Beyond the “Stupid Pilot” View of Safety!

You have undoubtedly encountered the “stupid pilot” statistic endlessly repeated during safety meetings: human error is responsible for 80% of aviation accidents. This statistic is true if you only study and quantify aviation accidents but this is a very small part of aviation activity. This short-sighted methodology is like “studying divorce to understand marriage.” An obsession with errors and omissions – “never do this” – is a reactive, command and control approach to safety – a “whack a mole” strategy with no end. It ignores the fact that most of the time in aviation, things go right! And undervaluing the positive pilot contribution leads increasingly to engineering the pilot out of the cockpit and losing the largest contributor to flight safety – the pilot. Positive progress in safety requires not just “focusing out harm” but empowering and enabling pilots to be resilient and successful more of the time.  Proactive “Safety 2.0” works with this bigger picture and puts the pilot as the center.

In Focusing [Just] On What Pilots Do Wrong, We May Be Missing Valuable Lessons From What They Quietly Do Right -FORBES

Dr. Jon Holbrook, at NASA, terms this approach “productive safety,” and examines all the ways pilots actively contribute to safety during complex and challenging operations. “For every well-scrutinized accident, there are literally millions of flights in which things go right, and those flights receive very little attention,” said Holbrook. “Safety 2.0” deconstructs the expert performance of “things going right”  and provides a bigger toolbox of safety strategies. Studied in this manner, pilots are the constantly active “fixers,” flexing and changing plans to create greater safety during an ongoing process of monitoring and maintaining margins. When was the last time one of your flights went exactly as planned?

When we analyze “all flight activity,” safety requires constant awareness and the continuous creative modification during preplanned missions. These are most often not herculean interventions but small continuous changes adapting to unforeseen challenges. Safety 2.0 leverages this more positive focus rather than trying to create a beautiful statue by reassembling the broken pieces. Since I first wrote about “Safety 2.0” a year ago there has been tremendous progress in this field (everywhere but in aviation!) See “Doing Safety Differently” for examples of this approach in other industries.

A command and control view of an incident depicts this check airman as a stupid pilot whereas a more productive “Safety 2.0” approach might actually reveal how automation defeated the efforts of a cautious pilot crew that ultimately resolved the confusing situation safely!  This YouTube leverages Safety 2.0 in the medical world.  Fly safely (and often)


“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Thanks to All; SAFE Surveyed #1

SAFE recently celebrated a 10th anniversary and just this spring polled #1 in an FAA national survey as the top resource for pilots and CFIs! At this special time of year, we offer sincere thanks to all the amazing people who have worked so hard throughout these years to enable SAFE’s growth and ultimate success. Though SAFE endured some tough financial times through the years, there were some amazing “home runs” as the organization grew.

The Pilot Reform Symposium in 2011 shook the aviation industry and led directly to the development of the new FAA ACS. Our Pilot Proficiency Project grew into the nationally available EAA 365 initiative. The CFI insurance program SAFE created continues to be the best value in the industry; also gratefully used by the 100+ DPEs in our membership! SAFE has worked very hard to improve aviation safety with industry leaders like Doug Stewart and Rich Stowell testifying on behalf of SAFE in front of the NTSB for aviation flight training. Our participation in FAA national forums has been a constant force for positive industry change. Thank-you to these important individual leaders!

“SAFE members are the movers and shakers of the flight training community!” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt at SAFE Symposium 2011

Since its founding in 2009, SAFE has been the “scrappy underdog,” frugal and struggling, supported entirely by member donations and lots of “sweat equity” from generous volunteers and industry sponsors. Great thanks goes to all our generous sponsors who have enabled our growth. Incentives like the 1/3 off Foreflight go a long way toward inspiring membership!

It was a wonderful shock and validation of our efforts when SAFE was finally recognized as the #1 source of aviation proficiency resources this spring. The FAA WINGS program commissioned a comprehensive survey conducted by AOPA to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in their program and also discover what pilots and CFIs needed and valued in the industry. SAFE came out on top! We are so grateful for this honor and thank all our members and sponsors for getting us to this leading position in the aviation industry. In so many ways, this is just the starting gate for many amazing projects ready to grow and bring new value to the industry.

