Futility Defined: Teaching Judgment

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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.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (15)

I don't think I am the wild-eyed lunatic but the only other conclusion is that there are mistakes in your transcription of the problem. It says you are in a known-ice equipped airplane, and you are flying in the clouds at a temperature warmer than freezing (admittedly, only two degrees above freezing). It also says that this is so risky that you must descend 4,000 feet - presumably the temperature will then be 10 degrees above freezing?

That makes no sense - at least, it makes no sense to me. I would stay put. You're flying below the freezing level, in a known-ice airplane. What's not to like?

Posted by: ANDY DAVIS | October 2, 2013 6:07 AM    Report this comment

Feedback loop. Touch hot coffee cup - ouch - don't touch hot cup again. Touch warm coffee cup - feels comforting - consider this OK. Touch cold coffee cup - head for the microwave to turn it into a hot coffee cup again.....

My cat has this down. Give her something off my plate and she waits just the right amount of time for it to cool before attempting to eat it. I swear she can see Infra Red and make the right call.

Experiential Learning. I used to teach at sea. The occasional bump and popped boat fender did far more to teach you how to dock a boat than never bumping it. A few mildly bounced landings in a plane - the same.

Then one day I was sailing with a trainer who worked in deep coal mines. His only comment was that for miners - experiential learning was paid for in lives. They didn't even risk popped boat fenders down the mine.

I like to try and find the warm coffee cup. But sometimes you have to hover close to the hot one to find it.

Posted by: Graeme Smith | October 2, 2013 6:16 AM    Report this comment

Learning from experience means that you have to first experience. But of course, if that experience will kill you, then your learning curve is remarkably short. So it is with ice-potential flying in a non-FIKI airplane--and I suspect to some degree in a FIKI airplane. Since I've never flown a FIKI airplane, I have to think in terms of what I have flown and what experience I've had as a consequence.

I have never flown into "known ice", but I have experienced unexpected icing in 172s, 182s, a TR182, T210s, and a Mooney 231, That's because any time one regularly flies IFR, the possibility of encountering ice is there, regardless of whether one purposely avoids flying through the predicted icing level. Any icing at all in a 172 is too much, because the power is limited enough that climbing out of it isn't likely, so the only route is down. So even a trace is enough to put me on edge and to seek an immediate out. All the rest can carry a little rime ice, but as soon as it starts to form to more than a trace, it's time to get out of there, and the power is there to climb out of it if that's a reasonable option. So my judgment from experience is to stay out of ice, but if it happens in a 172, get out right now; if it happens in the others, there's just enough time left to decide whether up, down, or turning around is appropriate.

So I suspect flying a FIKI airplane requires similar judgment--with the recognition that if it's a SE FIKI, that capability is best used to get out, not to get in farther. It's much like a winch on the front of the Jeep--best to use it to extricate when the 4WD won't do it alone, but don't rely on it to get farther and farther into the unknown.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | October 2, 2013 9:05 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you are 100% correct in saying that you cannot teach good judgement. I taught hang gliding at
a major Bay Area school for a number of years and we really stressed safety in our courses. There was always a yahoo or two that never listened and was bound to crash. My fellow instructors and I
could spot these jokers after a couple of lessons and would try and talk them out of continuing in the sport. Unfortunately, we were not always successful.

Posted by: Ric Lee | October 2, 2013 5:53 PM    Report this comment

"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. ..................................... 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. "


Posted by: Mark Robinson | October 2, 2013 9:22 PM    Report this comment

There is flight, ground and brain training. Brain training is teaching good judgment.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 3, 2013 9:46 AM    Report this comment

Teaching good judgment can't be done; it is a by product of experience and acquired wisdom.

This is reminiscent of various corporate and/or government attempts to teach classes in so-called "ethics" in the absence of any recognized value system; it is a meaningless exercise.

Posted by: A Richie | October 3, 2013 11:22 AM    Report this comment

This is my first FIRC, so I'm glad to hear the ASI eFIRC (which I decided to use) is "[maybe] the best of its kind".

