FAA “License to Learn!”

There are some critical misunderstandings – and lots of unfounded “tribal knowledge” –  regarding the pilot examination system. CFIs and flight school owners sometimes approach a DPE after a checkride with surprise and ask “you tested [this person], and they passed, so why can’t they land in a crosswind?” Well clearly because this is not on the test!  (Does anyone read this book?) If  the FAA wanted to assure crosswind capability in the ACS, this maneuver would be required to be demonstrated. Instead it says: “If a crosswind condition does not exist, the applicant’s knowledge of crosswind elements must be evaluated through oral testing“.  And just about every applicant finds a nice blue-sky, calm-wind day for their evaluation (didn’t you?)   But I totally agree with the flight school – based on accident data and experience – crosswind capability *should* be part of every pilot’s mandatory tool kit. But clearly, the responsibility to create the total, capable, safe pilot rests with the aviation educator not the DPE

In many other areas also, the FAA’s DPE testing system represents only the “minimum viable product” of pilot performance and competency. The FAA has left the creation of a safe pilot to the CFI, with the DPE only testing the very basic “required elements.” DPEs are strongly counseled not to deploy “a higher personal standard” or an attitude about “what a pilot should really look like” on their evaluations!  These “creative” FAA evaluators are (rightfully) removed from the DPE pool. But I can assure you, every pilot examiner is elated when an applicant exceeds the standards and demonstrates superb skill, knowledge and judgment. The superior pilot applicant is what all of us >should< be trying to create in flight training (this goes beyond the ACS). As far as I can tell, the official FAA evaluation or “check ride” was designed to be a perfunctory and redundant “check”  of the CFIs training of an applicant. The checkride should only be an operational filter, or a second opinion to intercept a potential safety problem.

Understanding the FAA testing process in this manner also clearly argues against the practice of sending a problematic and unqualified pilot applicant to a DPE to “see how it goes.”

Imagine if this poorly prepared applicant happens to pass the FAA checkride; they definitely will not be safe or truly competent.  In such a case, both the CFI and the DPE have failed to assure the ACS standards (and the future safety of this person and their passengers). CFIs and DPEs have to understand this process better and work as a team to create safer pilots. And even for a successful new pilot, we have to honestly embrace the time-honored advice every new certificate or rating is “a license to learn“.

One last point to remember is the DPE usually has less than two total hours in the plane to run through a rigorous  set of maneuvers and evaluate a whole catalog of knowledge and judgment elements. The recommending CFI, by contrast, has 40-50 hours of time with this person and must be the true arbiter of excellence. DPEs are also strictly forbidden from handling the controls to demonstrate or teach from the right seat during an evaluation. The current FAA guidance on this point is very clear and has led to the removal of many DPEs. You will not find any “added value” imparted during a flight test from the senior aviator in the right seat; that is FAA policy!

Your input on this issue is certainly welcomed here in the comments (and by the FAA at this e-mail). I know there are professional aviation educators who think the ACS and some of its requirements are too stringent and restrictive; “we are making aviation too expensive and difficult.” This could be an indicator that we are at a good point of compromise (and everyone is equally unhappy)? The real news here is ultimately, the professional aviation educator is at the heart of aviation safety and assures that every pilot is thoroughly trained and safe. Fly safely (and often)!

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!


Providing Productive Challenges in Flight


Scenario-based training (like FITS before it) has acquired a stigma in the aviation training world though overuse– but please stay with me here 🙂 Because done properly, scenarios are the most important tool in an experienced educator’s arsenal. And they are now the required core focus of all modern FAA ACS evaluations. But unfortunately, scenarios have been overused (and abused) until many educators practically gag at the mention of the word. But please remember, the  mind-numbing “practice area experience” is equally misused and probably responsible for more student drop-outs than scenarios. Properly constructed scenarios add  a world of valuable challenges to training that more accurately resemble the real flight experience. They expand a small geographic area to the whole country (with no added cost!)

The Misuse…

The misuse of scenarios comes from inappropriately imposing the same generic scenarios onto every student without customizing the challenges.  Given the unique needs of each student this process is doomed to failure by definition (Not unlike those stock “CFI lesson plans”). Anticipated “learning opportunities” often instead become “play time” for instructors logging hours and an expensive burden for the training pilot. They turn flight training into Disney with no added educational value. The heart of a successful scenarios is a motivated and imaginative aviation educator customizing and curating the learning experience. Creative scenario generation and applicatiion creates motivating experiences proven to rapidly build skills, knowledge and judgement and result in a versatile, resilient pilots (and often at a lower cost through efficiency).

