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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