The Toolkit App, introduced in 2015, was only intended as a short-term substitute until our website was remodeled. This tool grew to became our flagship offering that now supports thousands of daily users. This single resource also spawned this SAFE blog and initiatives like SAFE CFI-PRO™. Held initially at KFDK last fall this program is now offered to flight schools and universities.

Most recently the very popular SAFE Checkride Ready!™ was launched on the app and is growing at an exponential rate. Thank you for using and supporting all these programs and contributing your ideas and suggestions. (The “responder” on the app comes directly to my phone!)

SAFE is finally nearing the final integration of our new website as the developer installs recent changes to plugins that will finally allow us to migrate our membership database from Authorize.net over to Stripe around January 2021 (can’t wait!) The courses and resources available on this new site are amazing (but no wine before its time…)!

So thanks again and wishing everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving. Your amazing support through the years has made all this possible.  Please consider an additional gift to support our website transition or help fund our STEM scholarships. Just click on our easy Give2SAFE portal. Additional gifts to SAFE, outside of the usual membership dues, are completely tax-deductible through our educational not-for-profit status. Have a safe holiday and thanks again for your support: #flySAFE


“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Planning (not “Plans”) – Essential to Safety!

Recent headlines addressed the General Aviation accident rate and compared them to other types of aviation. Relative to the airlines and the military, why is GA so much more prone to accidents? Having been lucky enough to have flown a fairly broad mix of military and part 121 operations I will try to answer that question with one word: Planning!

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
(General/President Eisenhower)

As a CFI conducting a recent flight review, I observed the pilot while dealing with a training diversion. We had talked about this event for a couple of days, he knew it was coming. Yet when I said, “Divert” it was as if I’d suggested we divert to the backside of the moon. He was totally unprepared for it. Down went his head to the iPad. Searching and searching for who knows what. It seemed like the longest time before I suggested that he at least look out the front window for a moment to do some clearing.

It doesn’t matter what your next event is, you already have some fairly broad ideas of what may or may not happen. Private Pilot check ride? Chances of a divert on a scale from zero to 100; any takers? My money is you really need to be prepared to find some frequencies, find some weather, calculate time and fuel, maybe run some form of either normal or emergency checklist, determine runway suitability and perhaps another task or two on the way to your divert airfield (it is in the book!) It really helps if you’ve at least looked at these things beforehand.

Does it have to just be a Flight Review or a Checkride? No, but EVERY flight needs to be adequately planned. Just doing a couple laps around the pattern? No problem, nothing will happen on that flight, right? WRONG, that’s the most likely time to have troubles. Those flights are the perfect time to really dig deep on preparation and planning. You shouldn’t have to spend too much time studying taxiway and runway orientation if it’s your home field. Instead study the weather, winds aloft, go back to the Airplane Flying Handbook and re-read a couple chapters on the traffic patterns and landings. I could easily offer a review of chapters 5, 7 and 8 for your pattern only review. If you’re off to another airport for that $100 hamburger there are more chapters worth going back through.

The word of the day is planning. There are rarely times when you get scrambled on a do or die mission that requires you to launch into whatever is lurking outside the door. When does planning start? I’ve got a flight later this week that I’ve been planning for at least ten days. It’s going to require four legs, every leg is adjustable to some degree which means that I’m looking at several different airports for each leg. I’ll be flying a plane that is new to me, so I intend to be very conservative on every point.

On my four-leg journey, I entered the airport where I’ll pick up the plane and the airport of my final destination. That gives me a long straight line. Based on fuel considerations I decided that I’d do four rather than three legs. A big part of that decision was the location of two Class Bravos that will impact my VFR operation. For each of my interim stops, I’d like them to be as close to the original magenta line as possible.

With the legs roughly designated, now I’m going to start getting a little more specific with each airport. At first glance, I just used the airport date block from the sectional to determine the basics. Next up I’m going into the A/FD to make sure that each airport I plan on stopping at has everything I think I might need. Hopefully, each stop will be nothing more than a “gas and go.” But it is nice to know if maintenance is available before I set down. There are several applications available but I’ve learned to love ForeFlight and all it offers.

With a couple days to go, I’ve got a rough plan. As the day approaches, I’ll start focusing on the weather and NOTAMs. If you’ve failed to plan, you’ve planned to fail. Don’t let that be you. I’ll send some pictures of my upcoming delivery flight. Be SAFE!


“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

“Hope, Luck, Appearance” – Dangerous Delusions!

