Cargo Cult Thinking

By Rod Machado 

Early in the 20th Century, pilots visited remote islands by air, dropping off goodies for Tarzan and Jane. On subsequent visits, these pilots noticed that the natives had built flimsy stick-and-twig replicas of their airplanes. Anthropologists named this phenomena cargo cult behavior because the intent was to obtain more of the cargo (goodies) provided by the visiting advanced culture. The islanders assumed that by recreating the symbol (the airplane), the desired goods would magically reappear. Fortunately, we no longer rely on cargo cult thinking to fulfill our needs, right? Not so fast rocket pants.

If you look closely at how our industry began training pilots in the 1990s, you’ll see that we may indeed be engaged in cargo cult thinking. During the last two decades, the FAA and some industry educators assumed it was possible to recreate an event (i.e., produce private pilots with airline-type safety skills) by recreating the symbol (i.e., using airline-type training strategies and philosophy).

For instance, during the last decade several general aviation flight schools have adopted a version of the LOFT (line oriented flight training) philosophy used by many airlines. Now, instead of taking a first time student to the practice area on his first lesson and teaching the basics of flight (climbs, turns, descents, etc.), many instructors combine basic flight lessons with cross country trips. Here’s your map, that’s called a yoke, look for landmarks, and add some rudder. Really? There was a time when combining drastically different blocks of learning was considered a distraction to the educational process.  Now it’s considered cutting edge flight training. To date, I have yet to hear a logical defense of how this pedagogical fusion helps student pilots learn more effectively. Go figure.

Scenario-based training (as it’s presently used in GA today) and risk management skills are two additional symbols (among others) with an airline pedigree. Both were considered likely to promote a downward trend in general aviation’s accident rate. So how has that worked for us? While no one would deny that there’s a place for aspects of these strategies in primary flight training, they haven’t had any discernible effect on our accident rate.

What has changed is that Part 61 private pilot certification now takes an average of 105.1 hours (yep, that's right from the FAA. It's 70.1 for Part 141 schools). Furthermore, nearly 50% of today’s aviation accidents result from a lack of basic stick and rudder skills. Color me a skeptic, but it sure looks like our desire to re-create the symbol of airline safety makes it harder for people to become pilots, much less control their airplanes properly when they do.

On the other hand, we have reputable accelerated flight schools offering ab initio private pilot airplane certification in 21 days, at an average 42 hours of flight time, for a very fair price and a 98% completion rate.  How do they do it? It’s called “maneuvers-based training.” Their primary focus is on the novel concept of teaching students how to fly. Their students concomitantly learn how to avoid hazards and make wise decisions.

What we’re finally beginning to learn is that we can’t teach someone to behave like a professional pilot until they first learn to fly like a private pilot. That means emphasizing “maneuvers-based training” in the private pilot curriculum.

For those who’ve just fallen off their futon at the mere mention of this term, I submit the following for your consideration.

Several years ago the FAA’s released Advisory Circular 120-109 on stall recovery training and it's a stunning declaration on the lack of stick and rudder skills in many of today’s pilots (especially professional pilots). Consider this phrase.

“[The] core principles of this AC include: Reduction of AOA [angle of attack] is the most important response when confronted with a stall event... [and] development of basic recovery handling skills through maneuvers-based training should precede their application in scenario-based training.”

You don’t need a hermeneutics master to understand the FAA’s point here. First, some pilots (professional pilots, too) either forgot or never learned about the basic concept of “angle of attack” and how to move the elevator when the airplane stalls. Second, the FAA now suggests that the best way to teach these skills is via maneuvers-based training first, followed by higher order training later. The FAA recommended teaching strategy in this AC now comports with both traditional educational philosophy and common sense.

The moral here is that cargo cult thinking is wishful thinking. You can’t teach higher order skills without first mastering the fundamentals on which they’re based. If we build twig airplanes, we shouldn’t expect any goodies.

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