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Learning to Fly

Risk Management? Really?

Is the emperor naked? It sure looks that way.

The illusion here is based on the FAA’s belief that student pilots can be taught risk management skills. Learning to manage risk, however, requires prerequisite knowledge that student pilots typically do not have. So why does the FAA think that student pilots can be taught to manage risk? Why does the FAA sees clothes where I see a nudist? Let’s find out.

The dictionary defines risk as exposure to the chance of injury or loss. The key word here is chance. Risk management assumes that you know the chance—the probability—that an event might occur. For student pilots (or any low time pilot), event probability (risk) is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to evaluate. It requires a background in statistical analysis or extensive aviation experience from which probability assessments might be intuited.

Keep in mind that NASA used risk assessment to identify the risks associated with flying the space shuttle. Their engineers, mathematicians and statisticians concluded that there was a 1 in 100 chance of losing a shuttle on every flight. Now that’s "real" risk assessment. Clearly this isn’t something that student pilots (or low-time pilots) are capable of doing. Most likely, these individuals don’t have the statistical knowledge to make these assessments (assuming the data are even available to use in making these assessments) nor do they have the working substitute for this knowledge known as “aviation experience” with which to make risk assessments. If you can’t assess the risk, you can’t manage the risk (unless you simply don’t fly... and what fun is that?).

Nevertheless, a fundamental feature of the FAA’s Risk Management Handbook is the Risk Assessment Matrix (shown below). This chart requires knowing the probability (i.e., likelihood) that an event might occur, and its severity should it occur. It also requires that you know what risk level is acceptable to you. Yet, the FAA never defines the "likelihood" values on the left vertical axis of their matrix. For instance, if the severity of an event is "catastrophic" but "improbable," it's listed in the green or "medium" risk category. So why is that airline pilots avoid areas of red on their radar screens (red areas have a 2% chance of destructive turbulence)? It seems as if a 2% chance of something happening falls close to the "improbable" range of likelihood, doesn't it? One might think so. Yet, airline pilots who see red colored radar returns on their radar screen avoid the area with a passion despite the event falling into the green or "medium" risk range on the FAA's matrix. So how can we talk about risk management when we can't speak with any precision about the risks we're willing to take?



The fact is that the FAA can't offer numerical "likelihood" values because they don't know what these values are for any given situation. Said another way, the FAA wants you to assess then manage risk, but they can't tell you what an acceptable risk is (outside one that falls into the right, bottom corner of the risk matrix). Can we really expect students (or low time pilots) to possess this knowledge and make these calculations? This seems unreasonable to me. Except for the extreme ranges of risk, the FAA's idea of risk assessment relies on vague impressions, incalculable assumptions and a great deal of wishful thinking. There is, however, a better way to manage the "hazards" associated with flight. 

If student pilots aren’t qualified to assess a risk, much less manage it, what should flight instructors teach them? The answer is hazard avoidance.

A hazard is defined as a danger or a peril. It’s something concrete that students can be taught to identify and avoid. Calculating probability is not required here because a hazard is not a data point on a risk assessment matrix. You don’t need to be a tai “chi-squared” master to recognize danger.

Hazard avoidance is precisely what good pilots do. They visually avoid thunderstorm cells by a minimum of 20 miles. They avoid flying into known icing conditions in an airplane not certified for flight into known icing conditions. Sure, they might climb or descend through an area of ice, but only if they know that they can quickly move into conditions not conducive to ice formation. They know their personal crosswind limits and avoid landing when those limits will be exceeded. There's no calculation or probability assessment taking place here (at least not as the FAA defines it). Good pilots think in terms of hazard avoidance; good instructors teach in terms of hazard avoidance

Student pilots are fully capable of avoiding in-flight hazards with a little training. All that’s needed is for their instructors to help them identify these hazards in specific and general terms.

Specific hazards are defined by the limitations placed on a student by the instructor or by the Federal Aviation Regulations. An instructor might inform his or her students not to fly when the direct crosswind component exceeds a specific value, when the flight visibility is less than three miles and when the flight cannot be made with visual reference to the surface, to name a few. Instructors can add as many additional items to the specific hazards list as necessary to ensure their student’s safety.

General hazards are best described in the succinct and condensed literary packages known as aviation aphorisms. These are wisdom-packed, hazard-avoidance lessons that students can easily remember. Here are just a few examples.

There’s nothing more useless than the altitude above you and the runway behind you. Takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory. The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire. The probability of survival is equal to the angle of arrival. Learn from the mistakes of others because you won’t live long enough to make all of them yourself. And so on.

