Flight training, in its current form, works. More than 2,000 pilots are licensed in Canada every year.
However, with automation taking an increasingly prominent role on the flight deck, flying skills have taken a back seat. Now more than ever, what sets the genuinely exceptional pilots apart is the quality of their decisions.
As the relationship between the pilot and the airplane evolves, it is crucial that change filters through the flight training industry as well.
Now that airlines are hiring pilots with less experience than before, new pilots must learn how to make the right decisions before they have accumulated a significant amount of flying time.
Learning through Simulation
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the National Transportation Safety Board attributes about 75 percent of all accidents to pilot error, of which a large number resulting from poor decisions.
Pilot-Decision Making (PDM) is a required ground school subject, but the mandated allotment is barely enough to scratch the surface, let alone master the craft.
Operational flying is dynamic. Merely discussing options or potential decisions in a classroom is different from having to make a call with your hands and feet at the controls.
To that end, Edward L. Deitch suggested almost two decades ago that presenting in-flight scenarios to students through a simulator would result in a more profound learning experience.
One of the crucial elements when training a student to make the right decisions is allowing them to learn from their own mistakes. However, the skill needed to make the right decisions usually come from poor decisions, and wrong choices lead to accidents.
The fidelity of modern flight simulators offers enough realism to closely replicate almost any real-world scenarios without taking on the risk of letting a situation play out to its (sometimes dramatic) conclusion.
Air traffic control instructors find simulators to be an essential teaching tool. Simulation allows students to learn from situations that might occur only sporadically in the real world. In turn, students are allowed to see the outcomes of their decisions, both good and bad.
Most experience one or more losses of separation in the simulator – mistakes that provide valuable learning opportunities, but are strongly discouraged with real airplanes.
Self-evaluation is critical, but how is sound judgement to be measured? The result of superior decisions is that nothing terrible happened. Unfortunately, that’s the same outcome for many poor choices. The safety systems built into professional flying account for a significant margin of error.
Annie Duke, former professional poker player and author of Thinking in Bets, talks about bias – if a decision turns out to have a favourable outcome, we think we made a great decision. However, we have survivorship bias – we survived. Therefore, we must have done the right thing.
Duke explains that we tend to suffer from a phenomenon she calls ‘resulting.’ Resulting happens when we equate the quality of a decision with its outcome.
For example, let’s assume we descended the aircraft below IFR minimums on approach and made a successful landing. It’s tempting to tell ourselves we made the right decision.
However, did we?
Conversely, a less-than-ideal result doesn’t necessarily mean our decision-making process was flawed. For example, instead of attempting an IFR approach, we diverted to another airport, only to discover that the ceiling lifted after we departed the hold.
Was that the wrong decision?
With the information at hand, it was likely a prudent call.
We are always making bets based on probabilities, and managing risk comes with inherent uncertainty. The best we can hope for is to improve our odds and thereby increase the likelihood of a favourable result.
Therefore, the decision-making process requires scrutiny, divorced from the impact of luck.
Self-Evaluation is Hard
Since it is more comfortable to recognize faulty decision-making in other people, it can help to remove ourselves from the equation.
Pretend it’s not you about to fly the airplane, but a close friend. Alternatively, pretend it’s another pilot, flying your family in the back.
What decision would you have them make?
We tend to look for confirming information – data points that agree with the decision we want to make. We will look for reasons to take off or continue the flight. However, due to the clouding effect of confirmation bias, we should be extra skeptical of information that agrees with our intended outcome.
Progressive Decision Making
As a flight instructor, it can be challenging to know how far to let a student go down a path before correcting them or taking control of the airplane. Taking control too soon can rob a student of seeing the consequences of their decision.
It doesn’t help that most flight instructors have only a few hundred hours of flight experience from which to impart wisdom to their students.
The practice of Progressive Decision-Making allows the student to be involved in the decision-making process early and progressively increasing their responsibilities.
However, in-flight scenarios present a tougher challenge than pre-flight planning. Deitch mentions that stress taints the decisions made while in flight. The problems are often ‘ill-structured’ and clouded in an uncertain environment.
For example, we arrive at our destination and the runway is unusable due to a disabled aircraft. We don’t know how long until it reopens. Do you continue to the destination or stop and refuel?
Aside from outcomes, assessing PDM against objective criteria can be difficult. What is the right decision in a given circumstance?
Recall this quote from the movie ‘Sully’ where Tom Hanks portrays Captain Chesley Sullenberger.
“No one warned us. No one said you are going to lose two engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history. This was dual engine loss at 2,800 feet followed by an immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that.”
Let’s apply a simple mental framework, used commonly in flying: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
Here’s how Sully did it:
The first action Sully took was to regain control of the airplane.
After assessing the options of returning to La Guardia, or diverting to Teterboro, Sully determined that the airplane could not make either airport. He turned toward the Hudson River.
“We are going to be in the Hudson.”
Outside of mental models such as this, a standard for sound decision making can be hard to grasp.
With that in mind, it’s essential that we take the time to recognize, codify and impart a decision-making process to the next generation of pilots, rather than counting on experience to see them through every scenario.