It is shocking that the FAA instructor, who might be teaching your child or significant other to fly, is only required to have a total of 200 hours and 5 hours alone in a plane. And how comfortable are you learning from an “instrument instructor” when they might never have done what they are teaching – flown in a cloud (NOT required)? A “senior instructor,” is able to train a new CFI with only 200 hours teaching and 2 years experience required (and there is great pressure from the industry to soften these requirements). I see both good and bad versions of this system at work every day in flight schools I visit and work with. But safety demands higher personal standards *not* FAA minimums!
It is an understatement to say the FAA certification system has some “shocking minimums.” Even the flight rules allowing “one mile clear of clouds” clearly put true safety directly in the hands of pilots, trusting their judgment and integrity. Safety also requires professional organizations like SAFE to define, inspire, and build higher professional standards for pilots and educators. Look at the significant change – ACS – our Pilot Reform Symposium fostered in the FAA training and testing system. We are YOUR organization, and appreciate YOUR support. SAFE achieved 3000 members last month and also the WINGS survey results placing us #1 as your “trusted knowledge provider” (our humble gratitude for such success!) But the votes of support are just the launching pad for much greater programs soon to come.
Both CFI-PRO™ and Checkride Ready!™ are very new programs that will grow into significant educational platforms as gatherings are again permitted and our industry picks up full speed after COVID. You can help by spreading our SAFE brand to flying friends in your area (that 1/3 off ForeFlight is an attractive incentive) please spread the word. Wear our SAFE branded apparel and share these posts. Get in touch to become a regional SAFE Ambassador. If you are already a member, Step-Up to a supporting level or provide a tax-deductible gift this “giving season” (SAFE is an educational not-for-profit 501-C-3). We also need volunteers for programs and committees as we grow. Stay SAFE and fly often, thanks for your help in growing SAFE.
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 Instrumentare now complete.
We have amazing technology in most of our airplanes these days. We navigate with satellites and have omniscient weather mapping on board. But despite all these tools, pilots continue to fly into terrible weather and kill themselves. These “slow-motion” accidents involve a series of bad decisions over time – starting with the launch – that increasingly restrict options like a funnel to a (seemingly inevitable) wreck. “VFR into IMC” and IFR into convective or icing accidents are 90% fatal. “What was the pilot thinking?” Let’s have a look.
It is first essential to understand – and confess – our human weakness in the “thinking” part. We crash planes because our human brain is not rational by design. We are “optimizers” and proceed by “satisficing,” a term coined by AI pioneer Herbert Simon. We achieve “good enough” and push optimistically forward, with resilience and flexibility. This attribute has led to our incredible success in populating every diverse environment on the planet and launching rockets to the moon. As decision-makers, we have adapted to be optimistic and aggressive (92% of drivers think they are “better than average!”) For years economists predicated human behavior based on the Renaissance “Rational Man Model.” But both Herbert Simon and later Daniel Kahneman won Nobel prizes in “Behavioral Economics” by demonstrating how “predictably irrational” humans are when making decisions.
We do not perceive reality precisely. Every individual senses and assembles a different world through a personal lens of need and intention; “predictive perception.” Then we stereotype that input data into pre-existing categories relying on past experiences (which we recreate like impressionistic painters) to create a personal understanding; “magical thinking.” Decisions are then often colored with our many cognitive biases and emotional needs developing procedures based on “successes” rather than objective standards; “normalizing deviance.” If we thought accurately and decided rationally no person would ever buy another lottery ticket and we would all aggressively leverage compound interest like Warren Buffet. But in a totally rational world, there would be no incredible optimism and energy creating innovation and growth (and probably no art, fashion or culture). Our “magical thinking” motivates human success in many fields but sucks for facts, science and statistics (and sometimes flying).
We have to apply the discipline of P-A-V-E and 3P to be safe in flying. We have to stick to know standards and consult experts when we are unsure of our own judgment. There is no room for rosy optimism or complacency in flying (I personally go hard on people who count on “luck” too) Decision making has to be systematic and conform to reality (gravity never sleeps). To be safe we have to visualize and account for the worst outcomes and surprises; “what if?” And this “evil agent viewpoint” is something every good flight instructor must encourage and *always* be helping their pilot-in-training to understand. (Though not for the first five hours please – that is all “sunshine and light” – building “confidence and comfort”). During X-C planning, I also encourage the 3D rule for X-C planning; “Delay, Divert, Drive” as a simple impediment to “launching with doubt.” Moving the timeline is one of the most successful strategies for flight safety; later or tomorrow? And few people in the GPS (“Going Perfectly Straight”) world realize the huge benefit of “rubber-banding” a planned course even a little to gain better alternate options below (and the time penalty is surprisingly minimal). If there is doubt about the take-off or plan it probably needs “3D” modification and maybe a scrub. “A pilot in motion tends to stay in motion…”
Once en route, the “3R rule of alternates” is a huge benefit to encourage wise options and defeat the “mission mentality” we see so often in the “accident chain.” A good alternate must be psychologically desirable. It should have a good Restaurant, Radar (ATC resources), and Rental Cars. If an alternate is somewhere you *want* to go, there will be less “get there itis” pushing the flight down that fatal accident funnel. There will be no sense of personal failure in this diversion; you already want to end up there (and the passengers will enjoy it too)! Share the 3Ds and 3Rs with your flight students and people you mentor and see if it doesn’t help keep planes out of the trees? Defeat human “magical thinking” and apply disciplined decision making to your flying. Be safe out there!