These aphorisms are powerful behavior modifiers that can help student pilots make better decisions aloft and they have nothing to do with risk assessment. So fill your student’s noggin with these general, poetry-like quips of flying wisdom, along with your own specific warnings of hazards.

At this point you’re probably asking, What’s the downside to speaking in terms of risk management at the student pilot level? There are three important reasons not to pretend you’re teaching students to assess risk when they’re not.

First, students can’t manage risk unless they can assess it. Since they’re unlikely to have the skill to do this, they’re more likely to proffer a guess, instead. To the student pilot, risk assessment is guess assessment.

Second, an incorrect guess might result in the student making a poor decision while feeling confident of the outcome. There’s no upside to guessing wrong then feeling you’ve chosen wisely.

Third, while highly experienced pilots can assess probabilities based on their experience, they typically don’t do this. Instead, they reduce their mental workload by identifying and avoiding areas of known danger. As a general rule, very little (if any) probability calculation takes place inside a pilot’s noggin. When an airline captain sees red on her airborne radar screen, she’s not thinking, “Let’s see, red represents an area of 40 to 50 dBZs of radar reflectivity which is statistically associated with a 2% of destructive turbulence so I’m going to avoid that area.” Instead, she sees a hazard (a red colored echo) and avoids all contiguous echoes associated with that hazard by at least 20 nautical miles.

If you’re a flight instructor and want to offer a practical lesson for your students, teach them to avoid hazards. Don’t teach them something that’s not practical for them to do. Leave probability assessment for the professional mathematicians. Avoid the illusion; embrace the practical.

In the meantime, if you see nice looking outfit for sale, I know an emperor who needs one.

(This article originally appeared in AOPA Flight Training magazine.)


By Rod Machado | | Learning to Fly | 0 comments | Read more

Reluctant Moms and Dads

Suppose I told you I could get your child to enthusiastically study geography, math, physics, chemistry, and psychology. After you had my head examined, would you be interested? Oh, and as a bonus I can get him or her to hang out with highly motivated, well educated older people who are good role models because they don’t do drugs, graffiti, or tattoos, and they have a great work ethic.

You’re still with me, aren’t you? Then let’s talk about the value of allowing a responsible teenager to take flying lessons.

Perhaps you’re one of those parents (or perhaps you know one) who’s reluctant to let their teenager take up flying for one or all of the usual reasons (generalized anxiety, cost, competition for the family plane). While you may have compelling reasons for feeling as you do, I would like to offer a different perspective on why you should enthusiastically nurture and support your child’s desire to fly. More specifically, since you’re probably a pilot already and support the idea, I’d like to offer you some ammunition that might help you convince the reluctant non-pilot parents that flight training for their child would be the best educational investment they could make.

Social science research now says that a teenager’s peer group has as much (if not more) influence on the development of that individual’s values as the parents. For this reason alone, it’s reasonable to consider that flight training might confer a powerful developmental advantage on any young adult with an interest in airplanes. After all, the moment he begins flight training he immediately starts associating with an entirely new peer group that emphasizes the value of rules, rituals and responsibilities.

Most of the individuals your child encounters during flight training are highly motivated, educated and dedicated people, and most of them will be older and more mature than your child, too. Think about it. Suddenly, your teenager starts singing the praises of someone over 30 who values education, self discipline, self study and self reliance. Even in your wildest dreams as a parent, could you imagine that your teenager might seek out and spend time with such people, especially since these folks aren’t probation officers? Could you imagine having some influence over the new friends your offspring makes? Go ahead, pinch yourself, so you’ll know it’s true.

If this weren’t reason enough to support your teenager’s flight training desires, consider that it’s not even the most important reason for doing so. There are few things as sad as young people without a sense of purpose or passion in their lives. Sure, they may be good kids, but they’re also bored and boredom provides absolutely no developmental advantage whatsoever. Nature and teenagers abhor a vacuum (or a vacuum cleaner), so it’s going to be filled with something. This is the primary reason young people should be exposed to as many new and novel ideas as possible (specifically, ideas that don’t involve puncturing, piercing or indelibly coloring parts of the body). You hope that something clicks and triggers a burning desire—the Holy Grail for most parents—deep in their child’s psyche. If there’s any chance that flight training will trigger a passion for learning in your child, then you owe it to him or her to explore the idea. It may just change the way they look at the world. It may also disabuse them of the notion that being tossed into a Mosh pit at a Radiators From Space punk rock concert and body surfing a wave of human hands is Nirvana, itself.