The Necessity…

The proven necessity of scenarios is simple. Your new pilot, or “rusty recurrent pilot”,  has the FAA privilege to fly day or night, anywhere in the country, for the rest of their life.  And this is despite being only trained in a small geographic area on good weather days, in daylight.  To safely meet the challenge of real life flying, a student and educator must engage together in some “active imagining.” If done correctly, scenarios transport your pilot to all the places and challenges they may encounter as a pilot.  Working together, you must mentally extrapolate from the local area to the challenges of the whole country, in different terrain and weather, over the span of a lifetime.

Scenarios Done Properly…

If properly constructed and executed, a scenario puts your student into the “struggle zone” or what educational psychologists call the “zone of proximal development”.  An effective scenario presents the optimal level of personal challenge for an individual learner and enables an educator to both teach and evaluate at the highest correlation level of learning.  Done poorly, scenarios merely run up the flight training bill and become an excuse for extraneous trips to exciting lunch destinations on the client’s dime. Buying specialized scenario books or apps to deploy cumbersome generic scenarios usually fail; to be successful, each scenario must be personal and challenge each unique leaner. To present an effective scenario, it is essential to your student well so you can craft realistic challenges appropriate to their level of skill and realm of experience. Remember, a solid relationship of trust is the #1 ingredient to success in any learning situation.  Let’s unpack the “why” and “how to” of SBT  and also provide a sales pitch for this creative way to turbo-charge your teaching.

How to…Let’s get started!

Scenario training can be as simple as scrolling on Skyvector ( or ForeFlight) to a far off state and “mentally relocating” your student to a certain altitude with a mission and set of weather conditions. Active engagement and “buy in” is essential from the learner also so adding a personal mission or application is essential; make it personal! “You’re transporting your sick dog to the clinic and need to know what airspace we are in? And what viz and cloud clearance (radio/nav equipment) are required? Who do I talk to here and how will the plane perform at this altitude?” The more personally relevant and realistic each scenario is, the more actively your student will engage and the more effective their learning. (A previous blog revealed the learning benefits of practicing in the “struggle zone”) And all this can also happen effectively (and economically) on a bad weather day when flying might not be productive at your student’s level. If you have a simulator you obviously have an even better tool and the scenarios created for the EAA-PPC are available now on-line (more on this in a future article)

So  if I am dealing with a Cornell aerospace student, a plausible scenario might start with “You are back at the Mohave Spaceport for Cornell and suddenly have an opportunity to do some personal flying in Mohave…how would you unpack the challenges of mountains and high density altitudes, unique “traffic”?” Or present the “Oshkosh Fly-In Challenge” with the Fisk arrival (this and others are in the EAA-PPC list) And remember these are also exactly the kind of challenges a good DPE is going to present during a practical test. Scenarios build a flexible, thoughful pilot that can unpack challenges and manage risks with skill, knowledge and imagination.

Creating mountains…

And how do you create those mountains? Perhaps after some low level ground reference maneuvering, impose a hypothetical “service ceiling” on your plane in MSL (2000 over the terrain but below the hilltops) Then limit the airplane power to 2100rpm (density altitude) and now transit the “mountains”. “Can we safely transition through the hills to our home airport?  Should we divert instead>”  Similarly you can impose a solid cloud ceiling and  leave the weather decision to the student. Then accept the client’s decision -good or bad- if conditions are within your minimums and you can keep the flight safe and legal. Once  you are flying with too much wind or too low clouds, the client experiences the consequences of their folly (and perhaps log some actual or get some good crosswinds) within a safe environment (watchful eye of the educator). Share your favorite scnarios in the comments below.

The essential element in all scenarios is allowing your client to make mistakes (while carefully maintaining a margin for safety) and supplying only minimal guidance.  Allowing this famous “learning opportunity” to unfold is critical and easily ruined by too much “helping” from the CFI. As errors add up, their struggle will clearly demonstrate the consequences of bad decisions and the “accident chain”  without the safety risk.

Motivating for students and educators!

Scenarios are exciting for both the pilot and the educator adding fun and variety to the training experience; this is how Master Instructors are built. Good scenarios beat “going to the practice area for some steep turns” hands down for learning efficiency and motivation. And there is a real difference between “one hour 2000 times” and “2000 unique hours of real teaching experience”. A future blog will deal more with acquiring expert instructor skills more rapidly (are we still learning as educators?). Fly safely (and often!)

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Important Decision Making Skills!

Thanks to author Parvez Dara, SAFE Treasurer, Master CFI and ATP-rated pilot.

Consider this logic; “I think therefore I am.” Rene Descartes was the father of those words and yet everything we do seems to come from this simple phrase. Our thoughts become actions and then those become habits and they eventually develop our character.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.34.32 PMSo let us look at it in matters of aviation safety. Two pilots from the same household develop differing characteristics of behavior. One is judicious in thought and action, careful in planning and argues within himself all observable points of view with an eye towards flexibility due to changing environments, thus creating various scenarios and plans of action. The other pilot is laissez faire. He gets up, looks out the window at the sun peaking though the clouds and heads to the airport. He is our “kick the tire and light the fire, barnstormer.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.34.04 PMThe logic of decision making is based primarily on information. Asymmetry of information is the main reason for our first pilot to have deliberation over multiple plans of action. He deals with the Boolean logic of “If this then that.” The barnstormer cares not a wit about information per se. He believes he is the epitome of an aviator and the sky is his oyster. So to each, thought is his own way.

