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Organized debriefs make better pilots

The best time to learn may be in the first moments after a flight, in a calm, controlled manner.

After a challenging flight with a student, sometimes the most energy some of us can muster is to check a meter, sign a log, have a short chat: "Work on that crosswind, more right rudder, watch your scan," and set a time for the next lesson. More than one CFI at the club has been heard tossing these words over their shoulders as they sped toward their cars, "OK, good job, I've got to run, we'll talk on Thursday, you can close it up." In a recent informal survey I conducted with 134 certificated pilots, less than 6 percent conducted any form of post-flight analysis. That means that 94 percent of us were not taught to correct our habits and improve our skills as well as we could have been. Some of us may not be taking advantage of the valuable time immediately following a flight.

Why a self-debrief?

Psychologists tell us that what happens during the crucial period of time immediately following a behavior, or set of behaviors, can either reinforce (make stronger), punish (eliminate temporarily), or help extinguish (aid in forgetting) that behavior. The best time to learn may be in the few moments right after a flight, in an organized and controlled manner. One of the most vulnerable periods in the student experience is immediately following a flight, where, in the unrecognizable mush of cells that passed for a brain beforehand, there is some added data, a couple of strengthened neural pathways--but also the vulnerability of pride, shame, and most of all, openness. Openness to installation of habits, openness to deeper learning, openness to wisdom. Exiting the aircraft, feet shakily terra-almost-firma, is an amazingly poignant place for a debrief.

It is also true that actions completed by self, rather than by other, are more meaningful and memorable; memory traces are more indelibly etched; and content is more internalized. We become responsible for what we do (not just hear), and by writing out our own debriefs, we take more responsibility for our actions. I've found two benefits for doing a more thorough custom self-debrief: accelerated learning with self-correction and installation of openness, learning, and humility that I hope persists throughout the pilot's flying career.

Why the debrief form?

One of the reasons smart pilots do stupid things is because a faulty belief system has grown up and wedged itself between knowledge and reality. Without accurate and immediate self-assessment, these belief systems gather momentum to the point that they can become hardened and unmovable. Some of the reflections by top-notch instructors at proficiency programs such as the Bonanza Pilot Proficiency Program are that poor habits become solidly entrenched. They hear these excuses: "I don't need to do that," "I know my checklist by heart," and "This Skywatch does the looking for me." It may be impossible to break through those habits even with a wedge and hammer.

As a pilot and instructor, it is against my nature to admit that I don't know, and to attend to my flaws. I want to be right, look good, and play the part. But my very life depends on constantly correcting myself. That means creating a lifelong habit of paying attention to what I don't know and don't do well, and setting up a course correction.

To enhance this self-correction, and in the end help create safer pilots, I have created a debrief form. I started using the form with my own flying first, when I noticed that I wasn't practicing what I was preaching. During flight reviews, I was telling pilots to debrief their own flights, to practice an emergency skill each flight, to take stock of errors during each flight. But I wasn't doing that myself.

In addition, I had recently read a research report that indicated that in one large-scale study, commercial pilots were observed to make, on average, 1.9 errors per flight segment of which they were not aware. So, I wondered--if airline pilots with their controlled systems and professional cockpits are making those rates of errors and not picking them up, what must my error rate be?

"If we don't measure it, we can't change it"

Although the debrief form can include planned lesson maneuvers and skills, its central purpose is to increase self-correction, reflection, and tracking of attitude and behaviors. The goal is to create pilots who reflect on emerging issues immediately after every flight. The students make the entries, specify what they did well and what they could have done better, what they will work on next time, and what knowledge gaps were discovered. These are accompanied by a self-rating system that creates its own system of improvement.

Results

The first result I've found from conducting a more formal debrief is that one of my most resistant students has opened up and accelerated progress. During the post-flight, his eyes would glaze over, and even though he was jotting down some notes, coaching didn't seem to make any difference in subsequent flights. One day I said, "Think back over the flight...let's list out the various things you did and rate them from 0 (Wingless) to 10 (Top Gun) and put a number beside each. For example, looking for traffic, keeping your eyes outside the cockpit. How would you rate that this flight?

"OK, a six. Great! Now assuming you are not aspiring to become a mediocre pilot at six out of 10 [student agrees he isn't], and you want to be an excellent pilot getting 10 out of 10 [student agrees he does], what would make this a 10?"

The student then listed several behavior changes that would make it a 10. He knew all along and just wasn't doing it! Imagine that. (I made sure there were some nines and 10s on the list). Another disorganized student created her own list of attitudes and behaviors. She rated cockpit organization as a five and wrote out what would make it a 10. She started tracking the behaviors (with me enthusiastically monitoring) and within two weeks she was more or less on top of it.

There is no magic in the design of the form--use whatever system works for you--but I believe that key components are time of debrief (as soon as possible afterwards), accuracy, and student self-rating and listing of corrections. If you do use it, please e-mail me with your observations.

A good start?

This type of debrief is only a good start. The system used by U.S. Naval aviators is the logical next step in general aviation; using it, the Navy has moved from post-mishap, short-duration debriefs to an every-flight, entire-flight debrief. Military Flight Operations Quality Assurance is the knowledge management process that uses downloaded flight data after every flight to provide quantitative information regarding pilot and aircraft performance. With this system, it is impossible to ignore errors made during flight.

In the meantime, the professional pilots do it, and if general aviation did it too, I believe that it would be an important part of the reason why our human factor accident numbers drop. So, let's do it, too!

Janet Lapp is a licensed psychologist, flight instructor, and member of the San Diego, California, FAAST team. She flies her Bonanza as a volunteer pilot for The Flying Doctors of Mercy. Contact her at janet@aviationsafety-sd.org.

By Janet E. Lapp

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