The Finer Points: Evolving to Perfection

In our new online series, The Finer Points, CFII Jason Miller gives you the information and tools you’ll need to become not just a better pilot, but a truly exceptional aviator.

On August 27, 2006, a regional airliner taxied onto the wrong runway in the semi dark of morning and attempted a takeoff on a runway that wasn’t long enough, killing nearly everybody on board. A month later I was spending some time in the pilots' lounge at Santa Monica Airport with a group of professional pilots and decided to ask if anybody’s operating procedures had changed as a result of the crash. “Yes” was the answer from everybody. “We now have to visually identify the runway and call it out to the pilot monitoring, and then again on the runway we have to call out that the runway matches the heading.” Done. For commercial operators a similar accident hasn’t happened since. Did you know that since 1987, the airlines have reduced their fatal accident rate by 88 percent? That’s an amazing stat. The very next day I incorporated the same procedures into the pre-takeoff briefings with my students.

About four years ago I had the opportunity to meet Bob Hoover at Oshkosh. A few of us ambushed his golf cart and he was kind enough to stop and answer some questions. One person asked him, “Bob, how did you stay alive for so long flying? How does one stay safe and perfect the art of flying?” Without missing a beat Bob said, “If you are aware of and operate within your own limits, and the limits of the airplane, you’ll be just fine.”

A simple and elegant answer from a man who is arguably one of the greatest aviators to have ever lived. It got me thinking. Thinking about the art of flying, its evolution and the possibilities for perfection. This is, after all, what happens with any art form. In almost any art the most evolved expression can appear simple. That is, until you try it. The ones who are out there trying it every day are the ones best positioned to perfect its development; these are the professional pilots. Let’s not forget that they’ve been successful in reducing the fatal accident rate by almost 90 percent over the last 30 years.

How do airlines ensure that large numbers of pilots will always operate within their own limits and that of the machine? The answer to this question is the behavior I champion to all pilots I can get through to. Over the course of my 20-year career as an instructor, a thesis has evolved. I believe that through emulating a process developed by the airlines and adapted to general aviation we can nearly eliminate fatal accidents. The airlines accomplish it through this simple three-step process of standardization:

  • Notice the flaw
  • Develop a redundant procedure to protect against it
  • Force compliance with the procedure

I call it "bracketing safety." Over time these professionals self-correct holes in their game and almost never repeat mistakes. Imagine that. They almost never repeat a mistake, industry wide not company wide.

Regulations are designed in the same way. We like to say, “The regs are written in blood,” and it’s often true. The Mode C veil surrounding Class B airspace is due to a mid-air with a 727 and a Cessna. Commercial pilots must have an instrument rating at night because of the Buddy Holly crash, and so on. I encourage students to adopt this way of thinking in their own flying. For the professional pilots of today this philosophy has evolved close to perfection. It has become much more granular, and it works. Today’s professional pilots are handed an operations manual that is perhaps, more truly, written in blood. This is the book that helps them operate within their limits and within the limits of the machine even when they don’t want to. There are things they can do, things they can’t do and things they must do in certain situations, all decided ahead of time.

There may be some of you that didn’t know a particular landmark accident even occurred let alone what you might glean from it. Step one is to identify the problem. You have to look at what’s going on out there. For general aviation AOPA’s Air Safety Institute releases a report every year on the specifics of how pilots are getting into trouble. This should be something all of us review. With easy channels such as YouTube and a web search of the accident archive you can stay informed about what is actually going on out there as folks fly around. Step two is to mimic a procedure that works or develop a procedure of your own that eliminates the possibility of you ever repeating somebody else’s accident. It can be simple but it must be standard, redundant and performed with focus. If you are trying to protect against being the guy who tries to taxi with a tail tie-down on, for example, add a final walk around to your preflight followed by a review of the written checklist. Step three is perhaps the hardest for a GA pilot. Force your own compliance. There is no boss that will fire you. No “pilot monitoring” to question your behavior. You will have to force yourself to comply with decisions you’ve made ahead of time.

You might not know where to start with all of this so start with what you know. Checklists, for every climb, cruise and descent, can always use improvement. Develop pre-takeoff briefings in a meaningful and standard format. Adhere to a sterile cockpit below certain altitudes and so on. You can add to your SOPs as time goes by but start by developing them now.

You’ll find that the procedures won’t limit you but rather will allow for improvisation when it’s appropriate without pulling you into areas of danger. You can build on the experiences of pilots that have flown before you, and you should. I’m not saying anything about perfect stick and rudder skills or perfection as it relates to controlling the airplane. That is a skill I hope you never stop building. The reality, however, is that outside of loss of control accidents (and even sometimes then) it is usually a poor decision-making process that leads to a fatal accident. After all, the airlines didn't reduce their accident rate by demanding better stick and rudder skills of pilots.

I am talking about perfection as it relates to a safety record. As a teacher, I can try to teach a pilot how to avoid making a thousand different mistakes, or I can teach a pilot a few simple procedures that would eliminate the possibility of any mistakes occurring. As I study the accidents that happen it is not usually the minutia that kills pilots, it’s an overall approach to the operation and a lack of respect for those that have come before and tried similar things. I try to teach my students the processes I’ve discussed here and it’s often more important to me (at least initially) than smooth landings.

This standardization must be primary. It will not limit you but rather open you up to a world of inventiveness that exists around the art form you’ve created. Most importantly, you will be paying attention to the accidents that occur and designing standard, redundant strategies for avoiding them. As long as we realize that we will never attain complete perfection, this cumulative hive-knowledge manifested in methodical standardized behavior will keep us all, collectively, evolving toward perfection.

Jason Miller is the creator of The Finer Points of Flying and a CFII with more than 20 years of aviation experience and thousands of hours of instruction given. He is a member of the FAA safety team, a speaker for AOPA’s Air Safety Institute and was nominated by the FAA for the 2009 Flight Instructor of the Year Award.


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