By John King, USA
Reprinted with permission from the May 2012 issue of Mentor Magazine where it appeared under the same title.
About the Author: John King, along with his wife and business partner, Martha, owns King Schools. He has been learning about and teaching flying full time since 1975. He considers aviation one of humankind’s greatest achievements and those who fly to be very special people. He feels his greatest privilege has been to have played a role in the lives of so many pilots.
As instructors we all want the best for our customers. We teach them the FAA-required skills and knowledge, and even go beyond those standards. We warn them about the hazards associated with weather, navigation, performance, aircraft loading and every other hazard we can think of. They then are required to pass a knowledge test. Finally they undergo an evaluation of their ability to put this all together when they take their practical test.
In spite of our earnest concern on their behalf, the results aren’t all that good. General aviation fatality rates are an unacceptable eight times that of cars on a per mile basis. Nearly everyone who is engaged in general aviation knows someone personally who was killed in an airplane accident. These people as a rule are not incompetent, nor do they court risk. In fact general aviation self-selects capable, achieving people who are leaders in their communities. In most cases these people and their passengers came to grief because they inadvertently exposed themselves to risk that they didn’t fully understand.
We’ve done our best, so why aren’t we getting better results? Well, first of all, flight is a hazardous activity. Airplanes have to get to a lethal speed just to get airborne. Additionally, the risks associated with flying are not as intuitive as the risks we normally face. In fact, they are sneaky and insidious. Professional risk managers tell us that when the risks are nebulous and hard to quantify, people tend to underestimate them. In aviation, the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong are particularly hard to judge. As a result pilots underestimate the risks and overestimate their ability to deal with them.
But more than that, we are doing something wrong. The way we teach new pilots how to manage risks is flawed.
Since the beginning of aviation the way we have taught risk management is by telling stories, passing along rules and making up sayings — things like, the only time you can have too much fuel is when you are on fire; the two most useless things in aviation are the runway behind you and the altitude above you; you’re a lot better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air, than being in the air wishing you were on the ground. These are great sayings, but they are not enough.
In fact, the way most pilots become “experienced” in aviation is they get their certificate and then go out and try stuff. They expose themselves to risk, and then evaluate the result. If they don’t scare themselves, they place it in the “acceptable” category. In fact, they may have just been lucky. But the more times they get away with it, the more acceptable the risk becomes.
On the other hand, if they scare themselves they add what they did to the list of things they won’t do again. If they don’t run out of luck, they become an “experienced” pilot. The problem with experience is that she is a hard teacher. She gives the test first, and the lesson comes afterward. Many pilots, and their passengers, never survive to get the lesson.
But even a long list of unacceptable risks doesn’t prepare pilots for risks they’ve never taken or thought of before. What’s needed is a systematic approach to risk management. We already employ a systematic approach to conducting a preflight inspection of an airplane. Just as generations of pilots have been taught since the days of the barnstormers, we very systematically walk around the airplane examining it in great detail — even carefully raising the ailerons to inspect the hinges. But no such procedure is used to consider in advance the pilot’s risk management of the flight.
The problem is that only a very small percentage of accidents are caused by a mechanical failure. But a very large percentage of accidents are caused by a failure in risk management on the part of the pilot. The result is that during preflight pilots pay very careful attention to things that don’t cause accidents, but spend very little time contemplating the things that do cause accidents.
The reason that pilots spend little time thinking about risk management is we don’t yet have a procedure in place to teach pilots how to do it. As instructors we have earnestly attempted to tell pilots about all the hazards they might face. But we will never be able to think of them all, and they wouldn’t be able to remember them.
What pilots need is a tool that they can routinely use to anticipate the risks so that they can be managed. Any systematic, practical procedure to anticipate risks will work, but I suggest pilots use the PAVE memory aid to “pave” their way to a safe flight. The letters stand for:
Using the example of a tragic crash wherein a pilot and his wife and their two children perished gives us an opportunity to take a look at how PAVE might have helped in analyzing the risks associated with the flight. The pilot and his family were flying to a family reunion. A witness told the local newspaper he saw the plane take off and saw it attempt to clear a line of fog. “He was heading toward the coast and tried to climb,” the witness said. “From the time he took off he was going too steep, too slow.”
Let’s take a look at how PAVE might have worked to help analyze the risks associated with this flight.
Pilot — Not instrument-rated.
Aircraft — Normal piston-engine climb capability.
enVironment — Fog bank to the west, wind from the west.
External pressures — Commitment to attend a family reunion.
As a flight instructor you would probably observe that pilots often overestimate their angle of climb capability. The probability that a pilot would inadvertently wind up in the clouds or stalling the airplane while attempting to out-climb the clouds is high. You would also observe that if pilots find themselves in this situation, the most important consideration is aircraft control.
You would also note that there was a cross runway and that taking off with a crosswind component might be preferable to attempting to climb over a fog bank.
You might also observe that fog banks often clear up as the day progresses, and you might advise delaying the departure to allow the weather to improve.
So those would probably be your thoughts as a flight instructor. How do you get the new pilots you are training to have the same thoughts?
The answer is that you employ a risk management analysis from the very first lesson. You would teach your learning pilots to identify and manage the risks associated with every flight, and relate their plan to you. From that point on you would no more find it acceptable for them to skip this preflight action than you would for them to go flying without a preflight inspection of the airplane.
With practice your learning pilots would gain the skill of analyzing the risks and coming up with a mitigation plan for them.
Right now we are expecting new pilots to learn this on their own after they leave flight training. It clearly is not working. As flight instructors we can and must do better for them.