« Register Now for UAV Expo | Main | Kansas Aviation’s Past, Present & Future »

Know it or Do it

By Ed Downs


We have seen a real shift in FAA safety thinking over the years. For many old timers, flight safety meant having strong “stick and rudder” skills, meaning the ability to handle the machine in a skilled and precise manner. But as we moved into our current age of technology, aviation accidents have taken on a different look. To be sure, hitting something hard with too much velocity (a crash) is still the end result of most recent accidents, but the perception as to why an accident occurred has changed. 

The FAA decided that there is more to a flying accident than just an inability to handle the aircraft. Poor judgment, when used use in conjunction with critical circumstances, has also have been noted as the underlying cause of many accidents. This writer agrees, poor judgment can, and does, often open the door for events that weak flying skills cannot overcome. 

The FAA’s response to this dilemma of skill versus judgment has been to fundamentally change training. The Practical Test Standard (PTS) was modified over the years, dropping many “stick and rudder” skills in favor of knowledge that would prevent one from needed the “stick and rudder” ability that was common years ago. In other words, why worry about stalls and spins if you are smart enough to never get close to doing either. Why even bother to train one in the recognition of an event that can result in loss of control if one’s judgment and knowledge are so great that our very smart pilot will simply never get close to the risk in question. 

The philosophy of safe flying has morphed from one of having flying skills to one of risk management. The replacement to the PTS, the Airman Certification Standard (ACS), now goes even a step further, with most of the page dealing with principles of Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM), a psychology-based concept that seeks to encourage good attitudes and great knowledge. This writer has previously expressed his concerns about the trend to conclude that a “knowledgeable pilot is a safe pilot,” versus “a skilled pilot is a safe pilot.” This writer long ago decided that knowledge, which does not result in some form of demonstrable skill, is of little practical value, although I admit such knowledge can be fun. In aviation, one should think of “demonstrable knowledge,” meaning you can transfer headwork to handwork when needed.

The classic FAA textbook “Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge” contains a massive chapter dealing with ADM. It offers many models and acronyms to be used by pilots to guide them on how to think in a crisis, or even plan a simple flight. Much of ADM is practical, logical flying. Other parts get deep into the psyche of pilots, trying to change how we think by using bureaucratic principles that allow the Agency to pat itself on the back for having done a fine job in dealing with everyday problems (like stress) that no one really has a handle on. Some of the models are quite good, while some are a stretch. 

One model has impressed this writer and is included in all the training I conduct. Let’s run through the “DECIDE” model by using an example and see if CFI’s and shrinks might have found common ground. We will start off our story by creating a simple flight to visit family members in a town about an hour away. Our aircraft is a popular, high- wing, fixed-gear airplane known for reliability and gentle flight characteristics. Our PIC follows the rules and, in accordance with FAR’s, has planned a route that is safe, noting other airports along his path of flight. He clearly meets the requirements to have “alternatives available.” Our pilot and spouse fly the one-hour flight in their personally owned airplane, taking pride in its good condition and reliability. A day is spent with family, but the departure is a bit later than planned, resulting in a night flight home. Although current for night fight, our pilot is cautious and carefully evaluates his route. All is good, for about 20 minutes. Then the DECIDE model kicks in. Let’s see how that works by defining each letter of this ADM based model.

is for “Detect.”Meaning detect that something has changed. One needs to be situationally aware of what is going on, always looking for changes of circumstances that might be out of the normal. In our example, the pilot suddenly notices the red LOW OIL PRESSURE light illuminate. A quick look at the oil pressure gauge confirms that pressure is low and dropping rapidly. 

is for “Estimate.”Meaning estimate the need to react. Our PIC immediately concluded that action was necessary. He cannot simply “hope” the smooth-running engine will take care of itself and take him to his home destination.

is for “Choose.”As in choose a desirable outcome. In this case, the outcome needed is an immediate landing at the closest airport. Darkness precludes an off-airport landing and rolling terrain that is sporadically forested rules out simply heading for a patch of dark ground.

is for “Identify.”Quickly identify the actions that must be taken to obtain the desirable outcome. Our pilots’ choices are limited, but clear. The rotating bacon of the alternate airport is about 10 miles away, perhaps 5 to 7 minutes from a safe landing. Declare an emergency on CTAF and head for the airport.

is for “Do”.This means execute the plan. Our pilot of the stricken plane immediately turns towards the alternate airport previously identified, maintaining power to preserve precious altitude, hoping his faithful powerplant would last just another 10 minutes. It is still running smoothly but beginning to make unusual sounds.

is for “Evaluate.”Have the choices made worked? In our example, they do not. The engine begins to roughen, then loudly clatter, suffering a catastrophic failure. Our pilot has the runway in sight but needs a small amount of power to get to it, now no longer possible. Below the gliding aircraft are homes and small businesses, with no visible clearing. Our pilot is now back to running the DECIDE model a second time. He does not just give up and simply “try” to make the runway. This is where many manageable emergencies fall apart as pilots “lock on” to their first plan, no matter what the results. 

Plan “B” becomes a well-lit street, apparently four lanes wide with light traffic due to the hour. The choice for an outcome changes to one of avoiding homes and landing in a recognizable clear zone, offering the best chance for minimum injury to aircraft occupants or those on the ground. One of the key factors in surviving a critical emergency is to accept the possibility of damage or injury, and then consciously making choices that will minimize the inevitable. Our pilot made such a choice and turns on the landing lights to make the descending plane visible to cars on the road. His wife is instructed to move her seat fully aft and buckle in tight, doors are unlocked. Our pilot has not succumbed to “resignation,” one of the five attitude sins of ADM negative behavior. He will fly the airplane with precision “until the noises stop.”

Yes, this is a pretty good example of ADM at work, coupled with determined and practiced skill. But now, for the rest of the story! This is not a carefully crafted example to prove an ADM model can work, but an actual even that took place only a few days before this opinion piece was written. Amazingly, drivers on Main Street (it was not a major highway) saw the plane descending and maneuvered clear of the plane. The pilot careful tracked the centerline, clearing light poles less than five feet off each wing tip. Utility lines were, amazingly, missed. There were no injuries and the plane was not damaged. Local police secured the plane and closed local roads so that it could be towed to the nearby airport that had been the original emergency destination. And yes, the plane was covered in oil, having experienced a failure that could not have been anticipated or seen by the pilot.

Does the reader think the word “DECIDE” immediately came to this pilot’s mind … of course not. But this pilot’s attitude is one that had him prepared for the worst, coupled with stick and rudder skills needed to manage an extraordinary landing. Many locals and the media are talking about our pilot’s “incredible good luck.” But this writer disagrees. To be sure, luck entered the picture, but it was because of this pilot’s good judgment and skill that “luck” had space to exert its influence. It is troubling to note that in far too many cases, an engine failure, or other need for an off-airport landing, ends in disaster due to loss of control as the airplane approaches the ground. In all those cases, the airplane was flyable even without power. Headwork and handwork go together, a partnership that needs practice to maintain. How would you have done in this same situation? 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
Copyright © 2009, In Flight Media. All rights reserved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Creative Commons License

Designed by jbNadler Creative Labs