Pull the mixture or condition lever and the propeller comes to a stop. Turn off the switches and what had been saturated with noise and vibration becomes still and quiet. After removing your headset and while sitting in the momentary silence that follows a flight, perhaps you’ll hear the engine ticking as heat dissipates. It’s time to pack up and leave the cockpit: Your work is done, right? No, not quite. To get the full benefit of the experience you just had, to learn from every flight, you need to spend just a few moments debriefing your flight.
Your post-flight debrief doesn’t have to be detailed. Just ask yourself a few questions, and provide honest answers. Your briefing also can be very structured, with a personalized debriefing form and lists of the myriad tasks you performed or planned, plus a scoring mechanism to fairly and objectively judge your performance. The most effective way to debrief, and the most likely system that actually will get used is probably somewhere in between. Regardless of how you debrief, the objective is to review the manner in which you conducted the just-ended flight so you can learn from your actions and be even better next time you fly.
To the Books
Most pilot and flight instructor texts give a passing nod to the post-flight briefing. Virtually all declare it to be a highly important part of the flight-training process. Most decry the “lecture” method, in which the instructor tells the student what he or she did right and in what areas he or she needs to improve. The consensus is that better results come from asking the student to critique his or her performance, with the discussion guided, but not totally led, by the flight instructor. The biggest obstacles to making this technique work, according to the FAA’s Flight Instructor Handbook, are the student’s lack of experience and objectivity, which result in an inability to properly assess his/her performance; the fatigue state of a student after a lesson, especially in the early stages of pilot training; and an instructor’s lack of familiarity with good debriefing techniques. Another factor is the instructor or student’s unwillingness to spend the time necessary to conduct a useful post-flight debriefing.
I’ve not yet found any FAA guidance on extending the concept of a post-flight briefing to a pilot who is critiquing his or her performance following a day-to-day, non-instructional flight. Yet the vast majority of our flying happens without an instructor by our side, and available to review the flight afterward. Although instructors present us the training needed to earn certificates and ratings, and occasionally provide a refresher in the form of a flight review, an instrument proficiency check (IPC) and other recurrent training, we learn most from our own experiences as pilot-in-command in real-world situations.
Psychologist and flight instructor Dr. Janet Lapp is a proponent of the post-flight self-brief. “What happens during the crucial period of time immediately following a behavior, or set of behaviors, can either reinforce (make stronger), punish (eliminate temporarily), or help extinguish (aid in forgetting) that behavior,” according to her November 2008 article in AOPA’s Flight Training magazine.
“The best time to learn may be in the few moments right after a flight, in an organized and controlled manner,” she wrote. “Actions completed by self, rather than by other, are more meaningful and memorable; memory traces are more indelibly etched; and content is more internalized. We become responsible for what we do…[and] we take more responsibility for our actions.”
Get it in Writing
Dr. Lapp suggests we commit our debriefings to writing, building a journal of our growing experience. “If we don’t measure it,” she writes, “we can’t change it.” Lapp also says her personal research suggests that a written review makes pilots open up to the process and give self-debriefing the attention it deserves. The “central purpose [of a written review] is to increase self-correction, reflection, and tracking of attitude and behaviors. The goal is to create pilots who reflect on emerging issues immediately after every flight. The students make the entries, specify what they did well and what they could have done better, what they will work on next time, and what knowledge gaps were discovered. These are accompanied by a self-rating system that creates its own system of improvement.”
Dr. Lapp makes her suggested debriefing form available to the public, and invites pilots to adopt it and customize it to their needs. It allows the pilot to identify the major areas of critique, and to answer a few broad questions that identify the overall tenor of the flight. Although Dr. Lapp’s research focused on students receiving instruction (which was, after all, when she was present to introduce the concept of the post-flight debrief and judge the results), she notes in the Flight Training article she created the form originally to reinforce her own need for post-flight debriefings as a certificated and active pilot, and has told me several times her intent is for pilots to use the form as a self-debriefing tool.
Some pilots have suggested reluctance to create a written record of the mistakes they’ve made while flying an airplane. They seem to fear the journal could “fall into the wrong hands” and be used in some way against them in an FAA enforcement action or a liability lawsuit. Sad to say, they may be right. If you choose not to maintain a written record, but you find the act of writing about and scoring your flights indeed does focus your attention on continual improvement, there’s nothing to prevent you from critiquing your performance in writing and then destroying the record when you’re done with it.
The Highly Qualified Pilot
If you want to develop an even more detailed type of self-debriefing, you might do what I do as a result of my military experience. Back in the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, I served as a Minuteman nuclear missile launch control officer for the U.S. Air Force. The pressure-cooker environment of potential total nuclear war, 60 feet under the Missouri plains, strangely did much to prepare me for the single-pilot cockpit of an airplane. One thing the “missile business” did for me as a pilot was to teach the debriefing concept of minor, major and critical errors.
