. We all have human limitations and need to accept the fact that our personal perceptions and mental models may be flawed. Whether we are single pilot or have a partner or co-pilot, it’s critical to solicit input and stay curious and humble. No harm in pinging ATC with a verification or talking through the next leg with your co-pilot. A rigid mindset in a dynamic and evolving environment can be dangerous. We must enforce flexibility and constantly test and  adjust as necessary. Committing to  vigilance and continuous data gathering (rather than numb butt) has saved many flights from disaster.

Most “I was there and survived” stories (I love Ernest Gann) involve an “angel on my shoulder” that reveals a sudden awareness of the bigger picture or just a subtle clue (level 3 SA). Building more time into your flight profile if possible permits this metacognitive magic or conscious oversight to function. Many accidents are precipitated by time pressure – the airplane was way ahead of the pilot’s mental models. Let me know if any of that helps? Fly safely (and often!)


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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 facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

Flight Simulation; Turbo-Learning!

The first effective flight simulator was developed by Edwin Link in Upstate NY in 1927. Prior to this creative device, it was also thought that piloting required inborn skills that training could not supply. In the view of the Wright Brothers, a pilot had to possess superior balance and other physical attributes to ever consider becoming a pilot. The Link Trainer demonstrated that necessary pilot skills could be trained with careful repetition and study to any reasonable adept client. Thousands of pilots were trained for the airmail service and later WWII saving the world from fascist domination. Here is an excerpt from The Talent Code illustrating the imense impact of the original Link Trainer:

“Early pilot training was built on the bedrock belief that good pilots are born, not made….The U.S. Patent Office declared Link’s trainer a “novel profitable amusement device.” [and the world ignored this innovation]

In the winter of 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt had a problem. Pilots in the US Army Air Corps–by all accounts the military’s most skilled, combat-ready airmen–were dying in crashes…The carnage was not caused by a war. The pilots were simply trying to fly through winter storms, delivering the U.S. mail… a group of Army Corp brass grew desperate…[and] in one of the first recorded instances of nerd power trumping military tradition, the officers understood its potential [and] the generals ordered the first shipment of Link trainers.

Seven years later. WWII began, and with it the need to transform thousands of unskilled youth into pilots as quickly and safely as possible. That need was answered by ten thousand Link trainers; by the end of the war, a half-million airmen had logged millions of hours in what they fondly called “The Blue Box.”

In 1947 the Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force, and Link went on to build simulators for jets, bombers, and the lunar module for the Apollo mission. Link’s trainer permitted pilots to practice more deeply, to stop, struggle, make errors, and learn from them. During a few hours in a Link trainer, a pilot could ‘take-off’ and ‘land’ a dozen times…He could dive, stall and recover, spending hours inhabiting the sweet spot on the edge of his capabilities in ways he could never risk in an actual plane. The Air Corps pilots who trained in Links were no braver or smarter that the ones who crashed. they simply had the opportunity to practice more deeply.”

Modern day pilots in 121 or 135 operations are intimately familiar with flight simulation as the defacto method for effective learning. Due to the cost of operation and the hazard of real emergency operations, all initial jet training and the “type rating” are taught in a full-motion simulator. Pilots usually never see the actual aircraft until after certification during “Initial Operating Experience” (the familiarization and standardization in the real flight world). Simulators are the most efficient tool we have for efficiently building procedure skills and muscle memory (the neurobiological basis for this is fascinating).

In the last 10 years with lower-cost computer systems, affordable full-motion simulation  have returned to the GA world of small planes. SAFE was an early adopter developing scenario-based training and the Pilot Proficiency Project in the very first Redbird Simulators. One of the most imaginative and encouraging new uses for low cost flight simulators is introducing young people to aviation in venues far from an airport. Many STEM curriculums utilize desktop sims and courseware to allow experimentation and skill-building in a classroom setting. For the motivated and inspired individual a Young Eagle flight and then guided discovery in the real flight environment brings another person into the amazing world of flight. If you do not know where a local simulator might be located, try AvMkt.com one of our members who organizes shared usage of simlator time all over the world.


Apple or Android versions.

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 facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

CFI Cover Your Ass(ets)!

Consider the facts: in aviation we teach in a high-risk environment (compared to golf?) and as educators, we often guide high-value clients. When you add the two of these together the result is an incredible amount of, what insurance guys call- “exposure!” Every CFI needs good insurance designed specifically  for the flight training environment.

Just log onto Kathryn’s Report…

If you teach aviation, you are an obvious target for a lawsuit in the event of a tragedy (whether it is your fault or not). In our last article we discussed how to legally set up your “business” – because you are in business“as a CFI selling services. One critical first step is acquiring good insurance to protect your assets. When we started SAFE 10 years ago, the #1 request from members was a “comprehensive, affordable policy specifically specifically designed for CFIs” No one in the industry (except SAFE) provides this. It actually took almost three years to get this program fully developed and accepted in all states (and SAFE gets no $$ from this- – it’s a service to our membership.)

It is almost impossible to read, understand and buy a good insurance policy unless your agent is a knowledgeable, willing partner in the process. “Blanket policies” can have huge loopholes for CFIs you may never be aware of unless you have an agent on your side. When an accident occurs, all you want to hear as a CFI is “you’re fully covered.” DPEs especially can pay huge premiums unless they embrace this program (one DPE had a policy over $6K a year…with lower coverage limits)

When we developed the program at SAFE we insisted the CFI be covered in every category and class for which they are rated with an incentive for pursuing excellence and professional standards. If you are a new seaplane or multi-engine pilot, you are covered. You can even add UAS Instruction (try finding that elsewhere…) If you are a Master Instructor or FAA WINGS participant, you get a discount (we incentivize safety!) To me, one of the best  features of this program is that the agents who manage this program are active pilots in every category and class, they know your problems and can customize your coverage. You can buy and bind your coverage on line or pick up the phone and call Aviation Insurance Resources today…I guarantee you will sleep better at night. Fly safely (and often)!


Apple or Android versions.

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 facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).