Eye of Experience #6:

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Can you teach good judgement? AVweb's Howard Fried questions how we impart this vital skill to pilots. Poor judgement will kill as quickly as poor flying technique. Combine poor judgement on the part of the instructor and the poor student is in double trouble. What is the best way to teach sound judgement? Howard offers some examples about what doesn't work.

Eye Of ExperienceMuch has been written about the fact that judgement is very difficult, if not impossible, to teach. We have all seen examples of flight students exercising poor judgement, and even on fairly rare occasions flight instructors demonstrating faulty judgement, but when both a student and an instructor exercise poor judgement in a single episode it is bound to lead to serious problems as the following story illustrates.

Several years ago the Chief Flight Instructor on the primary curriculum at the flight school I run had a particularly difficult student who was finally ready for solo cross-country work. Although not his real name, we'll call the student Bill. On a fine early summer day the instructor, Kenny, carefully reviewed the student's planning, gave him a company credit card with which to buy fuel, and dispatched him on a cross-country flight involving three legs, the first of which was well over one hundred nautical miles. The next leg was also about one hundred nautical miles and the final stretch back to the home airport, which is located in the middle of a large city and is surrounded by homes, factories, and businesses, was about eighty nautical miles. After the student was on his way, the instructor and his new bride took off for their honeymoon trip.

Brain Fade!

The student successfully navigated to each of his first two destinations, getting his logbook signed at each to attest to his safe arrival. At the second destination he used the company credit card to buy a quart of oil, but he neglected to purchase any fuel! He was never able to explain this failure, a lapse which I can only attribute to "brain fade."

Just as I was about to leave for the day, I got a call from the control tower informing me that one of our training planes had just gone down a couple of miles northwest of the airport. All I could think of was the residential area in that location. However, just as I hung up from talking with the Tower Chief, there was a call on the other line from Bill, who informed me that his engine had quit due to fuel exhaustion and he had made a safe landing at the racetrack. He was calling from a pay phone, and when I asked him which gate he was near so I could find him when I arrived with a can of gas, he turned to a bystander and learned that he wasn't at the racecourse at all, but at the fairgrounds some four or five miles from the racecourse. I told him to stay put, that I'd be right there.

I had one of our instructors drive me to the site, and that evening, on the six o'clock television news, I had the experience of seeing myself take off from the fairgrounds, climb over the wires along the main road at the north end of the fairgrounds, and turn toward the airport. To this very day that student still thinks he did everything right! He kept repeating the statement that he'd handled the situation just as he'd been taught. This is no doubt true as regards his actions after the engine quit (I'm not sure that even I could have gotten the airplane in where he had), but his action in failing to fuel the airplane at either of his first two destinations certainly demonstrates poor judgement on his part.

A second chance

So much for episode number one in Bill's adventures as a student pilot. This brings us to the series of events which exemplify multiple instances of the combined bad judgement of both a student and an instructor on the same transaction. After Bill's off-airport landing as a result of fuel exhaustion, stemming from his failure to fuel up at either of his two stops, on his return from his honeymoon Kenny worked with Bill intensively. When it was felt that he was finally ready to finish his cross-country requirement, Kenny gave him an assignment and told him to plan the trip. This was to be an out and back expedition of about seventy-five miles each way.

On the day Bill was scheduled to go on this trip, Kenny and I together flew a passenger charter trip of some three hundred miles, departing early in the morning in our Aztec with two corporate executives aboard. As we flew north, the weather worsened behind us until it reached a point that severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes were popping up all over the southern half of the state. It was so bad that on our return trip in the Aztec, Kenny and I had to deviate over two hundred miles to make an end-run around the weather to get back in.

Meanwhile, Bill had showed up at the airport, ready to go on his final student cross-country. In Kenny's absence, one of our other instructors (who we'll call Paul—also not his real name) reviewed Bill's planning. As is our policy with students embarking on cross-country trips, Paul listened on an extension while Bill got his weather briefing. He heard the Flight Service Specialist tell Bill every way he could, "Don't go!" As you know, a briefer cannot refuse to permit a pilot to make an ass of himself. All he can do is tell the pilot what to expect.

"He wouldn't let me go"

However, even after hearing about the simply horrible weather along the route, Paul signed Bill off and dispatched him on his way! As he was leaving the office for the flight line, Bill said to the office manager, a woman who held a Private Pilot Certificate, "I'm glad Kenny's not here. He wouldn't let me go."

When he completed his pre-flight and called ready, first the ground controller and then the local tower controller told Bill every way they could, "Don't go!" Despite all this, Bill took off.

