If ever there was a truly timeworn phrase- “Practice makes perfect” is the one. People apply it to pretty much every type of human endeavor- and these three little words even sum up one pillar of aviation safety: to improve your flying- fly more – more often and more challenging.

Dave Higdon  |  01st December 2010
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Staying Sharp:
Recurrent training hones the fine edges of flying.

If ever there was a truly timeworn phrase- “Practice makes perfect” is the one. People apply it to pretty much every type of human endeavor- and these three little words even sum up one pillar of aviation safety: to improve your flying- fly more – more often and more challenging.

Blue Angel and Thunderbird pilots spend dozens of hours weekly honing their skills- practicing the maneuvers as they train for their shows. Ditto for air show pilots- bush pilots- airline pilots and business pilots – well- some business pilots…

Some business pilots feel the practice they receive when flying their trips covers their training needs – or their regular flying and the FAA-required BFR (Biennial Flight Review) in any case. Safety stats would indicate otherwise - particularly when examining single-pilot operations and even dual-pilot flying in single-pilot-approved airplanes. Unfortunately “Practice makes perfect” doesn’t automatically equate to “Practice makes safer”. Absent a fresh set of eyes to critique one’s flying practices- Practice may also help us perfect the imperfect – those creeping little anomalies in our cockpit routines that gradually morph from isolated mistakes in our routines into bad habits.

It’s for reasons like this that the FAA- NBAA- NATA- AOPA and virtually every aviation safety organization recommend pilots embrace recurrent training beyond the very modest regulatory demands.

Due to the minimalist nature of requirements pilots must follow in Part 91- many an insurance carrier and- laudably- business aviation flight department – even individual pilots – seek and embrace recurrent training beyond what the FAA requires.

Any pilot should agree that the FAA’s requirements for Part 91 are hardly sweeping or excessive. Requirements for those engaged in flying-for-hire operations – charter companies- aircraft management firms and commercial airlines – are much higher.

Many of those pilots face twice-yearly- multi-day training sessions with professional instructors knowledgeable about specific airplanes- and using sophisticated motion simulators to expose pilots to a host of anomalous situations – without risking people or planes.

Yet the fact that even such structured and concentrated training does not catch all the ways all pilots can make mistakes has led some to question whether what’s needed is more training; training aimed more at the pilot’s thinking and decision-making than on handling hardware should any one of a series of rare-but-possible scenarios occur. Hence the proliferation of programs mimicking elements of Bombardier’s excellent Safety Standdown program.

Standdown spends about half its four days on training for practical- non-flying- real-world challenges: from firefighting with a fire extinguisher- or escaping a smoke-filled cabin or an upended cabin underwater- to giving first aid to a heart attack victim. These sessions expose participants to the sights- sounds and sensations of such emergencies in much the same way that simulator training exposes pilots to rare- dangerous-to-attempt issues like engine loss on take-off- gear failure- or electrical-system loss.

Even in the hands-on training session- though- the instructors force participants to process - to use their heads and not simply learn to repeat rote maneuvers. Lectures- real-world-based- that require head work to process dominate the balance of the four-day program. Interestingly- Standdown’s head work- judgment-driven orientation dominates the programs of its growing list of emulators - and for good reason: Flying is predominantly a head game in which judging a dynamic atmosphere across four dimensions – one of them the time factor – requires some intellectual capacity- some abstract concepts and the ability to visualize a trip in 3D. Flying is- at its roots- a head-based exercise.

It’s important to know that what the mind processes gets used correctly- hence the need for recurrent training: to assure us that we’ve not perfected the imperfect that can come back to haunt- and hurt us.

Recreational and otherwise casual pilots generally stay very mindful of the FAA’s basic requirement: Three takeoffs- three landings all within the past 90 days. For night flight you need three takeoffs and three touchdowns flown between legal sunset and legal sunrise. Accomplish this simple task and the FAA deems you legal to carry passengers in whatever you’re legally qualified to fly.

