From The CFI #7: Scenario-Based Training

With new, technically advanced aircraft becoming more common in the air and at FBOs near you, many in the industry have been asking if we need to take a new look at how we train new pilots. AVweb's Linda Pendleton has certainly been asking, and she discusses the kinds of scenarios that work and don't work in this month's From The CFI column.


In a previous column I called for the need to change the way we train pilots and I suggested that scenario-based training (SBT) would be a way to meet the needs of the growing numbers of pilots who use their airplanes as transportation tools without leaving behind the purely recreational flyer. (After all, somebody has to buy those $100 hamburgers!) In my talks with flight instructors since that article, it has become clear to me that not many are really aware of what SBT is and how to construct lesson plans for such training.

FITS and Middle Tennessee State University

The FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS) program addresses SBT and technically advanced aircraft (TAA). Middle Tennessee State University has recently conducted research on the results of a combined private/instrument course using Diamond DA40 aircraft equipped with Garmin 1000 glass cockpit systems. This program — SATS Aerospace Flight Education Research (SAFER) — was granted exemption 8456 December 10, 2004, allowing students to take one combined private/instrument practical test. (FAR 61.65(a)(1) requires a private certificate before taking an instrument rating practical test.) The upshot of this preliminary research was that the students in the combined course suffered more setbacks (defined as lessons repeated) prior to solo, but far fewer setbacks post solo than traditionally trained students. Also significantly, the students in the combined course finished their private pilot with instrument rating in an average of just under 89 hours, contrasted with over 134 hours for traditional students. (The whole report is available here in Adobe PDF format, about 60 Kb.)So, it would appear that SBT, and specifically that done in technically advanced aircraft, is far more efficient than traditional maneuver-based training. Of course, much time will have to elapse for us to see any effect on safety statistics.Developing SBT can be very labor intensive — it’s more difficult than the usual maneuver-based training. Middle Tennessee’s syllabus can be found here on the FITS Web site (as a 680 Kb PDF file) and is 145 pages long. The hallmark of a good SBT training course is that the student is involved in planning all training flights, and all training flights are mission-oriented. The days of the instructor navigating to the practice area while the student “steers” and basically follows vectors are — or should be — over.

Traits of Good Scenario-Based Training

In order for SBT to be effective and meaningful for the student, it must meet several criteria. It must:

  • Be realistic in all realms. The weather, abnormal procedures and equipment failures must be the ones that might come up in a normal flight. This is easier to abide by in an aircraft than it is in a simulator. Inexperienced (or masochistic) simulator instructors are likely to pile the systems malfunctions on top of virtually unflyable weather. At the end of the session the student’s reaction is, “Well, I survived another sim session,” rather than “Wow! I can really see that happening.”
  • Be personal. The scenario should reflect the day-to-day trips and uses the student plans to conquer with the brand-new certificate or rating. Taking a flat-lander who plans to fly his Cessna 150 within a 200-mile radius of his home to practice takeoffs and landings at Aspen would be ridiculous; and while said student would learn about the anemic performance of the craft at high-altitude airports, it would not be a lesson applicable to everyday missions.
  • Be engaging. Launching the same old mission to the same old place will not hold any student’s interest for long. Each scenario should be different, engaging and challenging to the student. Little but rote is learned by endless repetition. The student may have the waypoints and landmarks memorized from Little Airport, USA, to Larger Airport, USA, and be able to fly a flawless flight between the two; but how will that help in the navigation from Little Airport to Really Far Airport? It won’t.
  • Be challenging to the student’s experience level. This is where the construction of scenarios becomes a little more work, because one size does not fit all. When I was a student pilot, I felt that a three-knot crosswind was a challenge. (Some other time I’ll tell you how well that served me when I began flying tail-dragger Beech 18s!) The student should feel slightly uncomfortable about the new challenge, but not overtly fearful.
  • Be mission-oriented. And this brings us to risk assessment. There should be risk assessment and management discussions before every flight. I’ve written before about the power of primacy and what you teach your students in the first hours of instruction will be those things that stick longest. Making risk assessment a part of every flight will ensure that this becomes a vital part of your student’s subsequent preflight planning.
  • Encourage the exercise of alternate options. Your student should be thoroughly familiar with the fact that not all trips go as planned. Encourage them to formulate and use alternate options. The outcome of a trip should be thought of as, “How do I get to my desired destination?” not “How do I land this airplane at my destination?” Landing short and driving the remaining distance may sometimes be the safest alternative in deteriorating weather or advancing darkness and mountainous terrain.
  • Only give the student the information specifically requested. This will encourage the student to think through all phases of the planned mission to identify those items of information needed to make accurate decisions and risk assessments. Encouraging the student to ask for additional information will help them not to make decisions on inadequate information.
  • In contrast to the previous item, show the student that sometimes decisions must be made on incomplete information. The assessment of the adequacy of the information obtained and the risks represented by the information that is not available is an invaluable skill which will pay off when pilots are faced with the reality of sketchy information when on solo missions.
  • Be rewarding. Your students will feel that their training is truly preparing them to use an aircraft as a transportation tool.

