Mental Trifecta

Combine time, knowledge and attention to make the most of your ability to keep yourself ahead of the airplane


By Pat Veillette

Since crew resource management was developed 15 years ago, it has evolved into a number of different animals. Originally a training program that encouraged captains to listen to their crew and crew to be more assertive in pointing out deviations, CRM has become a way to manage information and make good decisions.

There are three important resources that a pilot must manage well to make good decisions: time, knowledge and attention. Each of these is precious, and bad decisions can be the price for not managing even one of these avenues effectively.

Theres no doubt that time is one of the most valuable resources a pilot has. Research has shown that being rushed for time is the second leading contributing factor to human error. Everyone has made a rushed decision that ended up being a bad one. Well, there is a wealth of research that confirms that it happens to everyone.

Under time pressure, you tend to jump at the first conclusion that enters your mind. In a cockpit, that may mean you fixate on the biggest, loudest or brightest annunciator or warning horn, even though there may be another, deeper problem that requires your attention.

People tend to ignore other warning signs and ignore other information that doesnt back up that original – wrong – conclusion. In short, do everything possible to buy yourself time so you can make decisions logically instead of in the heat of battle.

Thats easy to say, but actually doing it can be hard sometimes.

First off, the endurance of the aircraft is limited at takeoff. There is only a certain amount of fuel, so if you plan your flight to the maximum of its range or otherwise have limited fuel reserves, the clock is running against you as soon as a problem happens. The easiest way to buy more time is to carry extra fuel reserves for the flight whenever possible.

There are many kinds of situations in which the pilot may feel external forces building a time pressure. For example, lets say youre on an instrument approach to a busy airport just as a gaggle of airliners makes its presence felt. Incoming weather forces a change in runway direction, so ATC is rushing pilots into new approaches. You are rushed trying to brief the approach, keep your speed up and still get the aircraft set up. What do you do?

The easiest thing to do is to tell ATC you need more time and ask for delaying vectors. If that wont work, ask to go to a holding pattern.

The main disadvantage of going to a holding pattern is that the frequent turns, course tracking and timing add to your mental load. Even so, it will give you a chance to catch up to the airplane. The bottom line is that you mustnt let ATC rush you into an approach when you arent ready.

Give Yourself Time
Spend the low workload phases of the flight doing whatever you can to prepare for the higher workload phases. This means copying the ATIS information as soon as you can for the destination and setting up the communication radios and navigational equipment needed for the approach ahead of time.

When the cockpit is calm, use that time to keep your stuff organized. Make sure your charts are readily available. Place a tab in your binder for the approach plates to your destination.

If you use bound government charts, pick up some sticky tabs from an office supply store. We like using different colors to identify different types of approaches and to mark the airport diagram. For example, mark the ILS plate green, the GPS yellow and the VOR orange, with red marking the airport diagram. Put the tabs for your destination on the bottom of the page and your alternate on the side. When the flight is over you can easily remove them and mark the next leg.

If you use unbound charts, you have the flexibility to pull all of the plates for your destination out of the book and clip them together. Make sure, however, that your clipping strategy allows you to switch among them while minimizing the possibility that a loose sheet will slide out and, of course, wind up under the seat.

Make it routine to put the expected approach plate on the top (based perhaps on the ATIS information), then the airport diagram on the back of the pile facing down so you can simply flip over the pile of approach plates when you land.

While youre pulling charts, take out the plates for the alternate, too. Were not just talking legal alternate here, either. Every flight deserves an alternate, in case the primary airport is unavailable for any reason, such as a disabled airplane on the runway.

In some circumstances youll have two. For an IFR flight, for example, you may have your legal alternate and a more practical alternate that you think you can get in to but that does not meet the technical requirements to be a legal alternate. Having two alternates is particularly handy during periods of rapidly changing weather or widespread convective activity.

Recently I was flying a passenger to Aspen but was very wary of the weather trends at both the destination and the first alternate.

The weather forecast suggested the approach would be above minimums at the time of our arrival, but there was a weather system affecting the central Colorado mountains and, being a native of the Rockies, I knew it could quickly change the weather for the worse.

Our alternate was nearby Eagle, Colo., which was forecast to be clear, but I was skeptical. Mountain weather can change so rapidly, and the weather system would also affect Eagle.

It was a four-hour flight from the East Coast to Aspen, so we continued watching the trends every 20 minutes. As we approached the mid-continent position, the weather at Aspen began to drift downward. I knew there was drier and warmer air to the west, so I pulled the approach plates not only for Eagle, which was our filed alternate, but also for an airport to the west.

As we neared Aspen, it was clear that the weather was getting worse. Since the missed approach requires such a steep climb-out with very little maneuvering room from the adjacent mountainsides, we listened intently as a commuter aircraft reported going missed approach. That automatically made our decision.

I started loading the approach for Eagle into the flight management system while Aspen Approach asked us what we wanted to do. About two minutes later, an airliner on approach into Eagle reported going missed. So much for the clear and a million forecast.

I was prepared, so it was simply a matter of grabbing my stack of approach plates for Rifle, dialing in the frequencies and briefing the approach.

This was an orderly process because I had used the low workload cruise phase to keep up with the weather trends, watched the trends, identified a trend in the weather that could become a problem, formulated an alternate plan in case the weather dropped, and organized the approach plates so I could quickly react in case the weather dropped below minimums.

Cockpit organization is vital. Lap boards that allow you to store information for quick access are a big help. Place approach plates in a convenient position, tabbed to the approach plates youll most likely need. Fold your maps before the flight so they conveniently unfold to the next segment of the trip.

