What Does it Mean to Be a “Safe Pilot?”

What Does it Mean to Be a “Safe Pilot?”




Photo courtesy of Aviation Performance Solutions

Throughout the history of powered flight, humans attempted to balance safety while stretching to improve the performance and mechanical limitations of the machine. Some of the biggest feats and leaps in technological achievement came with a big dose of risk. Certainly, aviation’s safety record has progressively improved over the last 100 years. Today, we have a plethora of technologies – reliable engines, satellite navigation, datalink weather, ground prox, TCAS, and autopilots with envelope protection – to help us keep the shiny side up and the help us gently bring the wheels back to earth.

So, if we have all these fantastic situational awareness tools and technology, why do we continue to have fatal accidents? Between 2001 and 2011, nearly half of all GA fatalities were because the pilot lost control of the aircraft in flight. Even with all the shiny buttons and pretty pictures in front of us, we still can’t escape our very human evolutionary shortcomings. We misinterpret sensory input, inject our erroneous biases, become oversaturated, fixated and sometimes simply lazy in keeping up with the aircraft. And there’s that “fight or flight” response to what we perceive as a dangerous situation. It evokes a strong physiological reaction that can flood our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol, rendering us less capable of thinking, evaluating, reasoning and responding.

Here’s a list of human performance failures that can lead to LOC incidents, according to NBAA safety experts:

  • Responses to aerodynamics – how pilots perceive and control the airplane;
  • Energy management – maintaining awareness of the airplane’s energy state;
  • Flight path management – maintaining awareness of position in space;
  • Automation management – understanding and application of automation and technology;
  • Pilot monitoring – monitoring the other crew members’ performances and the state of the airplane and automation;
  • Distraction – minimizing and managing distractions and interruptions;
  • Startle – a physiological response such as a loud noise;
  • Surprise – the response to an unexpected event;
  • Stress – managing and mitigating acute and chronic stress.

Regardless of whether you fly a Boeing or a Beechcraft, no pilot is immune. So, what are we as an industry and pilot community doing about it? At all levels – from the FAA, NTSB to the alphabet groups – there is a big spotlight on LOC and deservedly so. Several type-specific owners’ groups have developed safety programs that address the key areas that plague their specific communities. The goal is to “think globally” about best practices for preventing these accidents and provide pilots the tools to “act locally” to make their daily flight operations safer.

As an example, the Malibu/M-Class Owner Pilots Association (the organization I lead) has rolled out the Master Aviator program that focuses on the three key areas that lead to accidents in the PA46 community: loss of control, skill deficits in directional control and lack of proficiency due to not flying enough. The program adds a spirit of competition among members to work through progressively higher levels within the program. Members who complete the requirements will be recognized and awarded their Aviator, Senior Aviator or Master Aviator “wings” at the 2019 Convention. 

Another type-specific group, the Citation Jet Pilots Association, has developed the Gold Standard safety program, which recognizes Citation pilots who go above and beyond minimum Citation currency requirements to complete enhanced training programs offered by CJP partners. Examples include 100 turbine hours PIC (in the last year), a second 61.58 check at a Part 142 simulator training provider, adding a rating or undergoing upset recovery training.

The NBAA Safety Committee earlier this year launched a safety initiative focused on the loss of control inflight. They have put together a number of resources, videos, online training courses and scholarships for pilots and CFI’s seeking LOC prevention training. 

What’s energizing about all this is 1) LOC has the attention of the community from top to bottom, from the FAA to the grass-roots pilot organizations, and; 2) great ideas for LOC prevention are being developed and implemented all across the spectrum of business aviation. The result is innovative thinking that provides real tools, achievable, tangible goals and a roadmap to becoming a safer pilot.

The question that always follows any discussion on safety: What do we do to change the attitude of the “unreachable pilot?” Unless there is an incentive (most likely financial) or social pressure from the larger community (of which its effectiveness is dubious), no amount of programming, videos, or PR campaigns will change the habits of these cowboys. That doesn’t mean we don’t stop trying. But as new generations of pilots come up, let’s instill in them the attitude and habits that will make them strong advocates of safety.

We may not be able to shake the evolutionary shortfalls we humans possess, but we can commit to becoming safer pilots when faced with situations that can lead to a LOC event. It’s the beginning of a new year and the perfect time to take the next step and commit yourself to improve your skills, knowledge and proficiency. 

Here’s to a new year of safe flying for all!

(If you are interested in details of any of the safety programs mentioned above – or you are involved in a safety program that you’d like to share, send me an email at editor@diannewhite.com)

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