Safety Pilot: Training irrelevancy

A failure to effectively communicate

January 24, 2014

bruce landsbergAfter an accident, a typical question is what did the pilot know and when did he or she know it? Another way of putting it, less respectfully: Was the pilot merely ignorant or just plain stupid? And when something gets balled up, someone usually quotes the immortal words of the prison guard captain to Paul Newman’s character in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” Did the training system fail or did the individual fail to heed?

The best instructors have the knack for saying the right thing at the right time and without a lot of embellishment. Too often the sender tries to impress the receiver with their mastery of the topic at hand. Singer/songwriter Paul Simon wrote in his hit Kodachrome: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” You may agree.

Too often we get rote memorization items that someone else had to waste time learning so they feel justified in inflicting equal pain on new disciples. And so it is with too much of aviation’s instruction in written, video, or spoken form. The FAA’s knowledge test is part of the problem, although there has been some improvement. One question tests whether someone memorized the Aeronautical Information Manual on when landing lights should be turned on: In Class B airspace, when in conditions of reduced visibility or when within five miles of a controlled airport. Better to get the pilot to thinking about the larger concept of see and be seen. Two of the above for certain would be in my book, but why this type of question at all?

With complex systems, a solid understanding on how things are supposed to work, and what to do when they don’t, is appropriate. For example, do we need to know that on the PT6 engine the spark igniters are located at the four and nine o’clock position on the gas generator case? Should I look during the preflight to see if they’ve moved to 11 and 3? This minor irrelevancy is on the written test offered by one of the major training organizations. It’s absolutely critical to know what the igniters do and that they should be turned on in heavy precipitation, turbulence, or icing. Point them out during engine familiarization—but let’s not get carried away.

Another worthless favorite is the number of satellites that make up the GPS constellation. What is important is how to determine when the signal has been degraded, and what that means to your ability to navigate.

Timing is everything. The right topic at the wrong time is almost as bad as the wrong subject any time. A spark plug firing out of sequence is as critical as the plug itself. Here’s a flashback of one of my misfires: I was giving a familiarization flight some years ago and explaining the preflight in way too much detail. I laid in the whole concept of adverse aileron yaw, then piled on how the aircraft turned—with a brilliant explanation of horizontal lift vectors—and finished off the load with the four forces of flight for good measure. Total bewilderment from the passenger, who wasn’t even a student at that point, was truly wondrous to behold. Note to self—a time and place for everything.

A considerable amount of theoretical math often is slipped into aviation training to prove what? In a recent conversation with one of the Air Force’s top pilots, who instructed in both B–1Bs and T–38s, my theory was tested. Here was a guy who flew low altitude at night at 250 feet agl, loping along at only 500 knots and 500 feet horizontally from sheer rock walls that spelled instant transition to eternity. Confident that my head was about to be handed to me on the math topic, this accomplished aviator agreed completely—we’re not building aircraft, and we don’t need to be engineers. In a practical sense, there may literally be only a few seconds to sort out stuff. Nobody is doing equations, calculus, or trig functions before impact. Proper attitude, airspeed, altitude, and power will save the day. Many airlines are struggling with pilots who are mostly adept with automation, but may have a more tenuous grasp on the big concepts of angle of attack or excessive speed on final approach, which often translates into a tiptoe through the tulips.

How about weight and balance? There are some simple ways to lay this out. Start with an easy concept: how much can you lift? Fifty or maybe 100 pounds? You have limits, and so does the aircraft. We either strain or damage our muscles (airframe damage) or we can’t lift it all (you’re not going to clear the obstacles on takeoff). The balance concept also is easy to illustrate, with multiple examples ranging from see-saws to canoes.

So as some attempt to load more into the training bucket, perhaps it’s time to ask if this is really necessary from an operational perspective. What’s going to keep the flight out of the weeds and the pilot coloring within the lines? More isn’t better.