Knowledge is Power
Managing your knowledge begins with the very first day you begin pilot training. Aviation is a pursuit that requires you to possess a broad range of knowledge.

You ought to have more than a passing knowledge of aerodynamics, atmospheric physics, human factors such as decision-making, flight physiology and aircraft mechanics. Add to that the rules and regulations necessary to operate in the national airspace system and otherwise stay on the FAAs good side.

It is a far ranging and wide spectrum of knowledge that a pilot needs to have. Knowledge is good, but it needs to be at the right level.

There are four levels of learning: rote, understanding, application and correlation. The FAA written tests often can be passed simply by memorizing the answers from the test preparation books, but you have to ask yourself what good that does in the real world.

If you ask some pilots in the FBO to describe the weather requirements for Class E airspace, most of them might remember some of the numbers. Few will remember all of them. Does it matter? Quite frankly, who is a good enough judge of distance that they can say for sure that they are 500 feet below a cloud in Class E airspace?

While you may be able to regurgitate various numbers and regulations, that is simply a rote level of learning, and it has little to do with practical application.

Whats more important is that the pilot understand the reasoning behind that number, and be able to apply it to the situation at hand. Consider, for instance, the aircraft that was shooting an instrument approach into an uncontrolled airport, which was surrounded by Class E airspace to the surface. Just as the aircraft broke out of the clouds, the pilot encountered a small aircraft flying right at the base of the clouds.

The aircraft on approach had to make an evasive maneuver while on its approach to avoid a mid-air collision. When youre shooting an instrument approach, the last thing you expect to see upon breaking out of the clouds is another aircraft right in your path.

This is a situation where the offending VFR pilot may have known the regulation but apparently didnt have a clue why it was formed nor how to apply it to everyday flight operations.

While clear of clouds may be an obvious example, it takes a truly insightful individual to determine the reasoning behind some of the rules and procedures the FAA has put into place, and then apply that reasoning.

One of the best ways to develop that insight is to create scenarios and then gauge your response. This kind of hangar flying can be done by yourself, with an instructor or with pilot peers. The important thing is that you use them to develop a better understanding and application of the topic.

Of course, all of the knowledge in the world wont help much if you cant focus your attention on the task at hand. Managing your attention allows you to spend more time focusing on the important information while paying less attention to distractions and less important information.

During high workload phases, its important to manage your workload so you can allocate more of your mental attention toward the important items. One of the best ways to do that is to use the tools in the cockpit – chiefly the autopilot. If your aircraft has an autopilot, know how to use it.

Maintaining aircraft control is important and can consume your mental resources when youre hand-flying. The autopilot will take over the mundane task and allow you to focus on other issues. Use the altitude hold function. Let the nav mode track a radial or airway. Use the heading bug to keep you on your assigned vector.

Autopilots, when used properly, are a definite aid for lowering the workload. Having said that, however, dont treat the autopilot as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of device. You must continue to monitor the aircrafts performance. In addition, do not use the autopilot so extensively that you allow your own skills to deteriorate.

The simple fact is that managing attention means prioritizing. This is one area where experience comes into play – and were not talking just hours here. Experience teaches by showing the consequences of falling into a trap. That lesson reinforces the importance – the priority – that should be placed on avoiding that situation in the future.

Since the learning curve can be steep and the lessons dangerous, its more efficient, more effective and safer to learn good skills from a good mentor in the first place. There are some mistakes you just dont need to re-create. This is one reason why simulators are so valuable.

An insightful instructor should be able to teach good flight management skills that allow you to focus on the right information at the right time. By knowing the information to scan ahead of time, so you can stay ahead of the aircraft and the situation.

Managing attention also means managing the distractions. Some distractions can be proactively managed. For instance, if the aircraft needs to be fueled, wait for the fueling and paperwork to be finished before you continue with tasks that shouldnt be distracted, such as preflight.

One potentially dangerous distraction is the development of CD and DVD players for small airplanes. Its now possible to play a movie on some panel-mounted multifunction displays, which carries all sorts of scary potential. But even an interesting musical passage may distract you from watching for traffic or lead you to miss radio calls.

Some distractions can simply be ignored. Radio chitchat from a friend while you are doing pattern work is a good distraction to ignore. On that note, pilots should be careful not to cause distractions for other aviators. I believe that is a standard of conduct that professionals should expect and give each other.

Some distractions can be delayed. For example, lets say that the turn coordinator seems to be malfunctioning during flight. As long as the weather remains good VFR, a malfunction of the turn coordinator is a non-issue. Simply continue the flight, remain in good VFR, and write it up on the ground.

Some distractions can be delegated, such as dropping an approach plate from your lap while preparing to fly the approach. If youre flying with another person, dont hesitate for a second to ask the other person to pick up the approach plate while you fly the aircraft.

Some distractions, however, require immediate attention. The loss or impending failure of a critical system needs to be diagnosed and corrective procedures applied in a timely manner. In this case, the distraction of an engine running rough or the loss of a generator does demand immediate attention.

This is particularly tough when flying single-pilot, and even tougher when flying without a basic autopilot to relieve you from the workload of maintaining aircraft control.

Accident trends indicate that the value of managing time, knowledge and attention hasnt been emphasized enough in training, yet these are some of the most valuable assets you have.

Learning to better manage these critical assets will help you make a big step in ensuring your continued safe flight.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “How Cockpits Go Wrong.”
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”

-Pat Veillette is an aviation safety researcher who flies transport aircraft for a living.


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