The FAA has additional requirements for flying on instruments: Six approaches and a hold in the prior six months. But you can’t even haul yourself around to fly the requirements unless you’ve engaged in a Biennial Flight Review (BFR) within the prior 24 months. While maybe adequate as currency checks- not even the BFR requirements automatically qualify as a significant training exercise- though.

The short-term currency flights must all be flown alone. Outside that BFR there’s no independent feedback on the quality of your flying – well- aside from the basic old saw: Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. A great landing- however- is one where you can fly the plane after.

The BFR can be an excellent training opportunity – but making it so means going beyond the fundamental requirements and working with an instructor to enable you to exercise skills and judgment situations uncommon- or perhaps totally new to you.

Otherwise- how do we know we haven’t perfected a bad habit about the time we make a landing that’s only a good landing – or- we experience something that scares us nearly to the point of permanently walking away from the airplane? For skill’s and safety’s sake- the best solution is recurrent training with a real instructor- taking us thorough a real program to work on weaknesses and build on strengths... preferably more often than every 24 months.

We should- authorities say- add two or three days of training to our regular flying no less than once a year - twice if we can manage it. The annual cycle exposes us to an instructor who should be able to spot developing bad habits. If you’re like most pilots- some of what the certified flight instructor points out will be news to you.

The most dangerous errors are the ones so subtle and innocuous that until it hurts us- we don’t realize we’re making that mistake; one instructor of my acquaintance labels this ‘The PEA Syndrome’ (Progressive Error Adoption).

PEA works as follows: At first we indulge in an anomalous practice – and let it go…even if we knew it was wrong. Eventually we stop consciously recognizing the practice as a mistake – and at that point we’ve perfected the imperfect- incorporating a flaw in our flying routine that- under the correct sequence of mistakes- problems or other influences- could ultimately lead us astray.

The day comes when you have gone far enough off course from your best flying habits that you find yourself hurtling toward a major problem emerging from an accumulated pile of otherwise ‘minor’ mistakes.

Maybe it’s an unconscious lack of focus under repeat circumstances that puts you too high and too fast for a crossing restriction - it’s not a breaker of a mistake… until the day you try to salvage a bad arrival (one worse than the usual bad one you’ve habituated yourself to performing). So you make your descent steeper- fight to keep airspeed in check- break out with the runway in-sight – but 2-000 feet too high and 50 knots too fast.

You rationalize that since it’s a long runway- no harm- no foul - so you opt to pull the power a bit more- drop in steep and hard and try to salvage the approach… and then realize how far astray your arrival went when forced to lock the brakes in a final- futile attempt to salvage success from the sequence of judgment mistakes that started with that innocuous little bad habit.

Now you’re heading headlong toward failure. The locked tires leave long- thin back marks that lead rescuers to the spot where the airplane came to rest many- many feet past the pavement’s end…past ruined landing gear struts- gear doors and sundry other pieces of wreckage.

Still- if you’re lucky- you can log it as a good landing after you walk away… You lost the prospect of a great landing miles before the plane reached the runway- and months earlier when you adopted that initial bad habit on arrivals.

Similarly- the mistake can be nothing more than a change in habits developed to offset poor hand-flying skills – for example- a decision to hand-fly the airplane through a nonstandard arrival when you’re general routine has been to let the FMS fly the approach.

Behind the FMS- you needed only set the flaps and gear- adjust power and wait to take over only after the autopilot stabilized the plane on the glideslope- centered it on the localizer and delivered it to the threshold. But that non-standard arrival compounds slack hand-flying skills- and now the Flight Director bars on the Attitude Indicator are leading you so far outside your comfort zone that you lost track of how far you’ve fallen behind the airplane.

Instead of making a different decision you keep going- slowing to acceptable numbers – but below your experience zone – on a curving descent with a 90-degree left turn required at no higher than 300 feet.