Both these pilots are borne of the discovery and justification process. The discovery of biases and the justification to do things. The careful pilot has turned information into knowledge and understanding, while the barnstormer is, shall we say more about his own fully developed sense of “greatness,” then any sense of reality.

While the former takes in all the available bits of data and compiles them into a cohesive sense of the environment, both past and future, the latter has built within himself the fire-walls of confidence rich in confirmatory bias.

Ah I am glad you asked about confirmatory bias. Basically if you do something repetitively and it works, you consider that as a successful and repeatable enterprise. Not withstanding Taleb’s “Black Swan” effect the barnstormer can go on for a finite period of time with that bias lingering within him, until one day the ailerons fly off the hinges. An example would be a pilot who scud runs. As he continues to press on while the cloud ceiling lowers the boom and confirmatory bias continues to ride the wave, until one day the pilot mangles himself on a cell tower or becomes a statistic of a CFIT (obscured mountain). This happens quite a few times a year unfortunately. Justification of actions are a human mechanism steeped in hubris and confirmed through the passage of time by similar acts of carelessness. Its like the teenager who after watching a video of an expert skateboarding champion decides he can go down the rails on flat concrete surface, only to break some young bones in the process, trying to up the ante down a steep staircase.

On the other hand the careful pilot looks at the weather briefing diligently, has acquired the instrument rating, is always instrument proficient and even then takes into consideration the weaknesses of his own skills with “what if scenarios.”

How do we make decisions?

Carefully with as many pieces of information as are available!


Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has explored the idea that we have two internal systems in our brain that are often in conflict during the decision making process. System 1 is a knee-jerk type, quick on the pedal to the metal with little reverence for the condition of the equipment or the environment. System 2 is a more careful, slow, methodical and judiciously employed consideration of all available pieces of information that go in to making a decision.

While System 1 is more of the emergent nature that triggers the frontal lobe of the brain into quick-firing of electrical stimuli, System 2 is the careful process that takes into account from the temporal, visual, auditory and parietal lobes of the brain before committing the fire from the frontal lobe. So in essence with deliberate care.

Which is correct?

If you have to ask that question as a pilot then, I suggest, you take some classes to govern your impulsive, hazardous attitude.

The old story about that, “there are no old, bold pilots!” is a truism. There are only the methodical careful ones that define the risks, mitigate as many known hazards as possible and only then undertake an action.

Conquering space did not happen because someone decided to tie a rocket on their back and lit the fuse. It happened because of hundreds of scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and a few brave astronauts took on the arduous task of understanding space.

Pilots are not all pioneers in space. Most of us are just pilots. There are a few aviators among us, not mere technicians in flight, who understand completely each motion as they are strapped into the seats of an aircraft flying at many hundreds of miles per hour across space.

Understanding natural science and the design of science that are created to embark through that nature is as important as knowing when to apply the force on the rudder to prevent a slip and when to create a slip in flight.

Decisions are made continuously in life. We decide what to buy or sell, to go to a movie or read a book, to cook a meal or dine out. All these decisions have a precedent of understanding and need to fulfill. Similarly flying has a precedent and need. The need however must be met with an equal tincture of understanding of the surrounding space and its vagaries.

All flights are possibilities and as they proceed in space and time, they become probabilities and then are added to the ledger of understanding based on the information gleaned from those flights after they become certainties. These flights then become the justification for future ones. It is equally easy to fall into the trap of hubris as it is into the comforts of a carefully crafted methodology. Therefore it is important to learn about good habits from others and discern about bad habits. Accident cases abound in the aviation literature, most (80%+) point to the pilot actions as the cause of aircraft accidents. One would even consider the number higher. But then I digress.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.35.39 PM

How do we avoid falling into the Kahneman’s System 1, knee-jerk, barnstorming trap?

  1. Develop good safe habits through practice.
  2. Employ careful and methodical instructors to give skill and sound procedures.
  3. Create a log of all flights outside of those in the logbook, detailing each flight and reflecting on errors for future correction.
  4. Critique every flight and what was learned from each.
  5. Gently point out to other’s bad habits (you might save their lives one day).
  6. Rash car drivers make bad pilots.
  7. Egocentric machoism is dangerous to a pilot’s health.
  8. Keep learning. Get all that aviation certification has to offer. Get an instrument rating if you are a private pilot, a commercial ticket and go all the way to the Airline Transport rating. Then consider sea pilot rating, Soaring, Upset training, etc.. All these fill your bag of tricks when one day, you might need them. Never stop learning!
  9. Always emulate good behavior.
  10. Do not drink and fly (Consider more than 8 hours from bottle to throttle, because you as pilot might be a slow metabolizer of alcohol).
  11. Consider the FAA’s IMSAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Eating) before each flight.
  12. Have fun, fly safe…then you live to fly another day (the important part!)

