The SAFE CFI’s “Most Wanted List”

There is a great frustration watching accidents repeating themselves for obvious preventable causes. Gene Benson is a passionate aviation safety educator. He analyzes every accident and recommends better practices to prevent these unhappy outcomes. In the absence of NTSB recommendations for General Aviation, Gene has creeated a list based on his extensive experience and study:

The NTSB’s Most Wanted List almost always includes some items related to small, GA airplanes operating under Part 91. The most recent MWL for 2021-2022 does not contain any items that relate to non-revenue flying. I do not believe that NTSB does not have any items for us. But perhaps they have seen little progress from the FAA on many of the recent GA items listed, so they are just giving the FAA time to catch up.

Not that I claim to have the knowledge, research assets, or foresight of the NTSB, but I decided to create my own Most Wanted List in the spirit of preventing accidents involving small, GA airplanes. My list is based on my study of NTSB accident reports. I read all the accident reports that involve a fatality or serious injury, as well as many of the reports from the accidents that resulted in minor or no injuries.

1) All pilots will understand and apply stabilized approach principles to each and every approach. Most landing accidents occur as a conclusion to an unstabilized approach. The NTSB Probable Cause may not state that the approach was unstabilized, but applying the listed conditions to stabilized approach criteria makes the case. The concept is rather simple, we memorize the criteria for a stabilized approach and decide on a stabilization altitude based primarily on the kind of airplane we are flying. If the airplane deviates from any of the criteria below the stabilization altitude we will go around or execute a missed approach. Of course, a Part B to this requires us to maintain proficiency in the go-around procedures for each airplane that we fly. Click here for more information on stabilized approaches.

2)  All pilots and (at least front-seat) passengers will be secured with shoulder restraints. All installed lap belts and shoulder restraints will be maintained in good condition. Shoulder restraints greatly improve the survivability of a crash, but also significantly reduce the chances of life-changing injuries. Relative to other costs involved in flying, the cost of adding shoulder restraints if the airplane is not already equipped is very reasonable. Additionally, all restraint systems, including belts, buckles, and attach points, must be regularly inspected and replaced if needed. Click here to view or download an FAA brochure on the subject.

3) All pilots will engage in a defined recurrent training program. Regardless of how much we fly, we still need to refresh and renew our knowledge and skills. Regulations regarding recurrent training for small GA airplanes operating under Part 91 are non-existent or at least sorely inadequate. On a scale of 0 to 10, with zero being completely unsafe and ten being as safe as practically possible, just meeting the legal requirements would put us at a score of about 1.5. And that is only if the pilot is flying the same kind of airplane as was used for the flight review. Ridiculously, regarding small GA airplanes, a pilot may complete a flight review in any aircraft for which the pilot is rated and it counts for all aircraft in which the pilot is rated. The pilot who owns and operates a Beech Baron can save some money by renting a Cessna 150 for a flight review and thereby meet regulatory requirements.

The FAA Wings program can establish a great framework for a recurrent training program provided the pilot creates a profile that accurately and honestly reflects the pilots flying. An unfortunate, but common practice is to list only airplane and single-engine land in the category and class section. Since only activities pertinent to the pilot’s profile will be generated, earning a phase of Wings may not have much meaning in the larger safety picture. Done properly, the Wings program can substantially move the needle on our safety scale up to at least 8.0.

4) All pilots will perform thorough preflight planning and engage in-flight monitoring. The airplane is not a car in which we can begin a trip with little regard to the weather and figure out our routing and fuel needs along the way. Aviation safety absolutely requires preflight planning and flight monitoring. Some of the most easily preventable crashes result from a lack of adequate planning and monitoring. Common causes of crashes in this category include VFR flight into IFR conditions, fuel exhaustion, lack of takeoff or other performance planning, and operation outside the weight and/or balance limits. These crashes cover the spectrum from the simplest to the most complex airplanes and from the newly certificated private pilot to the most seasoned pilot with the highest certificates and ratings.

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“Ready For Anything?!”

During any emergency, luck certainly plays a role,  but positive pilot action is the essential ingredient for success. Being alert and vigilant – having prebriefed the possible failure modes – enables successful performance by preventing panic. Psychologists call this “priming,” a mental rehearsal of all possibilities and a state of readiness. This prevents “startle” from incapacitating the pilot.  Considering all the possible outcomes *before* beginning any flight helps ensure a correct and rapid response. And during a dual flight, the CFI carries a lot of this responsibility. They are both the educator, but also (to varying degrees) in charge of safety and survival. Every CFI needs to be ready to handle the surprises illustrated below.

Here are two very similar accidents that highlight how essential CFI vigilance and proper action can be when an emergency occurs. Some details are unknown and I am not judging here. Please take a look and click on each to dig into the NTSB details. When things go bad, we will be put to the test. Being ready – primed and vigilant – usually determines the critical difference in the outcome.