A third reason to consider flight training for an interested teenager is that it’s an honest way of developing self respect. For the past quarter century, the self esteem movement in this country professed that simply making young people feel good about themselves was the key to generating productive and responsible behavior. You see this in physical games where nobody loses because a score is seldom kept (thus, nobody has their feelings hurt) and everybody wins because you get a trophy for just showing up. Lack of self esteem was even touted as the real reason behind the irresponsible and criminal behavior of young people. Social science, however, has shown this premise to be false. In fact, most of the really bad boys and girls in prison aren’t short of self esteem. Scientifically speaking, criminals score extremely high on self esteem scales. It turns out that the value of self esteem as it applies to positively changing someone’s behavior is primarily determined by how it’s earned, not the way it’s conferred.

Telling young people to have pride and self respect simply applies a veneer of feeling good, but doesn’t teach them behaviors that both generate and sustain self respect. In the end, the common sense view prevailed: people more deeply appreciate what they legitimately earn, not what they’re given (or told they should have). Learning to fly an airplane is a responsible, authentic means of generating pride and self respect. Give an interested teenager flying lessons and you’ll teach her that study, discipline and practice are personal qualities to be admired and acquired.

If you’re hesitating about your child taking flying lessons (or are the doting aunt, uncle, grandfather or grandmother), I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said, and give the gift of flight. When you learn something new, you become something new. So give your child a chance to become something new by introducing him or her to aviation.

By Rod Machado | | Learning to Fly | 1 comment | Read more

The Ultimate "Minimalist" Syllabus

The Ultimate Minimalist Syllabus

   This link takes you to a page where you can download a PDF of the FAA’s original private pilot syllabus published in 1971. This syllabus was found in the back of the old FAA Flight Instructor Handbook which is no longer available. The newer flight instructor handbook no longer contains a syllabus.
   This is a minimalist syllabus and is one of the very best syllabi I’ve found for preparing someone for the private pilot certificate–or the sport pilot certificate (no need to do electronic navigation or some instrument training). It’s the method by which thousands upon thousands of pilots successfully earned their pilot certificate over the years with minimum cost.
   What makes this syllabus unique is that it’s a “Stick and Rudder” syllabus and makes no attempt to teach a student things he or she doesn’t need to immediately know during flight training. I heartily recommend using this syllabus for anyone training under Part 61 of the regulations. For students training under Part 141 of the regulations, they should use the syllabus the FAA has approved for that particular flight school.
   And, of course, if you feel that other aspects of aviation should be added to this syllabus, then have at it. But please remember that your objective when teaching someone how to fly is to “teach them to fly.” Your objective is not to make them into the general aviation version of an “airline pilot lite.” Since private pilot training is already scenario-based by design, you’ll see that there are no make-believe flight scenarios in these lessons with which to distract the student. These lessons also assume that you’ll take your student to the practice area and actually “practice” the flight maneuvers listed. You are not expected to take your student on a cross country flight (however short) while you simultaneously try teaching them how to fly. (Read my AOPA Pilot Article titled, In Defense of Stick and Rudder Training due out in March 2012 for more info on the value of stick and rudder training.)
   For the student reading this, keep in mind that this syllabus provides for ground instruction prior to each lesson. It’s important to understand that your ability to do well in the air is based on having a lot of good ground instruction. In fact, an acceptable format is to have at least one hour of ground instruction for every hour of flight instruction given. And you would be expected to pay for your instructor’s time at his or her full hourly rate, too (in the long run you’ll end up paying a lot less for your training as a result of good ground instruction).
   What does ground instruction offer you? It makes the lessons far more meaningful. Good ground instruction and a lot of it is what allows students to solo in 10-14 hours and obtain their private pilot certificates in the range of 45 hours (training two to three times a week, of course). That’s a fact. Now, I realize that a one-to-one hourly ratio of ground to flight instruction is a lot for some folks (in particular, their instructors who want to fly), but this certainly isn’t an unreasonable request. Those flight schools offering accelerated flight training who are able to move students through the private pilot curriculum in three weeks or less (with approximately 42 hours of flight time) do so because they provide a lot of ground training prior to each lesson.
   So try convincing your flight instructor to spend more time with you on the ground explaining the details of the lesson, reviewing what’s expected of you, running through the procedures, steps and techniques to be practiced.
   Additionally, many of the higher order cognitive skills that are all the rage to teach nowadays (situational awareness, aviation decision making, risk assessment and so on) can be learned just as well on the ground or in a simulator as they can in the air (no, not all of them, but certainly most of them). In fact, these skills are often better acquired on the ground by reading good books, studying DVDs and/or attending aviation seminars in person or via the web.
   Finally, for any student reading this, send your instructor this link. Let him or her know that you are interested in using a “minimalist” syllabus (this one or another one your instructor prefers) for flight training. Of course, your instructor knows best and will decide whether or not this fits his or her training philosophy.
   Rod Machado

