Futility Defined: Teaching Judgment
Did you know there’s a multi-billion dollar industry devoted entirely to sleep disorders? If only they knew that the rock-solid way to bring on the deepest of sleeps is to enroll in a Flight Instructor Refresher Course. Let the serious snoring begin.
I know this because I’m now in the midst of my tenth or so FIRC, this time using AOPA’s newly revised online e-FIRC. Actually, it’s not bad and may be the best of its kind I’ve ever taken. So we’re making progress, one embedded video at a time.
One of the FIRC’s modules deals with teaching weather judgment and/or judgment in general. This is always tricky territory and the more I see it attempted, the more convinced I am that it can’t be done, or at least done effectively enough to make a difference. I’m convinced that you’re more or less equipped with your risk assessment switches at birth and no amount of persuasion, lecturing or admonishing from flight instructors and pious aviation magazines will change that. If you’re a hanky twisting Aunt Jane when you start, you’ll finish that way. At the opposite end of the continuum, the wild-eyed lunatics may live or die on luck alone, but they’re not often dissuaded by the voice of reason. And who gets to claim to be the voice of reason, anyway?
But it’s entertaining to see attempts at this. The weather judgment series in this course is set up with several scenarios, one of which involves a flight from the east coast to the Midwest in a known-ice Cirrus during the winter, when ice is in the forecast. The course confronts the viewer with various decision points during the flight and data available includes a look at datalink weather, the OAT and access to the radio for PIREPS. Based on the information you gather by clicking on these sources, you’re asked to pick a decision from a list of three or four options.
The flaw in this approach is that someone has to decide what the best or right decision is for the given circumstances, as though there’s an agreed upon standard of some sort. The underlying assumption, although unstated, is that you’d never make such a trip in a non-de-iced airplane. This springs from the Boy Scout end of the risk spectrum and doesn’t reflect the way pilots actually use GA airplanes. Experienced IFR pilots depart into cold clouds all the time without benefit of de-icing. They mitigate the risks by assessing how likely ice is to actually occur and by having plausible outs. Right or wrong, this is just the way the real world operates. Some people are just more risk tolerant than others, but that doesn't make them crazy.
Scenario-based training like this introduces a level of mind gaming to the process that I think is counter to the intent of the training. For example, one of the questions had the Cirrus in flight at 10,000 feet with the OAT a couple of degrees above freezing. One of the choices was to continue the flight or descend to 6000 feet. Confronted with this question, I found myself conflicted between picking what I’d actually do and trying to figure out what the program thinks is the right decision. Predictably, the program tilts toward the more conservative decision, subtly suggesting that this is always the better course when we all know it isn’t always.
In this case, the best decision was to descend to 6000 feet, the idea being that you must avoid even a trace of icing onset in a de-iced airplane. But that wouldn’t have been my decision. I’ve seen enough ice not to freak out when the first trace of it appears and I have to decide what’s next. All things considered, I’d rather be higher than lower in IMC, measured against a few whiskers of rime popping up.
To be fair, the quizzes associated with this training—which you have to pass—have factual, not judgment-based questions, so the judgment section is obviously intended as a thought provoker. Given the limitations of judgment training, I thought the modules, which were done by ASI, were better than any I’ve seen, but still fall short because they’re trying to teach the unteachable. I think anyone trying to construct such training would reach the same conclusion, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.
Risk assessment evolves from a complex admixture of personal experience, training, information gathering habits, analytical capability, creativity and raw nerve—or lack thereof—that are different for everyone. That blows a hole in the assumption that everyone looks at the same data, the same situation and reaches the same conclusion. Since not everyone is comfortable with higher risk decisions, that necessarily argues for more conservative ones as the make-happy common denominator. Is that the way to a lower accident rate? I’m not so sure. Accident avoidance isn’t just about the most conservative decisions, but also about learning to think and recognize those decisions which will inevitably lead to bent metal. You can’t learn about risk without occasionally taking it.