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 3, 2013 11:51 AM    Report this comment

We all use judgment in making decisions. Good judgment or bad judgement lead to good decisions or bad decision. Teaching to make good decisions is in fact teaching good judgment.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 3, 2013 12:09 PM    Report this comment

Have you heard the one about the old bull and the young bull?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 3, 2013 12:15 PM    Report this comment

I stress collecting and understanding information. Descent is not always the best option. Descent or level flight when outrunning a warmfront from the warm side takes you into possible freezing rain. Look at the wx charts and the direction of the bumps and that will show you the directionn of the slope with warm on top. Visualize the descending U turn, assuming delayed good judgement, vs straight ahead while remembering that in an SE only 20 miles or 10 minutes can be eternity.

The second thing I try to help my young studs with is consequences. To make a really good judgement you need to know the possible consequences. A two hour delay or eternity when it comes to a squall line. RKB CFII former F-4 IWSO

Posted by: RAYFORD BROWN | October 4, 2013 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Some great comments here.

Andy, the worst risk of icing, counterintuitively, is around freezing point, rather than 10's of degrees below it. I've never flown myself in a GA aircraft in severe icing conditions but I did learn that as part of an aviation degree I've done as a mature age student. That degree had 24 subjects on the usual variety of topics but I reckon half of them had some human factors and decision-making in them, trying to do what Paul's saying is impossible :-).

Some people are happy to learn vicariously by seeing what others have done and the consequences they experienced. Others, like me, want to know what it feels like themselves. You don't know the actual limits until you've busted through them and had to tidy things up. Maybe it's a desire to not only experience the incipient crisis but also to "know through having done" that you can tidy things up when it's more than incipient. I was critical of the guy in the jump plane video a while back who did the maximum effort descent and landing but I also was a little jealous - through risk-taking he's developed skills and knowledge that most people out of war-time will have trouble acquiring.

Posted by: John Hogan | October 5, 2013 5:11 PM    Report this comment

Are we trying to teach "judgement" or "decision making"? They're not the same. I think the best we (instructors) can do is to teach 'decision making' - more rational than emotional, more fact based than guess. And I say 'more', because no decision is even truly fully rational nor fact based. So, in the scenario mentioned, why wasn't the option of climbing in the clear offered; might have actually been the best call.

Posted by: john lyon | October 5, 2013 6:40 PM    Report this comment

A great column and well-reasoned array of feedback from the community. Three quick additions.

FIRST, perhaps its not a question of teaching good judgment, but simply the implications of the risk shouldered. Risk is insidious that way. It can be piling-up on top of an inexperienced practitioner without her/him even recognizing. Then, when that tightly coiled spring finally explodes, the practitioner is caught completely by surprise and quickly overwhelmed by the complexity of the multiple parts of the system gone awry. This, as compared to an old saw who recognizes each risk he chooses to accept, and is ready to dish-out associated mitigations when the situation goes south. This is why I really do like those parts of the risk mgmt training associated with conscious recognition of the risk loaded into the system. Such as the risk tree, with hierarchical branching, or that table with 'liklihood' on one axis, 'impact' on the other, and a scary red zone at the top corner.

SECOND, this situation is unique since there are training models so closely related that have such discernably better accident statistics than ours: both the military and the airlines. This isnt a case where we need to grope in the dark for solution strategies, or dream them up from scratch. we just need to learn from whats already working next door and apply it in a mission-appropriate fashion over here.

THIRD, this isnt a debate that we can just afford to blow off. GA's accident record is bad, and hasnt shown any real improvement for years. This hurts every corner of the industry, from providing regulators with moral ground to stand on in ever-tightening rules, to scaring away those potential new pilots who stumble across their first Nall Report before the flying bug has burrowed-in beyond extraction. So lets keep this dialogue rolling, and all maintain a willingness to support some innovative strategies that appear less than perfect, in service of the potential to be pleasantly surprised.

Posted by: Drew Harteveld | October 6, 2013 6:32 AM    Report this comment

"You can't learn about risk without occasionally taking it." Agreed! But for those who can assess risk we need to continue to teach how to do that better -- and provide the ability to see and experience the edge without going over.

The GA accident rate is very much a function of the freedom we all enjoy. I'm comfortable with that balance but I recognize many are not.

Blue skies!

Posted by: BRADLEY SPATZ | October 7, 2013 9:43 AM    Report this comment

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