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Teaching Judgment

In 1995, the FAA issued a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) outlining major changes in the works for Part 61 of the federal aviation regulations (FARs). It announced the agency's intent to mandate aeronautical decision making (ADM) and judgment training at all levels of pilot qualification.

This change was prompted, in the words of the NPRM, by the fact that flawed pilot decision-making had "...accounted for 51.6 percent of fatal accidents in an analysis of data for a five-year period.

When considering total general aviation accidents listing "pilot" as the primary or contributing cause of the ac- cident, the picture is even grimmer. The pilot cause/factor number rises to the range of 76 to 80 percent. Other estimates have been as high as 90 percent.

The majority of aviation problems that end up as accident statistics have human roots. Close inspection reveals that most accidents are caused by faulty planning or judgment. Too often what initially appear to be engine problems, lack of manual piloting skills, unavoidable acts of nature, and similar factors are really pilot "thinking" problems.

"The objective of...ADM and judgment training in general is to teach pilots to avoid situations that require luck or skill beyond their capabilities, and to reduce the level of judgment-related accidents," according to the NPRM. In other words, better headwork is needed.

The official move to improve pilot decision making was launched with the rewrite of FAR Part 61, effective in the fall of 1997. A variety of publications, including advisory circulars and FAA safety pamphlets, attempted to make the pilot decision-making process more understandable by explaining the various factors that affect pilot judgment.

How To Teach Judgment

Start with motivation. Motivation is a critical part of teaching or learning anything, especially "fuzzy" subjects like ADM and judgment. That's why they have to be simplified before instructors can be expected to teach them or students to understand them.

Understanding the process of making a cockpit decision is an important step. But first students must understand that the ability to make consistently good decisions is every bit as important in learning to fly as developing manual flying skills. Continuous focus on risk assessment and decision making as basic pilot skills is critical. Until decision making is viewed as equally important as learning to take off and land, don't go any further. Stop until the point is made.

Once you and your student are properly motivated, it's up to you to bring structure, and your knowledge, to the learning process. Head and hands must work together. Students can't make the best decisions if they don't understand how to sort through the variables and safely fly the airplane at the same time. Sound basic flying skills, knowledge of the process, and a practical mental framework are all necessary. They have to be taught concurrently.

A good starting point for learning the techniques for structured decision making is discussion of how risk assessment and decision making are interrelated. Risk assessment instruction should begin as an integral part of flight planning. Start by looking at an accident report before every flight. Let your students tell you how each accident could have been prevented. Then make your points. These sessions will reinforce the thought processes you want your students to learn.

Elements Of Risk

The elements of risk that need to be evaluated before every flight include the airplane, the pilot, the environment, and the operation or situation. Teach your students to run a mental checklist of these elements, which should be evaluated both individually and collectively to determine the degree that they contribute to the overall risk for a specific flight. It helps students to simplify the FAA risk assessment model with the easy-to-remember acronym APES - aircraft, pilot, environment, situation.

Begin by running through this checklist with your students before each flight. Evaluate what part the aircraft itself plays in the risk equation of a particular flight. Consider performance, operating limitations, equipment, airworthiness, etc. They all bear on the risk of a particular flight.

Since the pilot is making the decisions, he or she must be up to the task. Personality, attitudes, stress, health, and other factors can interfere with risk assessment and cockpit judgment. Other pilot considerations include physical fitness, recency and currency in the aircraft and operations, basic competence, and experience. Also evaluate motivation and mission - the pilot's reasons for initiating or continuing this flight.

Risk factors relating to environment include weather, the airport, and air traffic control services available. How fast is the weather changing? What's the worst-case scenario? How good is the weather reporting and forecasting for where you intend to fly?

Given all the above factors, the final consideration ? situation - asks, "How did I get here; what am I doing; what's happening around me; how much risk is involved; am I making good decisions?" The answers can help the pilot determine whether or not he should begin, or continue, the flight.

In-Flight Decision Making

We are constantly making decisions as we fly, but the need for a critical decision usually arises from some unexpected change such as the appearance of unforecast weather, engine problems, or mechanical difficulties of every description.

Regardless of what change occurs, the pilot must assess its effect on the flight. Here's where the ability to evaluate situations according to a predetermined set of rules pays off. The FAA uses the DECIDE acronym to help pilots structure their in-flight decision making. The steps are: Detect that a change that has occurred or failed to occur when you expected one; evaluate whether the change does or does not present risk that needs to be countered; choose a desirable outcome based on the situation; identify what course of action will best get you from the current situation to the desired outcome or solution; do the action; evaluate whether your action is having the desired effect.

Train your students to constantly evaluate and change their plans to achieve their goals. Above all, teach them not to fall in love with the plan. If one plan isn't working, try something else. Constant review is the key.

As your students develop decision-making skills, test them with practice scenarios. Present them with problems that require them to obtain outside information such as contacting flight service. Gradually increase cockpit workload during these problems to see how they respond under pressure. Critique them and ask them to critique themselves.

Practicing The Process

It's important that you show students the value of moving beyond rote responses. Emergency procedure drills are necessary and effective for teaching pro- cedures, but they don't stress judgment much. With a little twist, we can ease students into more conscious, reflective, and complex decision making.

It's one thing to say, "What is the procedure for an electrical failure?" Instead try a more developmental approach: "What might be happening if you en-counter a garbled radio and air traffic has lost contact with your transponder?" Once your student reaches a conclusion, ask what he or she would do next.

Having a process like DECIDE in mind, mentally practicing it, and using it during training flights will make structured decision making a useful tool for your students. Some framework must be in place before a critical decision presents itself in real life. Flight instructors, therefore, must incorporate well-planned ideas and scenarios into their teaching. Good performance in tense times doesn't happen by chance.

Given the grim accident statistics, a process for teaching reflective, prudent cockpit judgment according to proven guidelines is critical. The processes for aeronautical decision making and sound pilot judgment are themselves logical and structured. It just makes sense that we need a logical and structured method to teach them.

By Walter D. Miller

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