Increasing Experience = Safer?

Think back to when you first learned to fly. Everything was new and exciting. We didn’t know anything about flying an airplane and we knew we didn’t. Then after we got our private pilot ticket our adventure continued but as our instructor told us “you now have a license to learn”. Eventually after many hours and maybe a few questionable decisions we became more skilled, proficient and safe. Maybe!

As it turns out the data shows that pilots actually become MORE likely to have an accident with experience at least to a point. It requires several hundred flight hours before that risk goes down. In 2015 the FAA published a paper titled Predicting Accident Rates From General Aviation Pilot Total Flight Hours. The paper looked at flight hours of pilots involved in accidents. It then compared that to the total number of pilots with equivalent flight hours in order to create an accident risk ratio. The paper describes a “killing zone” of greatest risk. For VFR pilots the zone is around 500 hours and for instrument-rated pilots about 800 hours. Below is the graph from that paper for non-instrument-rated (NIR) pilots. Notice the peak risk is almost 3X greater than when pilots first earned their PPL!

The author acknowledges the far right side of the graph above is probably inaccurate due to the small number of pilots with high hours in the FAA database. But the overall message is clear. Pilots get more dangerous with experience before they get less dangerous. How can that be? The FAA paper does not attempt to answer but I have a theory. And it has to do with us humans and our perceived skill vs actual skill. There is a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people who scored the lowest on tests of learned ability like logical reasoning, grammar and a sense of humor had the most inflated opinions of their skills. In a sense when we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we also lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence.

The graph below is from the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. It suggests that people follow a trend over time as they learn something new. We start where we know nothing and know we know nothing. Then as learning occurs we get ahead of our skis and our perceived knowledge becomes much greater than actual knowledge peaking at “Mount Stupid”.

Eventually, we develop a deeper understanding and realign our knowledge with our perception. This pattern was seen across many areas of learning including basic (children learning to read) and complex (doctors diagnosing patients). It certainly seems it could happen to pilots.

In aviation, “Normalizing” bad behavior would seem to contribute to this type of risk. A recent SAFEBlog discussed “Cautious to Cocky: the 6C’s” where pilots can progress to a comfort level beyond their or their airplane’s ability. If I get away with it and nothing bad happens then it must be OK.
So how do we as flight instructors make pilots aware and protect them from Mount Stupid? One is to just educate them on this concept. Maybe when we work with a pilot in a BFR or airplane checkout when their hours are in the “killing zone”, point out the risk and the many resources to mitigate it.
One resource is FAA’s 5 hazardous attitudes. 4 of the 5 (Anti-authority, Impulsivity, Invulnerability and Macho) are clearly tied to ego and would be prime risks for moderate time pilots.
Another example is FAAsafety.gov. There are several videos of moderate time pilots who get themselves into dangerous or even deadly situations. Here is an AOPA analysis of a Cirrus accident at Hobby Airport where the pilot had 332 hours total time, and another Cirrus accident with a pilot at 227 hours. Both are clearly preventable accidents and both involve a pilot who appeared to get in over their head.

Lastly, a thought about instructor experience. It would certainly seem plausible that as new instructors accumulate instruction time they might also experience Mount Stupid. When I became a CFI in 2018 more than one fellow instructor warned me that at around 200 hours of instruction given I would have a customer do something very surprising (and maybe dangerous). Maybe new CFI’s start to let their guard down believing they can anticipate what a customer will do. So new CFI’s be alert!

See you at Sun ‘N Fun A-85/6. For SAFE members, enjoy a free MCFI breakfast for SAFE members on Thursday at 8am; at the Sunset Cafe.

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Author: Kurt Hahn

CFII, instructor at First Wing Jet Center and safety officer of Sky-Vu Flyers, an Indianapolis flying club

4 thoughts on “Increasing Experience = Safer?”

  1. The psychologists have had a field day with this issue for many many years. Personally I worked closely along with Des Barker on these issues for twenty years.
    CFI’s are of course advised to become familiar with useful tools like Dunning- Kruger and with fancy terms like “Cognitive Dissonance”. Knowing and understanding these things is part of any good instructor’s “tool kit”.
    It is also useful for pilots as well as instructors to fully understand that much of what constitutes how safe or unsafe a pilot will be throughout their tenure in aviation can be narrowed down to a single word, and that word is ATTITUDE.
    There is nothing linear about experience as it defines safety. I’ve given check flights to ATP’s with thousands of hours who I considered as in serious need of remedial work on the most basic of the piloting skill sets. I have as well given check flights to low and medium hour pilots who demonstrated excellent understanding and execution of the same basic skills.
    At first glance at what I have just said one can come away with the impression that what I described above is a reasonable explanation defining Dunning-Kruger. You would be correct, it is just that.
    But there is more to it as you get into the “meat” of it all. Buried deeply within Dunning-Kruger as that affects an individual pilot is something more basic and easier to understand. And understanding it can define your quality as an instructor. It’s all about ATTITUDE. In the end analysis what constitutes much of what defines a pilot as safe or unsafe can be found on the way an individual pilot “THINKS” on a daily basis about safety. And how a pilot “thinks” about safety can in large part depend on the quality of flight instruction given to that pilot by a flight instructor.
    So as an instructor will YOUR student follow the Dunning-Kruger curve……………or have you helped to develop in that student the “attitude” toward flight safety that will prevent that student from entering that part of the Dunning-Kruger curve where the danger lies.
    Think about it for a moment instructors. YOU have the power to prevent Dunning-Kruger from defining your student.
    And THAT my friends……….is a perfect example of how important and how powerful is the job of the Certificated Flight Instructor!
    Dudley Henriques

    1. Thank you Dudley! Attitude is the critical component in safety; some humility and a questioning attitude comes from being a lifetime learner (it is never “EZ-PZ!”). Humans erroneously assume the future will resemble the past consequently extensive experience can make us complacent and unprepared. Every take-off and landing has the same exact chances of failure (or other surprises) as every previous one – many hours provide no safety inoculation from chance! Every CFI teachers (and models) this essential safety attitude; CFIs are indeed the #1 influencer of safety.

  2. I had seen those two videos previously. They certainly directly address some of the potential problems that may be encountered especially nearing the ‘killing zone’. They both show that the pilots unknowingly put themselves into a trap due to lack of qualifications and/or skill to deal in that environment. The end of the video discussions cover all of the considerations the pilots should have taken extremely well and can be used to discuss points in more detail.

    In general, just like in many other activities, there’s probably a natural reluctance for CFI’s to spend too much time on the dangers in the activity. Going forward, as these videos are so informative, I’ve bookmarked them and the article and will require them as mandatory viewing/reading in future BFR’s and Certification Courses at the appropriate time.

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