Some Undesirable Traits

Any of you who have been to traditional simulator training can probably make a fairly extensive list of undesirable scenario traits. Just think back to your last “fire-hose approach” training and the list will fill itself.Undesirable scenarios all share one or more of the following characteristics:

  • They are predictable. The student can deduce, even before the preflight inspection, where this scenario is going. If you present only weather for possible diversion airports that all include strong and gusty crosswinds, the student will rightly guess that you’re going to induce some problem or malfunction that will require landing in a stiff crosswind. Predictable scenarios are good only to make sure that your student can make an early no-go decision when necessary. That only has to be done once.
  • Undesirable scenarios present decisions that are black or white. Real life is seldom like that. When risk must be assessed and managed, it is usual that the least undesirable of many less-than-optimal solutions must be chosen. Making the alternatives all bad except for one perfect choice does not teach anything other than reading.
  • Overtaxing for the student’s experience level. Student pilots should not be asked to evaluate icing conditions, extreme weather of any kind, or high-performance aircraft problems. The complexity of the problem and its solutions should always be appropriate to the student’s level of experience. Inducing frustration is one of the quickest ways to guarantee no or negative learning.
  • Canned scenarios. It’s Tuesday so we must be going to Tuesday Airport. Students will learn little if the scenarios are canned and not tailored to their own situation. If they can get a “cheat sheet” from another of your students, what have you taught?
  • CFI ego trips. You always (I fervently hope) know more than your students. Constructing a scenario that only you can fly will again teach nothing except the desire to find another instructor.
  • Trick questions. I had an FAA inspector ask me once how many holes are in the speed brakes on the Citation. I knew, but I consider that an unfair question. “Gee wiz” trivia has no place in aviation — unless you’re having a trivia game for beers in a bar. You should not have to memorize anything unless immediate recall of that item will keep you alive — or out of trouble. There are enough important facts to know in aviation without loading a student with trivia. (By the way, I told the inspector that I’d find the answer to his question if he could tell me what procedure I should follow if I found a hole missing on the preflight.)
  • Multiple systems failures. This mostly comes up during simulator training, but multiple systems failures is one of the most frustrating and unrealistic things you can do to a pilot trainee. Good grief, if those types of things happened in everyday flying, I’d either fire my mechanic or sell shoes for a living. Those scenarios are really only one more type of one-upsmanship employed by instructors who are too lazy to construct realistic, valuable scenarios.

The Future

Scenario-based training looks to be the best future for aviation. It stresses judgment skills and risk assessment. When pilots have an accident or incident because they mishandled the controls of the airplane, they usually walk away from the bent metal. When you think about it you realize that you learned most everything you needed to know about the physical manipulation of aircraft controls before you soloed. Everything after that is pretty much a head game, and that’s the part where instructors have failed students. They’ve continued to teach the same old maneuver-based syllabus. We’ll never make a further dent in accident statistics if we don’t cure that failing. Scenario-based training seems to be the way.

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