About fifty miles along the way, Bill, as might be expected, encountered heavy weather. At this time he was in contact with an approach radar facility about twenty miles west of his position. The controller was attempting to vector him to a nearby airport when such a large cell grew up between Bill and the radar antennae that the controller lost him on radar. This controller then handed him off to another controller at a military airport about forty miles east of his position. That one had Bill on his screen, but not for long. Another powerful cell grew up between him and that facility and again he was lost on radar. Since he was over flat farmland, and since he was experienced at off-airport procedures, Bill opted to land on a pea farm. He did, however, neglect to turn off the master switch. When the weather improved a couple of hours later, the military sent a helicopter to bring Bill out. That makes two off-airport landings that Bill accomplished safely as a student pilot, and that's two more than most pilots are required to make in a lifetime of flying.

Kenny and I learned all this when we returned from our charter trip. When Kenny went out to retrieve the airplane the next day, he found the battery dead as a result of Bill having left the master switch on. With a jump-start, Kenny got it going and flew it back.

Damned Fool

As a result of this episode, Paul lost his privileges until such time as he could, under FAR 609, demonstrate to the FAA that he was competent to exercise the privileges of a Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor. The damn fool went over to the FSDO (FAA Flight Standards District Office) and argued that he'd done nothing wrong as an instructor, that the only way for students to learn is to send them out so they can experience it all for themselves. Altogether, it took Paul four tries to regain his privileges. However, we didn't keep his job at our flight school for him!

The faulty judgement of a single individual frequently results in total disaster, but when two people demonstrate bad judgement at the same time on the same transaction it is nothing less than a miracle that disaster is averted. In the case, here not only was Bill lucky to survive, but we were twice fortunate to come out with an undamaged airplane.

Expert Educator—NOT!

Paul to this day steadfastly maintains that the best teaching technique is to let the student find out for himself what it's like in the "real world." I have attempted, unsuccessfully, to explain that the reason why he's an instructor is so when a student comes up with a bad or unsafe idea, he can veto the plan and explain why, but this explanation just didn't seem to register with Paul, who fancies himself as an expert educator.

What can be done to insure that this kind of thing never occurs? I confess that I'm at a loss. I just don't know the answer. All management, and this includes both industry and the FAA, can do is to closely monitor the activity of those for whom we are responsible and when we detect signs of poor judgement embark on a program of counseling and more counseling. If it is to do any good, we must counsel with patience and understanding, explaining carefully just what is wrong with the idea or action and just why it is a bad idea or action. The key, of course, is convincing the individual that what he proposes or does would be better left undone. Then we must either draw from him a proposal for an alternative, better course of action, or, failing that, suggest one ourselves. It seems to me that this is all we can do. If the object of education is to effect a change in behavior, then we must educate. After all, in the final analysis, a desirable change in behavior is what we're looking for.

Often Wrong, But Never in Doubt

Even so, in Paul's case, as the FAA and I discovered, when his erroneous theory of teaching was explained to him it did no good whatsoever. He didn't even learn from the experience he had with Kenny's student, Bill. I guess some people just never learn. They are so convinced of their own rightness that they can't be taught. These are the ones that will go on continuing to be a hazard to themselves and others as long as they are permitted to remain in positions where they can influence what other people do. It has been said of people like Paul, "They are often wrong, but never in doubt!" Sooner or later, given enough exposure, they are likely to encounter personal disaster, but in Paul's case the damage to others has already been done.

Thus, I conclude, there are some people who just aren't amenable to counseling. I recall an incident when I was in IMC on an IFR flight plan with another instrument rated pilot aboard and the approach controller called traffic just off our right, traffic with which the controller wasn't in contact. On looking out, we observed a Cherokee less than twenty feet off our right wing, and at our altitude. The approach at our destination (just a few miles away) was such that in order to legally execute the approach we had to land downwind. Just as we were flaring for the touchdown, the Cherokee appeared on short final at the other end of the runway! We were committed to land, but the Cherokee went around under the four-hundred-foot ceiling.

Don't Confuse Me with the Facts

The Cherokee pilot landed into the wind, taxied up to the ramp, and soundly berated us for landing downwind and forcing him to go around. Bear in mind that this guy had been blundering around in the cloud without being rated and without being on a flight plan with a clearance. We attempted to politely counsel him, but all he could do was scream at us for landing downwind. My associate reported him to the FAA (a situation that I had hoped to avoid by counseling him), and we later learned that he had received his private pilot certificate only days prior to our encounter. This occurred several years ago, and I wonder how that pilot is doing today, long after his certificate suspension had ended and his privileges had been restored.

As flight instructors, all we can do is demonstrate sound, safe procedures and practices. Thus, by providing "leadership by example," we can influence our students, or at least most of them, to follow our example. When decision-making time arrives, hopefully they will make the correct decisions as a result.

In most cases, someone else has already gained the experience you need the hard way—keep an eye out!