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Master CFI Parvez Dara, MD FACP, ATP, MCFI

As humans we depend on energy. Our energy is created in little biological machinery present in every cell, called mitochondria. These tiny powerhouses generate phosphates from converting (Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP) to Adenosine Diphosphate or ADP). Phosphate groups are needed to move cells within organs to do their jobs, e.g. muscles to contract (locomotion) hearts to pump (heart beat), kidneys to filter (filter blood), livers to digest and brains to process information. Absent phosphate and we are looking at an abyss. Oxygen, the quintessence of all elements breathes life into living creatures. Without it there is no water, nor breathable air, nor the lusty energy that makes us want to fly.

The breathable air contains 20.946% Oxygen. Humans exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen to replenish the stores of renewable energy for every one of the trillion cells that make us. This energy is in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP releases a phosphate group that acts as an energy bar for the cell to chew on so that it can accomplish its functions. These functions include manufacturing proteins, hormones, keeping the integrity of the cell wall etc. From our aviation point of view the function that cannot be clouded is the brain activity. The brain weighs about 3 pounds and consumes 25% of the oxygen supply. The brain’s hefty consumption is a testimony to its integrated and creative functions. 100% of the brain is at work 100% of the time and it needs its constant and uninterrupted energy supply.

Effects of Hypoxia on Brain using fMRI.
Effects of Hypoxia on Brain using fMRI.

The rarified air, for this purpose over 5000 feet at night (due to effect on the eyes) and over 8000 feet during the day, at altitude has reduced content of oxygen, which causes our brains, first to compensate by increasing blood pressure, then the respiration and heart rate to maintain the steady oxygen supply. When oxygen levels lower further, portions of the brain function capitulate, akin to losing the alternator, one reduces energy load by keeping only the most important instruments on the panel active so as not to drain the battery. So flying in un-pressurized aircraft without oxygen, your cognitive skills diminish. The additional harm at the rarified air is the loss of moisture in the air, which makes us breathe our moisture and not breathe any in, thus leading to dehydration. Your communication and math skills suffer as do interpretative skills. Missing calls, airway intersections or flying into adverse conditions becomes possible. To unscramble the brain a little oxygen rich air is mandatory. A “Chamber Ride” at an aviation facility confirms this.Remember an intensely low oxygen level for a short time or a low-level prolonged oxygen restriction can have similar short term and long term consequences on cellular behavior. If you fly above 5000 feet at night or above 8000 feet during the day use oxygen. It is good for the cerebral soul. Think about these problems reading this while seated in your armchair, on the ground rather than trying to decipher this information in the air:

1.      Mathematics Skill deterioration

2.      Cognitive Skill deterioration

3.      Instant Recall diminished (Frequency recall)

4.      Remote Recall diminished (experiential references)

5.      Decision Making Skills deteriorate (Time, distance and fuel consumption)

6.      Risk Assessment Impaired (eg. Go, No go decision into weather)

7.      Physical functional Impairment (muscle weakness)

8.      Lethargy/Fatigue.

The most common reaction to hypoxia is a feeling of euphoria. This is especially dangerous because an affected pilot will not usually feel “sick” or disabled but more typically feel “high” (feeling real good). Given this reaction, there is no incentive to discontinue a flight or exercise an alternate course of action. Pilots suffering from hypoxia feel like aviation gods! Only a trained vigilance from the presence of cues like altitude and duration can arm a pilot to be on guard for the onset of hypoxia; insidious and stealthy. Training in a altitude chamber or oxygen deprivation class is helpful to bring this point home clearly.

The common physiological sign of hypoxia is cyanosis or blue color in the extremities, most noticably in your fingernail beds. Before the easy (and very reasonably priced) oximiters were available pilots checked their nails for blue color.  I highly recommend an oximeter for anyone flying regularly at altitudes above 10,000 feet for any length of time. I also suggest that at altitude, one should take deep breaths to use the entire lung capacity to oxygenate the blood, since we have a tendency to shallow breathe in a cockpit. Having supplemental oxygen readily available is also an excellent safety precaution. Safe flying always requires current training, vigilance and an attitude of caution in the presence of known threats (in this case high altitude).

Please Join SAFE and support our mission of enabling aviation excellence in pilots and educators. The amazing member benefits alone make this important commitment painless and fun. See you at the airport.