From the CFI #2: A New Way to Train

It's a new world out there in the second century of flight -- one with new technology and new opportunities. But we're still training (and testing) pilots the same old way: Performing maneuvers to the Standards. In her second column, AVweb's Linda Pendleton talks about training pilots a new way, one that reflects real-world missions and prevents real-world accidents.


A lot of folks have been saying that the training system is broken. It is and it has been for several years. The advent of technically advanced aircraft has just made that breakdown more apparent. Now, with the coming of the very light jets (VLJ) there is much hand-wringing about “amateurs” in the flight levels. (Let’s clear one thing up right at the beginning here: Amateur is an attitude, not a paycheck. I’ve met some student pilots who were among the most professional pilots I’ve known, and I’ve also flown with some 5,000-hour ATP amateurs.)The way we have trained pilots in the past just won’t work any longer. The system is broken and the sooner it is fixed, the sooner we can improve the accident statistics. Fully 85% of the general aviation accidents are attributable — at least in part — to pilot error, and yet avoidance of these errors and enhanced judgment is the one subject we don’t adequately teach. There are test-prep courses that teach students how to pass a multiple-choice test. That’s working so well that students have been known to finish the Private Pilot Knowledge Test in five minutes or less.(And, as a consequence, the FAA no longer releases the total test bank. Their attitude, and I agree with them, is that one question of each type will be released. If you know how to flight plan, you should be able to answer any flight planning question, even if you haven’t seen that exact question before. Some companies are still trying to use tricky wording in advertising to make you believe that they have all the questions, but they don’t. Nobody but the FAA does, and they aren’t talking!)We take students to the practice area and drill them at length until they are able to do perfect turns around a point, s-turns along a road and lazy-eights. When was the last time a pilot was killed because the lazy eight was less than perfect?

Fix The System

We need to be spending the time with students emphasizing decision-making skills and higher-order thinking skills. Maneuvers will still need to be taught, but they should be just a prelude to the main task of forming a capable and safe pilot. To be sure, there are some computer-based products that purport to teach judgement under the guise of risk management, but so far, the answers to the questions posed are transparently obvious and little new or helpful material has been supplied.We train general aviation pilots for sport flying. With the advent of technically advanced aircraft, we should be teaching them skills that will be useful when flying a modern machine designed for transportation, not for short hops for $100 hamburgers. They will need a lot more practical education than we have given to date.

It has been suggested by some that the training be given over to the folks who train the pilots of the current corporate fleet. After all, the missions are similar — why not the training? Because it just won’t work. Putting a pilot in a $20-million simulator and hitting him with a fire hose of simulated emergencies isn’t going to work with the new generation of GA pilots. It wears out the simulator and irritates the pilot. It has worked for the corporate fleet because, by the time a pilot has the experience to be handed a multi-million dollar jet, that pilot has, by process of elimination, formed fairly good judgement — or is really lucky — since the intrepid aviator has survived long enough to get the job. For the most part, these pilots have been successful despite their training, not because of it. In this traditional training, we have rewarded pilots for the swiftness of their actions, when acting with haste is usually, at best, counterproductive, and at worst, can cause serious — even fatal — errors. Shutting down the wrong engine on a 737 near Midlands, England, comes quickly to mind, but there are many other accidents and near accidents caused by pilots being in a hurry.Another problem with the traditional way pilots are trained is that it rewards a pilot for stepping out of the pilot-in-command role. Pilots are rewarded for their ability to troubleshoot a system on-the-fly (pun intended) and come up with a solution to the system problem. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Pilots are pilots, not mechanics. Not only do they not know enough to really troubleshoot a system, there is very little or nothing they can do about a broken system from the cockpit. Eastern 401 came to grief in the Florida Everglades because all three pilots in the cockpit were playing mechanic, trying to determine why a light bulb wouldn’t illuminate. Nobody was flying the airplane. Not one of the pilots realized — until it was too late — that the airplane was on the way to digging a hole in the swamp. In contrast, Al Haynes didn’t try to fix his stricken DC-10, he just got help flying the airplane and getting it on the ground. Dave Cronin didn’t try to troubleshoot or fix his B-747 after the cargo door blew out. He just kept flying the airplane to get it safely back on the ground. These are the kinds of actions we need to train pilots to take. It’s been right for the last hundred years and it will be right for the next hundred: “Rule One — Fly the airplane! Rule Two — See Rule One!”

