Sky Kings: The New Way Pilots Will Learn To Fly

Flying is a risky activity. Many pilots like to think otherwise, but this basic truth is being officially acknowledged by the FAA. It has recruited groups of highly qualified instructors, examiners and course designers to collaboratively design an improved pilot evaluation system. The latest working group is charged with assisting in the implementation of Airman Certification Standards, which will soon replace the Practical Test Standards currently in use.

With these new standards, pilots will be required to demonstrate on every practical test — along with their knowledge and skills — their risk-management ability. Examiners will be looking for a pilot’s ability to anticipate the risks of a flight, properly assess them and come up with a mitigation plan.

Why the focus on “risk” instead of “safety”? Because risk management is a process that can be trained and tested for to get a safer result. The objective behind everything we do in flight training is to manage risk. Pilots fine-tune their flying skills so that lack of skill doesn’t become a risk factor. They learn about a variety of subjects and are given knowledge tests so they will be aware of the hazards and risks associated with flight and have the resources to mitigate them.

Many pilots are deeply invested in the term “safety” and aren’t willing to accept any change in the vocabulary or the process because it somehow feels like a rejection of “safety.” It is not. It is an effort to get a safer result by teaching an active process that will be employed as a habit.

Other pilots and instructors have felt that teaching risk management is just a distraction that will leave less time for honing the physical skills of flight. The assumption is that risk management is intuitive and doesn’t need to be either taught or tested.

In fact, the ability to combine knowledge and skills to anticipate and mitigate risk is not a talent that comes naturally. It is a process that is difficult to learn without some coaching. Over time it can become a habit and a thought process that improves with practice. Without that habit, many pilots inadvertently put themselves into situations that no amount of skill could get them out of.

Let’s take a look at how practice might help.

Let’s say you arrive for a takeoff at an airport with a single, narrow, east-west runway, and there is a strong wind out of the north. There would be a 90-degree crosswind whether you took off to the east or west.

Even those of us who haven’t had any risk-management training would spot most of the risk factors right away: narrow runway, strong crosswind, level of pilot skill at handling crosswinds, type of aircraft.

On the other hand, risk mitigation might be the hardest aptitude to develop without practice. Of course, you’d check the forecast for when the wind might change. Since this is a takeoff, not a landing, you don’t have a choice of choosing another airport. You’re stuck with the narrow runway and the runway heading. You’re not going to improve your crosswind-handling skills fast enough to help with this takeoff. If it were a landing instead of a takeoff, you might think about declaring an emergency and landing on a taxiway that is directed into the wind. However, that doesn’t work for takeoffs. It is very likely the FAA would feel there is no such thing as an emergency takeoff.

So what’s left? Well, there is always the go/no-go decision. But let’s assume the wind is right on the margin of what you feel you can handle. Is there anything else you might do?

How about making the weather-vaning tendency and the left-turning tendency offset each other instead of adding to each other? We all know that airplanes with propellers that rotate clockwise when seen from the cockpit have a left-turning tendency. So in this case, if you take off to the west, the left turning tendency will help offset the tendency of the airplane to weather vane to the right. And this just might convert a marginal takeoff into a comfortable one — mitigating the risk.

You might say, “Hey, no fair. That’s no big deal. That’s so simple. It’s obvious.” Well, so were wheels on luggage — after somebody thought of them. But thinking of these things gets easier with practice.

Another seemingly obvious risk-mitigation practice is landing at the halfway point for fuel on a trip that is well within the range of the airplane when the destination weather is marginal. It greatly expands your circle of alternatives. If you can’t land at the destination, you could even go right back to your fuel stop.

If you plan the fuel stop for later in the trip, there is a compelling urge as you get closer to your destination to decide you don’t need to stop for fuel after all. Some pilots who have made that decision have run out of fuel. One couple in particular told us they survived an engine-out landing under just those circumstances, but they urgently wanted others to recognize this trap. By landing before the temptation to skip the fuel stop sets in, you are mitigating the risk that you, the pilot, will decide the fuel stop is a waste of time.

Again, this is so simple it is obvious, but it is not something most pilots would do unless they had been coached and had developed a habit of brainstorming ways to mitigate risks on every trip. These are the kinds of things examiners will be looking for on every check ride and what instructors should be looking for on flight reviews.

This new way of testing pilots will require a new way of training pilots as well. The most efficient way of developing the habit of risk management in student pilots is to have them practice those skills on every training flight. The most logical way to accomplish this is to use scenario-based training.

A scenario refers to a lesson plan that includes a practical, realistic setting with a real or simulated purpose. This helps to impart a sense of urgency to complete the flight and the consequences for not completing the flight. The most important part of the scenario, however, is a real or simulated set of risks to be managed. This provides the needed practice in risk management.

Scenario-based training, as originally conceived by the FAA, suggested very contrived situations that overdid the playacting. Many instructors and flight schools rightfully pushed back against this cumbersome approach.

In order to be useful, the scenario only has to be elaborate enough to put the learning into context and provide an opportunity for risk management. Flight instructors have always used scenarios to some extent, such as when asking, “What would you do now if your engine started running really rough?” The difference here is putting the entire flight in a scenario to provide the opportunity to practice risk management.

Examiners have been required to use scenarios during practical tests for some time. This has given pilots who have been trained using scenarios an advantage, but the fact that applicants will now be expressly tested on their risk-management abilities will make the use of scenarios in training almost essential.

In previous articles, Martha and I have confessed to taking many inexcusable and irresponsible risks some 45 years ago when we first started flying. Some readers were offended when we wondered whether a different approach and a different vocabulary might have helped us learn faster. They took it as a failure on our part to assume responsibility for our actions. To make it clear, we fully understand that we — and we alone — were responsible for our poor risk management.

Moreover, after having watched countless other pilots make the same mistakes over and over again — many of whom were not as fortunate as we were — we have taken on the responsibility of trying to improve the way the entire aviation community manages the risks of flight. As some may know, we have been working at this for a long time. That is the motivation behind this column.

The approach we think will help most is employing a more specific vocabulary to better express the explicit process pilots must use to achieve a safer result. That is why we so fervently applaud the FAA’s move toward testing for risk-management proficiency.

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John King
John KingAuthor
John King started King Schools Inc., with his wife, Martha, in a spare bedroom of their home. Today, the school operates out of a dedicated complex in San Diego, California, that includes a video and software production facility. John and Martha have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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