Virtual training, real safety

January 1, 2002

Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

A fundamental truth is that the pilots who don't come to safety seminars are precisely the ones who need them the most.

There are no new ways, at least as of press time, to crash airplanes. All the originality is gone and the honor of doing so is a Pyrrhic victory anyway—you don't get to enjoy the notoriety. In matters of safety, the best and perhaps only strategy is to learn from the other guys' mistakes.

But just try to keep up. The planet's rate of rotation is about the same as it's always been but the data deluge from television, radio, the Web, and even print media engulfs most of us. Much of it is marketing effluent designed to sell something that we weren't looking for in the first place. That's the nature of business in America, but for those who know where to look there are some terrific places to learn more about our favorite activity—aviation.

Live seminars are a great way to learn, especially if you've got a professional instructor and a quality program, but they are expensive to stage, logistically complex, and it just isn't possible to get to all the towns, hamlets, and burgs on a schedule that meets everyone's need. Last year, your AOPA Air Safety Foundation went to more than 150 places, working with our friends in the FAA's Aviation Safety Program to conduct free seminars that were open to all pilots. I know of few other activities, either professional or avocational, that have such a robust education program at such a great price. And yet, relatively few pilots attend. Thousands of pilots came to the live seminars but many thousands more couldn't make it, either because of choice, location, or schedule conflict.

One answer is to go online—it's not the same as a live seminar, to be sure. But there is certifiable educational value. In the past year, ASF created four safety courses for the Internet. The first was an award-winning program on runway safety. It is interactive with animated graphics, audio tracks, and many questions to test retention. Ground signs and paint markings are confusing to some pilots. What is the proper way to get ready for an arrival or departure at a busy towered airport? How important is the sterile cockpit? What's the proper phraseology so you don't sound like a rube? Land-and-hold-short operations are always an opportunity for a bad encounter. Invest the 30 minutes it takes to complete this program on something that everyone thinks they know. You may be surprised. Pilots who complete the course with an 80 percent score can download a certificate that counts for the ground portion of the FAA's Wings program. Visit the Web site.

More than 1,500 pilots a month are going through the course. Is it worth your time? Here are a few comments:

"Loved the program, and very nicely done. As someone who has difficulty getting to the live programs because of work, these types of interactive programs that allow you to study when you can make a difference. I'd love to see more."

"I just wanted to say thanks for having such a program. It was great! The format was laid out so that it was easy to understand and comprehend. I hope that you have more of these type of programs available online. Sometimes it's really hard to make the 'somewhat local' seminars (the nearest being about one and one-half hours away)."

"I took your interactive Runway Safety Program a few minutes ago and wanted to compliment you on your efforts to make this invaluable information so readily available. The program was entertaining and informative, and I felt it fully utilized the abilities of interactive technology to help create a more memorable lesson. I truly enjoyed the experience and thank you for the opportunity."

This summer, Air Safety Foundation and Jeppesen teamed up to offer a first-class Flight Instructor Recertification Course. Using our combined expertise in the aviation training business, we worked cooperatively with the FAA to significantly raise the bar on making the courses more interesting, technically rigorous, and challenging. One of the best parts of the course is the ability to learn much more about aviation and link to other sites, including NASA, the NTSB, and the FAA, to mention a few.

One of my favorite links is a NASA site that demonstrates the aerodynamics of various shapes and shows the fluid nature of our flight envelope. Angle of attack was never so well illustrated. The course takes CFIs to educational places they probably would never have found and, more important, allows them to spend as much time broadening their experience as they wish. The real benefit is that you can explore and become knowledgeable about a topic rather than just memorizing stuff for a test.

The next program was a detailed explanation on how to operate in the airspace after the September 11 attacks. ASF was able to field the course very quickly. The PowerPoint format shows what's new for pilots trying to cope with complex notams, enhanced Class B airspace, temporary flight restrictions, and intercept procedures. The program can be modified quickly, which is a good thing, given that the rules can change instantly. We received a note from one flying club instructor who downloaded the program to present at a live safety meeting. He thought it would be rather basic but to his surprise, nearly all the attendees felt much more comfortable after they had completed the course. As an aside, literally hundreds of pilots have run afoul of the changes as indicated by massive NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System filings. Before their flights they were sure they understood the rules. Do you? Visit the Web site to find out.

Perhaps you already have runway safety and the airspace changes wired. But everyone is challenged by weather and most of us have been in situations where the real scoop would have helped us to decide to go or not go. SkySpotter was announced at AOPA Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last fall as a way to put more emphasis on pilot reports. I believe that if there were significantly more pireps we would have fewer weather accidents, fewer canceled flights, and better forecasts. As many have said, a forecast isn't a guarantee, it's an educated guess, and there are many times when the computer models aren't educated enough to hit the mark. Giving the forecaster and flight service specialists some real-time feedback will help immeasurably. Many of their buildings were built during a national window shortage so timely outside reports are essential.

Anyone who has flown in the high-altitude structure knows the obsession the airlines have with turbulence. It makes passengers nervous and scatters food and drink about the cabin. Occasionally, someone gets seriously hurt, so almost everyone is on the frequency discussing it. The airwaves are awash in pireps.

Since the high-altitude ATC frequencies are less busy, there is usually time to confer about weather. In the lower levels it's still good to mention something unforecast or uncomfortable to ATC, but the report may not always get into the FSS and weather service system. If there's time, switch to flight watch and give a pirep. If you're really busy, call it in by phone once you land.

Giving a pirep is not complicated but most pilots don't learn how to do the good deed as either primary or instrument students. I ask every CFI to take five minutes to explain to every student the hows and whys of giving weather information. Still uncertain? Now, in the privacy of your own Internet connection, you can take a 20- to 30-minute short course on why pireps are important and how to give them. There's also a quick weather refresher on clouds, visibility, turbulence, icing, and more. At the successful completion of the course, you can download a certificate and ASF will send you a lapel pin. For obvious reasons we can't discuss the secret password or handshake but kidding aside, if you'd like to strike a real blow for safety this is an easy way to do it. Visit the Web site.

One of the major benefits of online courses is that there is no need to wait for a publishing cycle. When something changes or becomes obsolete, it can be updated almost immediately. Color and animation are a real plus in showing aerodynamics, airspace, and weather units. As bandwidth on the Internet improves and more people are able to download larger files with less hassle, we'll be able to incorporate video clips and more animation.

We are not abandoning print, video, or live programs. Online training is another tool to make learning available for those who might not take advantage of quality safety information in other formats. Access is getting much better and there are few excuses not to participate.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject.