How Single Pilots Can Offset Risk in BizAv Cockpits (Part 1)

What are the main safety issues for single-pilot operations? How can they be addressed, and how can single pilots develop specific skills to offset the additional risks associated with flying solo? Mario Pierobon asks the experts...

Mario Pierobon  |  10th February 2021
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Mario Pierobon
Mario Pierobon

Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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Cessna Citation single pilot works through a pre-flight checklist

A multi-pilot crew is generally beneficial from a safety perspective, since pilots can share tasks, alternately flying and monitoring responsibilities, cross-checking one another and communicating thoughts to improve the overall management of air missions.

Nevertheless, Business Aviation often relies on single pilot operations as multi-pilot crews may not be possible due to operational arrangements, weight restrictions, and aircraft certification aspects. Therefore, it’s important that single pilots maintain safety accountability, even without an accountability partner. How can single-pilot flight departments work to this end?

There are specific strategies to embed safety accountability in single-pilot operations, and this two-part story seeks to discuss them.

Single Pilots: What are the Main Safety Issues?

“There are numerous safety issues in single pilot operations, but ultimately it boils down to decision-making and knowing one’s own limits”, says Kim Hutchings, Chief Executive Officer of Volo Mission. According to crew resource management (CRM) trainer and human factors (HF) expert Thomas Fakoussa, the main safety issue of single-pilot operations has to do with how to stay in self-control, no matter what the situation might be.

“Only pilots capable of staying consciously in control of themselves can remain the master of their ship,” Fakoussa says. “However, normal training doesn’t offer any support for this [type of] mental training.” Though a regular flight instructor can offer training in teaching and learning,

Fakoussa argues, academic knowledge doesn’t mean the flight instructor excels in teaching discipline, attitude and communication skills.

When flying single pilot, there is nobody else sat beside you to voice doubts or bounce ideas off; to point out mistakes; to question decisions; to reduce the workload; and to uphold standards, notes Alex Pollitt, a helicopter pilot and CRM trainer.

“These aspects are all difficult to achieve when flying single pilot, and are – after all – most of the rationale for operating aircraft with more than one pilot,” he adds. 

Recalling his personal experience of operating as a single pilot, Pollitt has been thankful on many occasions for the presence of another person in the aircraft. “They may not be a pilot; they may not even be another crew member or aviation professional, but they can still play many of the ‘challenging’ roles to some extent,” he explains.

“Just the simple act of voicing thoughts out loud to another individual can galvanize the cognitive process, causing you to reflect on something you might not otherwise have considered, or perhaps it can even move decision-making forward.”

A single pilot at work in a private airplane cockpit

How to Address the Safety Issues

According to Hutchings, the safety issues of single-pilot operations can be addressed by including more training about human performance and behavior. “It’s not just the type of training to recognize hypoxia, fatigue, or what spatial disorientation is,” she suggests, but to train in how to handle pressure, for example.

“Do you speak up? What is the company culture like, and how does that influence your decision-making?,” she asks. “Other questions that should be addressed in training include what expectations are placed on you? Do those expectations meet, or exceed, your own?

“Do you know your limitations – and are you honest about them? As a single pilot, it is important to learn and know as much about one’s own limitations? as it is to know about the aircraft you fly,” Hutchings explains.

Pollitt believes that when a pilot is alone in the cockpit, talking out loud can have a beneficial effect.

 “This is a behavior that would normally make me feel foolish, but it somehow helps to uphold standards, maintain a sense of professionalism, and aid the thought process,” he says.

“Carrying out a walk-round twice as a single pilot might be better than once, but not much, because the same person will tend to look at the same things in the same way and is unlikely to notice anything new,” Pollitt adds. “These issues can be mitigated with good CRM practices, of course.”

A single pilot carrying passengers could invite them to look over the aircraft as well, explaining that if they see anything unusual, interesting, or that they are simply curious about, then they should ask, he suggests. “That way the pilot’s attention might be drawn to something they would not otherwise have noticed.”

Developing Single Pilot Abilities

Without a peer in the cockpit, single pilots clearly need to develop specific skills to detect their own errors, mishaps or excessive risk-taking, and this can be achieved through single pilot CRM.

Single pilot CRM is simply the application of normal CRM principles and practices, but adapting them. “Single pilots can ask themselves, for example, how to build a peer review, or another point-of-view, into every stage of their planning and decision-making process,” Pollitt suggests.

“[This could be] a trusted colleague, friend, or instructor who you can call to get a second opinion on a weather decision, before flight,” he suggests. “If you have any kind of ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ doubts with respect to planning, find someone to voice them to and get a second opinion.”

Air traffic controllers and other pilots can be a source of information or even assistance, either directly, or by interpreting the nuances in their communication. “Maybe their tone of voice is questioning, for example,” Pollitt elaborates. “But, of course, all of this involves the practice of good communication.”

The empty cockpit of a small private airplane with flight panel lit up

Likewise, Threat and Error Management (TEM) for single pilots applies the same principles as it does in the multi-pilot crew environment. “In fact, it undoubtedly requires an even higher level of self-discipline and questioning than a multi-pilot environment would, because there’s nobody else to point out the mistakes,” Pollitt explains.

“Techniques such as pointing, pausing, and verbalizing before any significant action are even more relevant, and doubly important. That is how mistakes are caught. Single pilots should give themselves time to catch mistakes.” Fakoussa argues that detecting an error is not usually the problem, per se. “The error will eventually be detected when an effect or result sets in. Error detection becomes a bigger problem the later the pilot detects it.”

He offers the example of a generator failure which, if discovered too late, could see the battery already empty. “So, the single pilot needs more situational awareness than a two-pilot crew”, he reasons.

“They must continuously check the inside of the cockpit and the wider area outside for weather, traffic, and obstructions. In addition, they must listen to the radio and concentrate on navigation while controlling the aircraft. “This alone requires a lot of practical and mental training which one gets during usual flight training,” he adds. “What is not being trained these days is the art of how to remain in self-control even in frightening situations.”

A pilot’s loss of control in such circumstances is called ‘startle effect’. Avoiding it requires a very difficult ‘teaching and learning’ approach that “has to be adjusted to the pilot’s personality and his or her cognitive and mental brain functions,” Fakoussa says.

And, while excessive risk-taking is primarily a matter of self-discipline, there are some easy-to-apply techniques to prevent a pilot from taking unplanned risks, or allowing the appetite for risk to grow in flight.

“This is a process that often happens unconsciously and insidiously,” Pollitt elaborates. “Simply drawing your own red lines around the flight activity in advance will contain the risk-taking element – or at least highlight the fact that you’re drifting into riskier territory than intended.

“Applying a personal minima to heights, speeds, fuel, and manoeuvres, as well as imposing decision-points at given stages of a flight, will bind the risk to a set of definable parameters”, he concludes.

Next Time:

Check out Part 2, in which we’ll discuss strategies for raising safety awareness, and how to get the most out of single pilot CRM training…

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Read More About: Aircraft Ownership | Flight Department Safety

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