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Building a box

A new tool for teaching good judgment

Risk management, risk assessment, judgment, poor judgment, attitude management-have you groaned yet, thinking oh, no, not another article on pilot judgment?

Yes, another article dealing with decision-making skills and how we as flight instructors need to teach pilots the ability to make safe decisions. However, this time I promise you won't hear any terms like anti-authority, macho, or the DECIDE model. Instead, I'll suggest a practical approach to teaching decision-making. It's called "drawing a box."

The FAA defines aeronautical decision-making as "a systematic approach to the mental process used by aircraft pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances." In English, that means being able to make the right decision at the right time. The FAA requires flight instructors (you and me) to nurture that ability in our students, and then evaluate and critique the resulting decisions. Easy to say, but much harder to do. Teaching judgment has always been a challenge.

"Drawing a box" as a way of teaching judgment is based on one of the most successful methods that we use to teach other flying skills: breaking a task into small bits and presenting it to the student with practical, logical steps that he or she can understand and apply. A stall, for example, has tangible, concrete procedures for the student to follow and the flight instructor to evaluate. By simplifying the decision-making model and helping our students to define and operate within a well-defined "box" of their limitations, we have practical way of teaching good judgment.

The first step is to simplify the decision-making model. We all agree that the purpose of aeronautical decision-making, or ADM, is to reach the right decision at the right time. But to most instructors, the specifics of how to accomplish that are ambiguous, at best. Let's change the acronym to applied decision-making-the ability to make the right decision at the right time. With that change, we can make the whole decision-making process practical by applying it to various actual situations. Now, rather than trying to teach an ambiguous "good judgment" concept, we are giving our students a practical route to good decisions.

Drawing a "box" for our students involves expanding on the familiar concept of personal minimums. The first step in our new ADM model is the ability of a pilot to know and operate within his or her own capability. This step is crucial and may be the hardest to teach. The next step involves looking at a given situation, evaluating current skills, and setting boundaries for that specific situation. In essence, you're drawing a box of operating parameters for your student in that situation. The third and final step is to insist that he or she always operates within that box.

The best-known use of this concept is in the go/no-go decision. But pilots can and should draw a box for any situation that requires a good decision. Take, for example, the decision to divert because of weather on a VFR flight. As the flight progresses and the weather deteriorates, set a minimum visibility or a minimum altitude to fly, and if you reach that predetermined minimum, divert. By drawing the box before the flight, a good decision was made before a crisis forced the pilot's hand. Everyone's box will be different, since we all have different levels of experience and ability. As a pilot gains proficiency, the size of the box will change.

As flight instructors our responsibility is to teach our students how to draw their own box. For a primary student we start by drawing the box for them, but as they gain experience and knowledge, they should start to set their own minimums for every flight. As they draw their own boxes, we then can see and evaluate their ability to make the right decision.

Teaching a pilot how to consistently make the right decision is a daunting -some would say impossible-task, but one that is imperative. By giving students the tools and ability to draw their own box, we are providing the foundation for safe pilot decision-making. So the next time you instruct, help your student to build a box or two.

David Wright is director of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Formerly a pilot for US Airways Express, he is a CFI with more than 2,000 hours.

By David Wright

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