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Aviation needs some good- solid pilots - preferably sooner- rather than later. Resources exist to mold them- develop them- and bring them into the world of wings to help aviation essentially survive.

Dave Higdon   |   1st May 2010
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Wanted: Pilots
Rewards offered: Inquire at your local Flight School.

Aviation needs some good- solid pilots - preferably sooner- rather than later. Resources exist to mold them- develop them- and bring them into the world of wings to help aviation essentially survive.

Just take a look at the situation today: The reversals of the past two-or-more years stand not as an example of the norm- but as a correction from some abnormally good times. Down-times afflicted the aviation world before but always gave way to resumed growth- even outright prosperity. Depressed deliveries of new aircraft accompanied further drops in the population of pilots and worse- looks to continue its decline.

Meanwhile- forecasters paint a picture of more business aircraft and more airliners- flying more people. These observers bring history into their ruminations- history and a collective view from among the community. Among the many data-points floating around out there are those directly reflecting the future of the pilot population: student starts.

The number of people who started training closely parallels where pilot numbers go. New certificates issued closes the loop by illustrating how many people actually finished the training they started. If the number of new pilots exceeds the number of pilots who stop flying- the population grows - it’s quite simple. By the measures of the most-diligent observers- however- the aviation community is not keeping up.

Fewer pilots generally mean less aviation business- and fewer choices when looking for professionals to fill the cockpit jobs that future growth needs. The community resources exist to train and move up the pilots needed – flight schools- independent instructors- training aircraft- runways both small and laid-back and runways larger and with access more structured.

People – filling those schools and training-aircraft seats – are the missing element. Attracting people remains the longest-running- unchanged dilemma not resolved by the aviation community. Sadly- unless the pilot population grows- the market for new airplanes could shift and decline.

Flight training of the past 30 years increasingly benefited from the ever-advancing state of the art in flight-simulation technologies. Motion platforms improved- along with graphics software and screen technologies – with the result being full-motion- six-axis flight-simulation hardware accurate enough and realistically sufficient to make pilots’ palms sweat.

PC-based training for procedures- or to introduce pilots to new avionics or new features helped drive training to even higher levels thanks to the opportunities these systems offered in making both the machine and the scenarios of training more realistic. Despite these advances – as well as movement in the reliability of aircraft systems –the community realized only small gains in accident and fatality rates. As a result- many business aviation insiders began to believe in – and act on – a different philosophy toward training: the Human factor.

Even with excellent training in how machines failed and how to handle such failures- most accidents continued to occur because of breakdowns in pilot judgment- pilot behavior and decision-making. In other words good pilots with good training simply make mistakes (something more prominent with higher traffic densities)- and those mistakes occur independently of the pilot’s flight skills. Essentially- it’s about judgment.

To that end- Bombardier started its fabled Safety Standdown in the late 1990s – workshops devoted to improving performance of the human element in the flight-control factor.

Standdown focused on human-factors – fatigue- health- mental state- focus and the ability to recognize- weigh- and act on suggested changes needed for the flight. In the great realm of aviation- humans make life-altering- life-threatening mistakes far more often than engines or airplanes fail- so teaching pilots to think about their circumstances and how to survive holds more promise than teaching them to memorize a series of failure- mode procedures.

Even with additional focus on human-factors- however- sims and other training tools still offer opportunities to experience the result of mistakes – and in a form and format that cannot lead to disaster or death. Indeed- experts believe it’s a combination of the two training types that holds the highest potential to produce tomorrow’s smart- safe pilots.

For the primary student today- “flying” around on a PC with XPlane or an old copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator can actually help develop skills – many of them based on mental muscle memory and repetition. This training helps pilots learn how to handle specific scenarios with specific solutions. But it’s the thinking challenge that is the most difficult to teach – the sequences for dealing with abnormal flight or an emergency that doesn’t fit a scenario for repetition in the simulator.

So flight instructors and schools try to impart both types of training to cover both types of problems.
Coming to the decision to abandon an approach under pressure to land takes confidence and fortitude. Recognizing that an approach high and fast can’t end well takes experience. Knowing that the failure of an electrical-supply system item is a critical crisis and not an opportunity to check the backup battery requires maturity. Combined- these items depend on judgment – and judgment best comes with experience.

But whether teaching new students- upgrading existing pilots or moving aviators into life-critical positions for passengers- the title “pilot” requires elements of both machine skills and human-factors savvy developed through judgment. Increasingly the aviation community embraces both- although one aspect – the judgment skills set – lacks machine simulation.

That depends on humans using past accident and incident scenarios and developing training situations for student aviators that challenge them to think – and not merely act by rote. All these training systems are about to come under increasing pressure.

The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year received orders from Congress to increase the hours required to hold a commercial and ATP ticket and fly for an airline to 1-500 hours from 250. Some of that time can be- and will be satisfied with approved simulators – but most will be earned in actual cockpits and live flying conditions as professional-pilot candidates decide to fly the line in other areas to satisfy the requirements.

That means some flight-instruction options will be employed and embraced less as prospects opt to find other flying work to cover their training costs.

“Pilots flying longer and in more-diverse conditions will help many gain that extra knowledge that contributes to good judgment-” explained a professional instructor for a large pilot-training organization. “While the sim can make their heart beat faster and their palms wetter- only getting exposure to the real stuff can leave them with the memories of adrenaline – adrenaline borne of knowing the cost of making a mistake.

“Making – and surviving – mistakes will remain the best instruction there is for some time to come.”

“In the end- the safest lessons come from other pilots’ mistakes – but the lessons longest remembered come from our own-” added our instructor.

How pilots choose to deal with challenges to their very safety will continue to stand as one of aviation’s main challenges. How aviation’s accident stats stack up will continue to serve as an indicator of how well pilot training is serving the community.

Unfortunately- experts stress that we should stress ourselves less over the idea of pilots making mistakes. “As long as we attract thinking people with survivors’ instincts we’ll continue to see accidents decline-” explained another instructor. “But until we ingrain thinking as a pilot skill more important than rote repetition- we won’t see the accident-rate reduction we want because human failures will remain the prevailing cause of aviation accidents.”

Ultimately- the scenarios and skills needed to teach and check those thinking skills are different than the scenarios replicable by machine alone.

Unless aviation can attract and train those aviators in numbers sufficient to handle growth in aviation- the day may come when we can’t fly all the planes we need because we lack the aviators to do so. That’s when some worry of renewed pressures to reduce the training and standards in place that’s made aviation the safest form of transportation on the planet.

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