In aviation, we meet people every day that carry certificates and endorsements that should guarantee a certain level of knowledge and performance. Unfortunately, this is often not entirely true. In our modern society, hope, luck and trust in outward appearance are the norm. But beyond the surface facade, facts often reveal that people are really renting that fancy car (or girlfriend) and their amazing house is way behind on payments (or owned by dad). Most people in our modern society are not exactly what they pretend to be (or think they are). Dishonest presentation may be intentional but sometimes people are unaware of their deception and are fooling themselves as well.

Humans are excellent liars. We don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of lying; it hurts us too much to admit. So we lie to ourselves about that, too. …this type of dishonesty is far harder to detect and admit. It is the kind of lying that comes from not being psychologically strong enough to be honest with ourselves about who we are.

As pilots we cannot afford this deception or “magical thinking.” Our lives depend on honest skill and verification of factual data. The primary job of a DPE giving a checkride is verifying (checking) the endorsement by the recommending CFI that the pilot applicant meets the ACS standards. DPEs don’t teach, they just say “yes” or “no.” And this skill in one every CFI (and even pilot) needs to develop and exercise daily for safety.

To be effective as an aviation educator, step one is to interrogate and validate the certificates, experience and talent presented by your learner. This assures an honest baseline level of ability and makes the instructional process much safer and more effective. The “missing elements” are usually well hidden and need to be actively searched out in the first flight together. A worn 50 mission leather jacket does not assure any pilot competence (more likely the opposite). And teaching to an “assumed level” of skill is not only useless and frustrating, it can also become a dangerous experience. If a complex maneuver is not working in flight, deconstruct it and try a more basic version using the same skills. If the patternwork has a problem, deconstruct the elements and practice them individually away from the pattern pressure. Then reassemble the “pattern pieces” on return. It is amazing how effective simple slow flight (at altitude) can be to solve “flare and landing” problems.

I was hiring a new CFI from a large university aviation program who energetically demonstrated an aggressive “skid to landing” when he believed he was slipping. Another super-CFI landed everywhere on the runway (except the centerline) and thought my guidance to “hold the centerline” was the demented dream of a grumpy CFI. Flight tests provide similar surprises in a more calibrated environment. Every day in flight has its surprises. Again, the goal is to discover these oddities and missing elements before they become dangerous.

We are all familiar with the FAA lesson plan form in the FAA Instructor Handbook. I always advocated for an important addition to this boilerplate form. Adding “prerequisites” before the new lesson content assures that foundational requirements are present *before* we attempt new growth and progress. Whether we realize it or not, every flight lesson assumes a level of competence as the point of departure. If the pilot you intend to teach chandelles cannot coordinate a simple climbing left turn out of the traffic pattern, your lesson plan is doomed before you even begin. It is essential to determine and teach to the actual skill/knowledge level of the pilot, not just what their certificates tell you. Courage and self-confidence are necessary piloting traits to a degree, delusion and hubris are just scary. Fly safely out there (and often!)


“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Teaching “Average” Prevents Effective Learning

Good aviation education is not a process of standardizing *people* but *procedures*. It is critical to remember that every person walking in the door to learn to fly is a unique individual and there are many pathways to achieve the necessary skill, knowledge and judgment we need to be safe. Teaching to an “average learner” is a huge mistake, often caused by lack of imagination and laziness (we all get jaded after a couple thousand hours…), but standardization of everything is also how our human brain works. We process our diverse sensory input by stereotyping (predictive perception). But to be an effective educator we need to force ourselves to see and appreciate the unique differences in every learner. This requires effort and imagination every day to succeed. Our build-in impulse to “teach average” is a huge reason for our 80% drop out rate in aviation. This happens in all our educational pursuits. High schools lose 1.2 million people every year (sound familiar?)  Of these high school dropouts, 4% are known to be “intellectually gifted!”

Todd Rose was a high school drop out and eventually went on to be a Harvard professor. His Ted Talk uses the original Air Force human factors adaptability studies of Gilbert Daniels. He rated pilots on 10 dimensions and discover “there is no such thing as an average pilot.” I think every aviation educator should watch this important Ted talk:

Once these and other design solutions were put into place, pilot performance soared, and the U.S. air force became the most dominant air force on the planet.

I hope this inspires a new way to think of your everyday educational challenges. Create excitement and challenge in your daily instructional life! Fly safely out there (and often)!


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