Scenario-Based Training

Our new crop of pilots using technically advanced airplanes and very light jets must be taught the skills that will keep them alive in a manner meaningful to them. The necessary systems knowledge can be supplied as self-paced, computer-based training that the pilot will master before flight training. It makes little sense to tie up pilot and instructor time to lecture a class on material that can be adequately studied at the pilot’s convenience. It’s also ridiculous to have pilots memorizing mounds of trivia such as temperatures, pressures, and numbers of holes in speedbrakes. Classroom time should be devoted to review and facilitated discussions on the impact a failure of any one system would have on the mission profile. Selected accident reports can be introduced for discussion of the error chain that leads up to most accidents and pointing out the actions that could/should have been taken to break the chain.Simulator/FTD/flight training sessions should be scenario-based, with the pilot planning the mission profile given parameters supplied by the instructor. Pilots will supply instructors with the normal mission profile for their flights: The airports they use, the weather they encounter, the urgency of the mission. Instructors on the other hand, will take the trainee’s personal information and apply it to generic scenarios to bring the training home to the student. The student must be able to realistically see him or herself in the situation being simulated in order to make the training meaningful. The student must be able to think, “That could very well happen to me.”Simulation is ideal for this type training because the missions can be taken to their conclusion even if that would result in a crash. Obviously, in live flight training, the instructor will have to intervene before that point. The pilot can be shown powerful evidence that faulty decision-making leads to most accidents. Not all possible problems or malfunctions will be revealed to the pilot prior to takeoff. Scenarios should be developed so that there are multiple paths depending on the pilot’s decisions. At times, the pilot will be left with a choice between equally unattractive alternatives and will be forced to select the one that has the marginally best chance at success.It is not necessary that every bell, buzzer, light, and warning message be activated during this training. Those items can be adequately drilled and reinforced in ground school and self-paced study. Again, our aim is not to attempt to make pilots into mini-mechanics. Alaska 261 with pilots trying to figure out malfunctioning flight controls come to mind. Any time the pilot steps out of the role of captain of the ship to do another job — especially one not adequately prepared for — disaster lurks. The pilot’s “trouble-shooting” skills should be limited to taking care of the current problem via the checklist and then deciding whether to land or press on. It’s possible that if the crew of the Alaska MD-83 had landed the airplane soon after they discovered the problem, the outcome may have been different. Any further trouble-shooting has the potential for disaster. The pilot can do precious little from the cockpit other than fly the airplane, and that job should be done with precision and proficiency.

Long Overdue

Why hasn’t all this been done in the past? Partially, it’s because of the way we have thought of the pilot population. There are the “professional” pilots who fly jets in the flight levels and then there are the GA people who fly for fun down in Indian Country. That no longer is true and hasn’t been true for many years now. GA pilots are using increasingly sophisticated equipment to accomplish transportation in the flight levels. Again, “professional” needs to be considered as an attitude toward flying, not the source of the paycheck.Additionally, developing this training is very labor intensive. It’s far easier to build a syllabus with a set of maneuvers and a test standard with those same maneuvers and set tolerances. When we start talking about judgment skills, the metrics become a bit fuzzy and take more thought to develop and judge. Multiple-choice tests have always been easier than essays: They are easier to develop, easier to train for, and easier to evaluate. Nevertheless, the essay more validly explores the testee’s knowledge.The scenarios developed for training cannot be cut-and-dried. There will be no “standard” scenarios because they will have to be personalized for each pilot to be meaningful. If the student is not made to ponder the training session and the ways he could fall prey to inattention and a failure of situational awareness, the instructor has failed. If the pilot is ever left with the thought that, “Well, in the real world that wouldn’t happen,” the instructor has failed. Maneuvers will still have to be taught, but they should be taught as a method for building general proficiency, not as an end in themselves. Maneuvers should not be test items.Scenario-based training will be a challenge for the FAA as well. They will need to administer a testing program that will test the pilot’s ability to use the airplane for transportation and make the solid, consistent judgments to safely accomplish that mission. That testing will be much harder to develop and administer than the maneuver-based testing currently in use.

Start At The Beginning

Scenario-based training is not something that should be left to the pilot entering technically advanced aircraft or very light jets. It needs to begin in the first hours of dual. Primacy is more powerful than many instructors give it credit for, and how pilots are first taught will influence the way they fly for the rest of their flying days. Instructors can begin during the very first hours of dual by involving the student in planning the flight. The flight should be planned with a sectional and the student should navigate to the practice area by pilotage. This should not wait until cross-country training is begun. The student should be aware of and participate in every decision made about and during the flight.With scenario-based training from the first hours of dual — and training and reinforcement of good judgment skills — there is no reason that a 200- to 300-hour pilot cannot safely and efficiently fly a very light jet in the flight levels. The military trains low-time pilots to fly supersonic jets on a daily basis. It takes discipline and it takes a lot of effort on the instructor’s part to develop meaningful training scenarios, but it can be done. The FAA has initiated a program known as FITS (FAA/Industry Training Standards) to address these training issues. More information can be found on their Web site.

The Final Objection

The final objection to this type of training stems from the crowd that says, “I had to pay my dues for 20 years to fly a jet and you should have to also.” There is much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over amateur pilots in the flight levels. Get used to it. They are going to be there, and if we improve training, they could be the best-trained generation of pilots we’ve had since the military trained all of those pilots during World War II.

For more From The CFI, check out the rest of Linda’s articles.