“Priming” is the reason we do pre-takeoff briefings, it is the stoic attitude that assumes “things *will* go wrong. A pre-planned, fluid response should be briefed and ready to go (Code Yellow). Surprise and panic will cause startle and inappropriate action since our genetically programmed response seems to be to “pull away from the ground.” When power fails we need to be spring-loaded to “unload” (the “big push”) and keep the wings flying. Whatever we have available to us after that is better than spinning in out of control.

The fatal accident here was dual and it is entirely possible that the fairly experienced female CFI was overpowered by a panicking client (the size disparity is not clear from the documentation). Briefing emergencies (and priming) with the learner helps prevent panic in an emergency (as does a trusting relationship). But if survival becomes a “fight on the controls,” in an emergency, the CFI has to do whatever is necessary to regain control. A trick available to CFIs in most trainers is to use your foot (and the greater power of your leg) on the crossbar under the panel to force the yoke forward and reduce the angle of attack. I have twice overpowered a panicking student over-rotating the pitch (in a Cessna) by easing down the nose forcibly with my foot. When “discussion” fails, positive action is required. It is wise to practice this “CFI trick” and be ready.

"On take-off in a C-152, a student on a 'Discovery Flight' with 'long ago experience' kept pulling and over-rotated the nose (going incoherent and babbling as he pulled). The plane was beginning to mush at a couple hundred feet with the stall horn activating. I thought to myself 'this is how we die.' 

After verbally commanding a release and attempting to force down the nose with both arms, I put my foot on the control bar below the panel and eased down the pitch attitude while talking calmly to him. Once the horizon came back into view he became more reasonable and we continued the flight (practicing the 'exchange of controls' a few times...)"

SAFE is reviewing all accidents presented in the General Aviation News and offering suggestions to enable safer flying. (Subscribe here). Wishing you all happier flying than this! Get out on these beautiful spring days and enjoy some relief from the pandemic and winter weather – before the heat hits down south! See you at AirVenture in July; fly safely (and often)!

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Educator’s “Curse of Expertise!”

Expertise is the amazing, fluid performance of a complex task. An expert makes even the most complicated task look simple – and this is super frustrating when you are a student! We all admire expertise in aviation and strive desperately to achieve that kind of performance when we are learning. Ironically, however, fluid expertise can be a huge impediment to effective teaching.

As a student in any field, you have probably encountered this phenomenon before and it points out the true art of the educational process. “What’s so hard about that, you just do x,y,z!” Someone who has mastered a complex task, but is not an experienced educator, will usually not realize the many methodical steps required to reconstruct (and teach) a complex task. There is an interesting brain trick you have to understand to become an effective educator. And it is also why an expert at something is usually a frustrating teacher; “the curse of expertise.”

When any expert achieves mastery in a complex task, such as landing, this set of nuanced cues, skills and reactions gets encoded in the brain out of sight from your conscious recall. This is called “procedural memory” or “crystallized intelligence” and it is stored in the subconscious areas of the brain; the parietal lobes and basal ganglia. The actions and the associated data in many complex tasks become so automatic after continuous rehearsal, that a master performer is not aware of the steps involved; it is essentially hidden from view. After mastering a complex task, we do not have to even think about it; performance is largely effortless! This is a gift for fluid performance but makes teaching a skill you know almost impossible without careful introspection and a whole different set of “educator skills.”

Procedural memory is a subset of implicit memory, sometimes referred to as unconscious memory or automatic memory. Implicit memory uses past experiences to remember things without thinking about them. It differs from declarative memory, or explicit memory, which consists of facts and events that can be explicitly stored and consciously recalled or “declared.”

This brain trick makes the educational process impossible for many experts. And this is also why the initial CFI can be so difficult to obtain. Teaching is a whole different process from performing. To be an effective aviation educator,  it is first necessary to achieve some level of expertise in a whole set of skills. But then you also have to methodically deconstruct all these maneuvers into parts and pieces and recode this complex activity into discrete and orderly “chunks” you can transfer to a learner. Only then can you be an effective educator. Learning is certainly not “monkey see, monkey do” at the level of expertise.

The amazing psychologist who refined this process in detail for aviation was Dr. Gary Klein and it is called Cognitive Task Analysis. As fuel costs climbed in the 1970s gas crisis, he analyzed all the discrete procedural activities of fighter jet pilots. They could no longer afford to spend countless hours flying jets to acquire nuanced skills. The Air Force needed a way to efficiently capture and transfer these essential flying skills. Flight simulation technology consequently became increasingly important and effective. And the Air Force now largely uses virtual reality simulation. Dr. Gary Klein’s current passion is “ShadowBox LLC” deconstructing subject matter experts and transferring knowlege in a wide range of different fields.

One last point in this interesting comparison of educators vs performers. It is not essential in learning to find the most expert performer to be your CFI. It is much better to seek out the best educator. These are often very different skill sets and people. In addition to good pedagogical skills, empathy and compassion are essential for a good match. Fly SAFE out there (and often!)