By Rod Machado | | Learning to Fly | 0 comments | Read more

The Cost of Learning to Fly

The Cost of Learning to Fly

   At a recent aviation seminar, I listened to a fellow lament the substantial cost of learning to fly. He confessed to spending upwards of $14,500 to obtain his private pilot certificate. Ka-ching! To him, aviation was too expensive for the average Joe. So I asked a few questions about his flight training experience. Here’s what I discovered.
   When our friend, Lament Man, signed up for flight training the FBO suggested that he train in the airplane he’d most likely fly after receiving his certificate. That resulted in scheduling a technically advanced (glass cockpit) airplane for his lessons.
   When I asked The Lamenter how he’d selected a flight instructor, he said the FBO simply assigned him one—as if they opened a closet, pulled one off a rack and said, “Here, make this fit.” Furthermore, he never used any type of flight simulation device at home to assist in his training. The FBO told him to stay away from desktop simulators because they don’t handle like real airplanes.
   Are you hearing the warning klaxons sound? Our friend made choices that dramatically increased the cost of his flight training, most likely doubling the price he paid for his private pilot certificate. Surely there’s a way to earn the private license at less cost, right? There is. Let me explain.
   If you elect to do your primary training in a technically advanced airplane (TAA), then you should have a technically advanced bank account. That’s one having a big pipe that moves money from your bank directly to the FBO’s bank. TAAs often rent at twice the cost of traditional two- and four-place aircraft. If you’re on a budget, there’s no good reason to start training in anything but the simplest airplane that you can afford. If that’s a J-3 Cub or an LSA, all the better. Learning in an airplane with traditional gauges instead of a glass cockpit won’t make you less of a pilot. But it will most definitely make you a pilot. As a budget conscious primary student, that is your objective. You can learn to poke buttons on advanced avionics equipment just as easily right after you graduate from private pilot school.
   Here is where it’s important to understand our all-too-human nature. People respond to incentives, and flight instructors are people. Given a choice between a TAA and a basic training airplane, and without any input from you, a flight instructor might suggest that you learn in a TAA. And why shouldn’t he? To him it’s exciting, because the cockpit lights up like a Christmas tree on steroids. So, unless you can afford to fly such a machine, you’d better say that there’s no way you’re going to pay for a TAA today. Persist to insist on flying an affordable basic trainer. If the instructor suddenly feigns a long-term illness or claims he’s been called to join the French Foreign Legion, then you’ve just eliminated an instructor who was more interested in flying an airplane for his entertainment than flying with you for your training. Ka-ching! You’ve just saved some money.
   Walking into a flight school without any idea of the type of instructor you want and need is also a very bad strategy. This is why you want to be an educated consumer. You want to find a flight instructor who loves to teach, and who uses a very simple and practical syllabus that emphasizes the essentials of stick and rudder flying.
   In one sense, some parts of our aviation training industry have come under the influence of a very big Jedi mind trick. What trick is that? It’s the belief that it’s not possible to produce a safe, competent private pilot close to the minimum flight time specified in the FARs. While the reasons for this are far too numerous to elaborate here, let it be said that a private pilot taught primarily with emphasis on stick and rudder skills is far less likely to end up bending an airplane or a few bones. Statistically, nearly half of all accidents are the takeoff, approach, landing, stall and spin type. Good stick and rudder skills are the antidote to these problems.
   So how can you identify a good stick and rudder instructor? I suggest you find out how long on average it takes for an instructor’s students—those who train two to three times a week—to obtain their private pilot certificate. Compare these numbers to the national average training time (approximately 70.1 hours) and the FAA minimum time for the private certificate (40 hours). You’re looking for an instructor capable of training closer to the FAA’s minimum than to the national average training time.
   Finally, Lament Man’s FBO wasn’t incorrect in stating that a desktop flight simulator doesn’t handle like a real airplane. On the other hand, I’ve flown real airplanes that didn’t handle like real airplanes. When using a desktop simulation device, you’re not trying to replicate the actual flying experience. Your objective is to reinforce the motor, perceptual and cognitive skills you learned on the previous lesson. Any reasonable desktop simulator will serve this function, and such a device can easily reduce the time and cost of flight training by 10%.
   Is flight training too expensive? It almost certainly will be if you’re not an educated consumer. So, find yourself a good flight instructor, a two-place steam gauge airplane, some simulation software and you’re in a position to earn a private license at a much more reasonable cost.