LIVE online this morning (Saturday, Sept. 12th) I will be presenting at the Online Safety Stand-Down and I invite you to watch this presentation (maybe better than just a blog?) Go to this link and register: https://www.aviationsafetystanddown.com/
The Aviation Weather Center breaks down the weather product into three categories: observations, forecasts, and advisories, or, as I like to say, look, lookout, and watch out! We must always keep in mind that these products are either history or a good guess-and realize the limitations. Current observations are old by the time they get to the web, often as much as 90 minutes in the case of the surface analysis chart and an hour in the case of a METAR. A clear understanding of the broader weather pattern will inform you of what is happening, why the winds and clouds are behaving that way, and when conditions might change and in what manner.
My goal of this series is to bridge the gap between weather theory and the weather products. I see many students who have their private pilot license and do a great job of reading a METAR, but they can’t tell me what the weather is and how it might be changing in a few hours.(Can you spot a frontal passage just by reading the previous 12 hours of METARS?) Why would a TAF have a line that predicts low ceilings and rain for a two-hour period and then quickly become VFR? (Hint: look at the radar picture in the area.) Can you reasonably detect a front just by looking at the station models? How about just looking at surface winds? Radar? Satellite images? Winds aloft? The clues are all there and each weather product reveals the story in its own language. The forecasts that we rely upon are built from many of the NOAA sites, not just the Aviation Weather Center. There is so much more valuable information that can be gleaned from the Weather Prediction Center, Storm Prediction Center, and other NOAA sources.
I will share with you some of the insights I gained from my 25-year career teaching at a university and 35 years as a CFII. I will include some homework (of course) and ways of combining weather sources that I find interesting. These lessons will be based on some basic assumptions: the student has had some previous lessons on weather theory and can read a simple METAR, TAF, and winds and temperatures aloft products. I will expand on each of these and show how combinations of these products and other, less used (and understood) features can create a comprehensive weather picture. I welcome you to join me and urge you to provide feedback so that we may all learn and share tricks and tips that have served us. We are all students of the art of flying. And weather is endlessly interesting and fun!
Weather theory states that all weather is due to the uneven heating of the earth’s surface. It can be boiled down to simply temperature-in both the vertical and horizontal. Warm air masses have the ability to hold more moisture than cold air masses. Where the air mass originates, cold and dry, cold and moist, hot and dry, or hot and moist, is the first part of the weather story. Temperature also dictates air density and the type of clouds that might appear. The constant movement of air in its endless search for equilibrium on a spinning plant creates circulation patterns on both large and small scales. Temperature changes across air masses (fronts) and vertically (inversions, lapse rates) keep things interesting.
High pressure areas are areas of denser air and have a clockwise (anti-cyclonic) and outward rotation in the northern hemisphere while low pressure areas have counter-clockwise (cyclonic) and inward rotation. This is a standard FAA test question. The image of the surface analysis chart shows the current pressure centers and fronts. This static picture does not convey the air circulation patterns: we have to recall how the air moves around these pressure centers and it is difficult to see how the air moves along the frontal boundaries.
However, a moving image will quickly move yours student’s learning from rote level to correlation. This is beautifully demonstrated on a fantastic website, www.windy.com. If you have never visited this site, be prepared for a vivid demonstration of this effect. The wind patterns instantly comes to life and you can see how the surface winds move. You can watch the wind rotate dramatically around the low pressure off the east coast. The winds are moving outward from the high pressure in the upper Midwest and sweep down toward the central plains and circulate around the low in Iowa. You can understand how the Rocky mountains play a significant part in local wind patterns east of the mountain range- a very pronounced effect in the winter when strong high pressure slides down and that cold, continental dry air mass plants itself in the center of the country.
The circulation cells on the globe in the weather theory books jumps out from the screen. The strengths of the winds are color coded. From here you can zoom out and see circulation patterns across North America and the oceans. The north Atlantic is particularly interesting. Depending on the time of year, the intensity of low pressure systems and wind patterns reveal global circulation patterns such as the Bermuda High in the summer and nor’easters in the winter.
The neat trick is to have both of these websites open in different tabs and click between them or have both windows open at once. Circulation patterns become crystal clear.
Surface Analysis and Surface Prognostic Charts.
Let’s consider the surface prognostic (prog) chart as our salad bowl. It is updated 8 times each day starting at 0000Z. By the time it is analyzed and available on the AWC, it is usually about 90 minutes old. This is a “historical” document. It shows the frontal positions that were observed at the time listed on the chart in the top right-hand corner. As you click through the actual forecast charts, the first 4 images are 6-hour forecasts (the next 30 hours) followed by two 12-hour prog charts then three 24-hour prog charts. These surface prog charts are all updated every three hours. These charts all show the expected movement of surface fronts and the possibility of precipitation. The surface wind patterns on windy.com also has a forecast feature. By using both the AWC prog charts and windy.com, the broad weather picture becomes clear. Windy.com also has the excellent added feature of displaying airports and the most recent METAR pops up when you scroll over it.
Once your student understands weather patterns and sees how the air masses and frontal positions and winds flow, then teaching the different forecast products and how you can begin to predict the future weather based on those movements becomes easier. Fly safely out there (and often)!