Falling below 200 feet- into a high descent rate and with the engine behind the curve- you sense the ground rush that makes it all feel too fast- pulling back more- aggravating further the sluggishness of ailerons that respond indecisively – something you never before noticed- because you’d never hand-flown at such low speeds.

Just as the airplane runs out of altitude- airspeed and your control- the realization arrives – you’re going to crash: It was a clear day- with near-perfect weather – but you were undone by flying outside both your comfort zone and skill level. That’s not to mention flying outside of good judgment.

In both of the above instances- the pilot had company in the airplane- but was the sole occupant of the cockpit. Sadly- however- similar mistakes have befallen numerous airplanes with two trained aviators working together on the flight deck.

Although the odds are higher for the single pilot – 1.5 times higher- according to a 2008 report by Robert E. Breiling Associates – the propensity for humans to foil numerous safety systems on their aircraft remains stubbornly persistent at all levels of aviation.

Aside from the sophistication of equipment- one of the key corollaries between accident rates for different pilot populations is training and currency of flight experience. The availability of flight automation can be negated by circumstances such as clearance changes- responding to traffic or deviating around weather – as well as those non-standard arrivals.

A fresh set of eyes watching your real-world habits regularly- can break the chain of mistake-come-habit becoming another pilot-error induced accident.

Recurrent training should be regularly scheduled- but that’s the only thing that should be “regular” about recurrent training- according to one professional flight instructor. “By the time you get to me- I shouldn’t need to check your fundamentals-” he explained. “You should have those established long before you reach my level.”

His “level” encompasses instructing single-pilot aspirants in jets and propjets- as well as crew-managed business jets in the upper range of light jets and the lower end of medium jets.

“I don’t want to see that you know how to fly an ILS – you’re wasting my time and your money-” he added. “You come to me to find out how you handle a bunch of (issues) that is the stuff of fiction writers – stuff that happens- even though it shouldn’t.”

Another professional instructor- one who specializes in working with owner/pilots- emphasizes recently manifested airplane anomalies. Due to their work situations- neither of these instructors wanted their identities used.

“I read incident reports and come up with head-challenging stuff that- often- has no clear- correct answer-” our second instructor explained. Both offered variations on the same theme- that sometimes the only smart answer involves turning around- “giving up and living to go home-” the first added.

Said the second- “Recognizing the deterioration of a situation and backing out can be the lifesaving move of a flight gone bad. The problem is- many of us never learned to change our minds- or have some resistance to giving up - as if it’s a challenge to our masculinity.”

Both instructors seemed to share a habit of torturing their charges – torturing them with changes- that is. Both like to swamp their charges with a progression of changes and problems – and problems that emerge because of the changes and how the pilot-in-training responds.

“The only accidents you can remotely attribute to one mistake are gear-up accidents-” our jet instructor opined. The second CFI added- “Pretty much every other type and style of accident and incident grew out of a series of mistakes. (And I think he’s wrong about the gear-up situation; true- it’s occasionally the single isolated mistake in a string of correct moves. Most of the time that failure to move the gear handle is the final mistake in a string of problems and mistakes that started earlier).”

Toward the end of a recurrent-training program both of our instructors like to heap on problems and changes until the desired result emerges: the trainee tells the ‘controller’ it’s time to back up and start over – or turn around and go home- or at least divert.

“What we both want to see before the debrief is the pilot thinking- exercising judgment- making calls. We’re not expecting they make the perfect or preferred call each time- but we are expecting they begin to recognize how their situation is deteriorating.”

The turbine-specialist noted how many of his client pilots only grace his program because of its impact on their insurance. “It’s a sweet deal for some of them-” he explained. “The pilot gets a discount on the airplane’s insurance bill for completing (successfully) the program – and the discount covers- or comes close to covering the cost of the training.”

The second CFI noted- “It’s worth remembering that the insurance companies don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts – they backhandedly underwrite training like ours because it works- saving them claims.” The smarter- safer pilot is still the reasonable outcome- and that benefits everyone in aviation – as well as pilots’ families and businesses.


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