Reflective Learning; Immediate Pilot Improvement!

The US NAVY wisely called a halt to all flying Monday for a Safety Stand-Down after a series of fatal accidents. This “time out” allowed the necessary pauseto review risk-management practices and conduct training on threat and error-management processes.” This should sound familiar to every pilot at every level since self-aware risk management is built into every FAA ACS. All safety is built on a skill called “reflective learning.

As safe pilots and educators, we must always be self-monitoring our risk profile (“is this getting dangerous?”) A safety stand-down is a more extreme version of this continuous 3P assessment/mitigation model; “perceive, process, perform.” When things get too intense and scary, it is time to shut it down, pause and reflect (land and reboot?) It is critical for every pilot to also be able to “break the accident chain” in this manner. Fortunately, large organizations have safety management systems with many layers of oversight to detect and correct errors. A safety stand-down stops the negative vector or action, creating time for operators to honestly analyze the situation to “reflect and redirect.” Both the ongoing 3P and the stand-downs require awareness, analysis, and honest self-critique to modify a system for greater safety.


An object in motion with a certain vector wants to continue moving in that direction unless acted upon. This is a fundamental physical principle of motion; however, individuals, systems, and organizations display the same effect. It allows them to minimize the use of energy, but can cause them to be destroyed or eroded.

Unfortunately, single-pilot operations lack the sophisticated safety management systems (SMS) required for airlines and charter operations. Solo pilots usually have no outside objective oversight for personal flying to call a halt to unsafe actions or habits. Single-pilot operations can easily acquire “negative inertia.” Consequently, every pilot needs to be humble and self-aware enough to detect and call out personal errors and personally break the accident chain. The widely replicated Dunning-Kruger effect repeatedly demonstrates that people on a negative vector are also the least aware of their deficiencies (and also the hardest to change or teach). To fight this proven tendency, we need analysis and redirection after every major flight activity if we want to achieve effective safety and improvement. The military enforces this with “after-action reporting.”


Relativity has been used in several contexts in the world of physics, but the important aspect to study is the idea that an observer cannot truly understand a system of which he himself is a part.

The critical safety skills required for honest analysis and improvement are humility – admitting mistakes – and “metacognition” – self-aware monitoring. Humility is rare in pilots because by nature   (and need) pilots are pretty self-confident. The “inner voice” of metacognition can easily get pushed aside with the “mission mentality” (get ‘r done). Pilots can rapidly slide into the dangerous “Icarus Realm” of hubris. Additionally, the time-critical nature of aviation means a pilot in motion tends to stay in motion…until the sudden stop at the end.

Honest Analysis + Redirection = Learning

it is important to reflect on the events that happened and to be able to have self-criticism and to think from different points of view of a situation in order to have a variety of knowledge and to be able to lead to positive learning from the actions and decisions an individual made.

An excellent way to build a successful self-monitoring system is to create a new habit embedded in your daily operation. One method (I use) to “reflect and redirect” is to write a summary of +/- when logging each flight; “what went right (and wrong)? And “was the success here a result of pilot skill, knowledge, and judgment or was luck responsible?” Properly executed, this quickly becomes an integral part of something you already do (habit stacking). An effective “after-action report” requires self-criticism, and leverages reflective learning to create improvement after every flight. Honest self-assessment leads to successful reflective learning.

Reflective learning is the difference between one hour of flight repeated 1000 times and 1000 unique hours you learned and benefitted from; full awareness!

“Review and redirect” makes every hour of flight more memorable and fun: fully lived and definitely safer. Fly safely out there (and often)

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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