Air Force missileers train and are evaluated relentlessly. At least once a month we spent four hours in “the box”—a functional simulator reproducing the hardware and operation of a missile launch control center. No less than once a year we were evaluated in the box (I personally had eight “annual” checks during a four-year tour of duty—go figure). We also were evaluated “in the field”—observed while on actual alert—much like a line check for an airline pilot.
Every evaluation assumed from the beginning that the missile combat crew’s performance was perfect —earning 5.0 points on a five-point scale. Of course, from there, things can go only one direction: downhill. Certain functions, if performed incorrectly, were considered minor errors. These were items that were missed or performed incorrectly, but which did not directly impact the primary mission. Commit a minor error, and you’d have one-tenth of a point lopped off your beginning, perfect score.
A major error might delay getting a missile repaired correctly, allow unauthorized access to a missile site (but no direct access to controls, boosters or warheads), or cause (by action or inaction) one component of the hardware to become inoperative. A major error cost one full point off your final score. In some cases it was possible to recover from a minor or even some major errors, and not be charged the adverse points…if you caught the error in time, and undid what you had done.
A critical error in missiledom cost five points, an automatic failure of the evaluation. Examples of “crits” included attempting to launch missiles when not ordered, launching at a valid order but at the wrong time, or launching to the wrong targets, all of which are highly undesirable events (this was, of course, all in “the box”). In the field, critical error might be tuning a radio or satellite receiver incorrectly (meaning you would not receive emergency messages). Another critical error was to shut down your launch capsule when not called for, thereby degrading your squadron’s ability to launch missiles (usually, when dealing with a simulated fire in your tiny underground command center).
Error points were additive. A major error and two minor errors resulted in a 3.8 score, etc. A crew was deemed qualified if its final score was 2.5 or higher. Crewmembers were awarded highly qualified (HQ) status for a 4.6 or better score (no more than four minor errors, and none of the major ones). You could “crit out” on a combination of major and minor errors. And sometimes an action that would ordinarily only be a minor error (such as setting a clock or tuning a radio) might become “major” if that act led to missing some other task, or it might even be critical if it adversely affected alert status or a simulated launch later on. Great woe fell upon the combat crew that “critted out” and had to go through the entire crew certification procedure to regain their mission-ready status.
What’s this got to do with flying airplanes? Since we’re not talking nuclear Armageddon here, most pilots who “crit out” (i.e., have an accident) do so by letting minor and major errors snowball. Here’s an example from several years ago: I was flying a Beechcraft Bonanza from Wichita to Tullahoma, Tenn. This was my first long trip in the rented Beech, and I was still getting the hang of its Garmin GX60 IFR-qualified GPS. Somewhere over southwestern Missouri, I was assigned a vector around a newly hot MOA, and was told to expect direct to the Walnut Ridge VOR and then the rest of my route as filed. I made the heading change and began fiddling with the GPS.
Still not fully proficient with the interface, I put the Bonanza on autopilot while I loaded the new waypoints. Satisfied, I activated the flight plan…and watched as the Bo’ turned directly toward Walnut Ridge, about five degrees to my left. Minor error! I realized my mistake and returned to my assigned heading. I never penetrated the MOA, and ATC never said a word about it. I was now flying on a “4.9” score. I made a quick note to include the event after I landed, when I’d have time to learn from it. If I’d have accidentally penetrated the MOA, or if ATC had needed to divert traffic to avoid me as a result, it would have been a “major” offense. And if I’d hit something because of my originally “minor” transgression, well….
Some examples of minor errors: missing a radio call; failure to tune backup navcoms; improper setting of altitude alerters; misprogramming or failing to confirm the autopilot’s operating modes; one dot from center on course guidance or glidepath at the missed approach point; etc. A few examples of major errors: Missing a handoff; flying a destabilized approach; deviation from your fuel management schedule; more than 100 feet off altitude; etc. In addition to actual crashes, critical errors include: busting minimums; deviations from an instrument procedure, cleared route or altitude that would result in failure of the IFR Practical Test; failing to brief for the missed approach; failure to follow an obstacle departure procedure; etc. You could list possibilities all day long. It’s easier and more effective to quickly note the transgressions in flight, then rank errors against the minor/major/critical scale after you land.
The trick of flying is to minimize the minor errors and avoid the major offenses, and thereby not “crit out,” or have an accident. We will make mistakes. It’s almost always possible to recover from a minor error in the plane and keep your score in the HQ range. Even if you “pull a major,” as we said in the Air Force, you can fly the rest of the trip in perfect safety if you monitor your position, use your checklists and watch your performance. Put the emotion of making a mistake behind you, and fly the rest of the trip to HQ standards. After you land, review your in-flight notes and score yourself—to become a highly qualified pilot.
Whether you answer a few brief questions or complete a detailed, point-by-point review—in your head, aloud with a fellow pilot or in writing—to fully benefit from the experience of every flight it’s extremely helpful to do a post-flight debriefing. The sooner after you land the better, because more information will be fresh in your head.
Most of us shut down, get out of the airplane, and get on with our busy lives—likely the reason we flew in the first place. Taking a few moments, however, to review the lessons of every flight will help prepare you for the next ones.