Pilot's Discretion: Take Your Pick

What’s more important? Exceptional judgment or exceptional skill?

Pilot's Discretion
In previous eras, the “best” pilots were those who could will the airplane through any circumstance, planned or unplanned. Today, better judgment wins every time.Flying

Imagine I asked you the following question during your next flight review: If you had the choice, would you rather fly directly through a line of embedded thunderstorms along your planned route of flight or use datalink radar imagery on your iPad to deviate around the weather system?

You’d probably take a curious look at me, think it was some kind of trick question and, of course, choose the option to go around the weather. Flying through the storms would add unnecessary risk, and it would take refined flying skills along with a lot of luck to keep the airplane upright and intact on the other side.

Put another way, would you rather choose to exercise sound aviation judgment or rely on heroic flying skills to get from point A to point B in this scenario? This is a bit exaggerated, but it’s a great example of how our approach to flying has evolved over the past 50 years thanks to ever-evolving technology that provides a better understanding and awareness of the environment around us. In previous eras, the “best” pilots were those who could will the airplane through any circumstance, planned or unplanned. Anything less was a sign of weakness. Today, better judgment wins every time.

Richard Collins recently wrote about his experiences in the 1950s instructing cadets in the Air Force, where the official training manual taught the procedures for flying through a thunderstorm if there were no alternate routes available to carry out the mission for the day. The training process required pilots to develop the necessary flying skills to handle an intentional thunderstorm penetration, prevent aircraft structural failure and emerge unscathed with the blue sky up.

The focus today is appropriately on prevention, and developing pilot decision-making and judgment skills to keep you out of situations that require extraordinary flying skills.

Take a look at the recent aviation weather accident trend and you’ll see clear signs that pilot judgment is indeed improving. The most recent AOPA Joseph T. Nall general aviation safety report shows weather-related accidents decreased substantially between 2009 and 2014, which is the most recent data set available. I think it’s safe to say that improvements in the weather tools available for preflight briefings and the availability of affordable in-flight datalink weather have had a profound impact on the safety record. Pilots of all airplane shapes and sizes finally have the tools needed to exercise proper judgment in flight with fewer unknowns.

Unfortunately, technology hasn’t done as much to improve pilot judgment on other fronts. Take a look at something more routine and less exciting, but just as important: fuel planning. There have been significant advances in performance-planning websites and apps over the past 10 years, allowing pilots to quickly calculate fuel burn for a specific model of aircraft to within half a gallon for a cross-country flight. Fuel totalizer systems will measure every last drop that flows from the tanks to the engine, providing precise fuel-burn information in flight.

Despite these advances, AOPA’s Nall report shows no significant decrease in accidents related to fuel management during the same period. It states that “nearly two-thirds resulted from flight-planning deficiencies such as inaccurate estimation of fuel requirements or failure to monitor fuel consumption in flight, leading to complete fuel exhaustion.” You could argue that technology might actually be working against pilots here in some cases, lulling us into complacency where too much trust is placed on flight-planning programs or the fuel-management system on the airplane. Both of these systems depend on the pilot entering the proper data for the flight, whether it’s the performance of the airplane in a mobile app, or how much fuel is actually on board for a fuel totalizer. After all, garbage in equals garbage out.

To further highlight this importance, the National Transportation Safety Board released a safety alert in August to draw attention to the unchanged accident trend and provide practical advice for the prevention of fuel-related accidents. The alert shows that almost 48 percent of pilots involved in fuel-management accidents hold either a commercial or airline transport pilot certificate, and 50 percent a private or sport certificate. The remaining 2 percent are student pilots. This clearly isn’t an issue limited to low pilot time. Eighty percent of the accidents occurred during day VMC, and less than 5 percent cited a malfunction of the fuel system. In other words, 95 percent were caused by the pilot in good weather.

The alert has some key takeaways all pilots should consider, especially during these modern times when technology seems to solve all problems. It essentially stresses a “back to basics” approach, focusing on the pilot’s responsibilities to know and verify how much fuel is needed for a given flight, and how much fuel is in the tanks at all times. This means visually checking the fuel quantity before takeoff and using something as simple as a timer or stopwatch to track fuel burn en route.

The most important take-away related to fuel planning is that you need to analyze the estimated fuel burn number output by your app or website and ask yourself, “Does that sound right for this trip?” It’s too easy to be trapped by automated performance numbers, flight after flight, without questioning their accuracy. It takes just one small typo during the data entry to select the wrong aircraft profile, route or altitude and get inaccurate results.

It can be challenging to teach judgment during flight training since it is really a mindset that is developed over time with experience. This is why it’s so important that scenarios are incorporated into every ground lesson and training flight to present problem-solving opportunities for students to really make them think and develop critical decision-making skills. The move from the Practical Test Standards (PTS) to the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) took a step in the right direction in identifying Risk Management items (I refer to these as “Pilot Judgment” items instead) in addition to the Skills requirements for each task or maneuver.

The reality is that in today’s training environment, we tend to spend more time focusing on the Skills because they can be measured against defined check-ride standards — altitude plus or minus 100 feet, airspeed plus or minus 10 knots and so on. This often leads to flight lessons centered on rehearsing specific tasks, such as ground reference maneuvers, at the expense of challenging pilots to think through more “what-if” scenarios. Don’t get me wrong, there is just as much of a need to develop and improve the core stick-and-rudder skills today; loss-of-control accidents are still at the top of the list by a large margin. It just shouldn’t come at the expense of brushing over other training areas that aren’t as easily graded on the check ride.

The payoff for developing better pilot judgment is immediate and significant, whether it’s during primary training or recurrent training, because you will ultimately feel more comfortable using technology and know to question a certain situation when something doesn’t feel right. Sure, you won’t have any epic tales of getting shot out the updraft of a thunderstorm or landing on a highway with tanks run dry, but you’ll have plenty of proud aviation moments where sound judgment led to safe and expected outcomes.