At night on October 15, 2002 a Schweizer 269C experienced an engine failure due to fuel exhaustion and was substantially damaged during the ensuing hard landing. The CFI pilot was providing night VFR cross-country instruction to a student. They had discussed the low fuel situation, but elected not to refuel because neither had a credit card. On the last leg of their flight, the low fuel light illuminated, followed a few minutes later by complete loss of engine power. During the autorotation, the helicopter struck trees and the tail boom separated from the airframe. Miraculously, neither pilot was injured.
The errors in judgment this CFI made are obvious. However, there is some value in experiencing firsthand the consequences of poor judgment and surviving with only a bruised ego. It is perhaps the most powerful lesson any pilot can learn. Teaching students the mechanics of flying is easy compared to teaching good judgment and sound decision-making skills. Yet the later is far more important to accident prevention.
Pilots who are not taught how to make good decisions and continue to escape the consequences of poor judgment create a false sense of invulnerability. I witnessed a pilot return from having his helicopter inadvertently topped off with fuel. When his aircraft was loaded for a sightseeing flight, he radioed back that one passenger had to be removed because the helicopter was too heavy. Another pilot hearing this ran out and said he could fly it without removing a passenger. He managed to get airborne, but was gambling on the fact that not even the smallest problem would arise. Each time this type of pilot is successful, it leads them to assume more risk; eventually, their luck will run out. When that happens, the magnitude of the accident is likely to be severe.
Aeronautical decision-making classes and seminars have attempted to correct these types of risky behavior. They teach students how to recognize hazardous attitudes (anti-authority, invulnerability, macho and resignation) through self-assessment. While this is good background knowledge, it does little to help pilots make better decisions. Pilots, normally confident individuals, rarely associate bad behavior with themselves. Likewise, many will rationalize their behavior until it appears justifiable.
Studies have shown that as pilots gain more experience and knowledge, they are more apt to make better decisions–with experience in decision-rich environments, not necessarily flight time, being the most valuable. This familiarity allows pilots to better analyze options and choose the best course of action faster.
The question is how to teach new pilots to exercise good judgment until they can gain enough experience to understand all the risks. Safely operating an aircraft is increasingly becoming a mental task. As such, initial and recurrent training should emphasize how to analyze a situation and make informed, correct decisions. Detailed decision-making models and lessons need to be developed that not only stress the importance of good analytical skills, but the dangers of poor decisions.
Full-motion simulators are excellent learning platforms for this kind of training. They allow pilots to practice decision making under a variety of situations. This is especially helpful when the stress of a real emergency makes good decision-making even harder. Even pilots that might normally exercise good judgment can become overloaded in a stressful situation.
Consider the following accident. The pilot of an AS350BA Astar reported while in cruise flight near Lake Mead, Arizona the “hot battery” light illuminated, followed shortly by a complete electrical failure. The pilot decided to make an immediate landing on the lake’s shoreline. At 100 ft. AGL, the pilot heard a change in the engine sound, and believing he had an unreliable engine, entered autorotation. During the deceleration flair, the tail rotor struck the sand. The helicopter landed level, but hard and bounced back in to the air. It then turned 90 deg. to the left and struck the ground again before rolling onto its right side. The pilot stated that after the helicopter came to rest he could hear the engine operating and shut it down with the fuel cutoff lever.
More structured training on different decision strategies should be incorporated into all levels of pilot training. For students without access to simulators, a complete review of other pilots’ past decisions and the outcomes should be mandatory. In fact, the FAA practical and written exams should include a section of difficult scenarios that require the student to choose the correct course of action. Even better might be a separate physiological test that shows an applicant’s understanding and acceptance of risk. Students who perform poorly would then be required to undergo more intensive training in aeronautical decision-making. Many corporate flight departments and airlines use similar tests for pre-employment screening.
To get better at any skill requires high-quality training and lots of practice. The ability to make good decisions is no different.