Will Training Reform Help Reduce Fatals?

Some think it will, but the proof will be in how deeply coming reforms penetrate the training community and impact how pilots actually fly.


The mantra “train the way you fly and fly the way you train” has been popular recently, yet we continue training pilots merely to pass the knowledge and practical tests, rather than on how they will operate in the real world. These tests emphasize rote knowledge and performance of specific maneuvers, rather than instructive scenarios emphasizing higher order pilot skills. This results in a pilots all-too-frequent failure to properly manage the risks inherent in typical general aviation


flight operations.

In an effort to bring focus to these issues and chart a course for beginning the reform process, the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) conducted a Pilot Training Reform Symposium in Atlanta, Ga., on May 4-5, 2011 (see the sidebar on page 10). The symposium was keynoted by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who emphasized the connection between quality pilot training and safety. I chaired the SAFE Committee responsible for planning and conducting the symposium.

To ensure pilot training reform will be effective, we need to understand the systems components and their linkage to safety issues. These components include doctrine, standards, curricula and flight instructors. We also need to find a way to reach the existing pilot population, which predominantly was trained under the older paradigm. This likely will involve changing the way we think about recurrent training.


Doctrine consists of the all-important “what” we teach and “why” we teach it. Doctrine is primarily housed in FAA handbooks such as the Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3A) and the Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25A). To the FAAs credit and with the industrys help, the agency revised and improved these handbooks over the last decade while adding new handbooks addressing new training and safety issues. These new resources include the Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2) and the Advanced Avionics Handbook (FAA-H-8083-6). They also completely revised the Aviation Instructors Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A).

Despite all these changes, the FAAs training materials remain poorly integrated. For example, in the Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, there is some excellent material on risk management even though it inadequately covers the subject of mitigation. However, Chapter 15 of the same publication, covering flight planning, omits mention of risk management in the flight planning process, even though risk identification, assessment and mitigation is crucial to safely planning every flight. This is especially troubling since research findings offered in the SAFE Symposiums Doctrine panel and associated breakout group-which I chaired-support the effectiveness of training programs using scenarios, as well as integrated curricula emphasizing higher-order pilot skills.

The FAAs doctrine on currency and recurrent training issues-e.g., the flight review and instrument proficiency check-also has been revised in the last few years. But this material is buried in the FAAs Web site and is poorly integrated into instructor training and renewal procedures. Yet, higher-order pilot skills such as risk management remain incompletely covered. This gap in doctrine also is troubling because the flight review and related FAA/industry educational programs may be the only way we can reach the existing pilot population with current doctrine.

To some extent, industry-developed doctrine can supplement the official FAA material but cannot replace it. For example, an aircraft manufacturer can develop superb transition training emphasizing higher order pilot skills and create effective operational guidance, yet would still face an uphill battle indoctrinating pilots whose basic training did not cover these crucial skills. Until these gaps in ab initio and recurrent training are plugged and important concepts like risk management and mitigation are well-understood throughout the pilot community, were not doing all we can to enhance safety.


The FAA knowledge test question banks and practical test standards (PTS) effectively set the bar for what we teach pilots. The old debate starts with the premise we can always teach pilots what they need to know as well as how to pass the tests. This argument is unrealistic given the competitive pressures in todays pilot training environment. The only answer is to change the knowledge tests and PTS to reflect how pilots actually should operate in the real world to achieve acceptable safety levels.

We could start by replacing the irrelevant rote knowledge test questions, such as the number of satellites in the GPS constellation. We could then modify the PTS to accomplish true scenario testing, rather than merely demonstrating proficiency in training maneuvers. For example, on an instrument-rating practical test, it might be more realistic to see an applicant conduct a safe circling approach to minimums rather than a steep turn under the hood. Better yet, it might be more effective to test an applicants risk management approach to night circling approaches.


This element is exciting because it provides the greatest means of introducing innovation into the training system. It covers the “when, where and how” of the training infrastructure. This includes the syllabus, the setting (classroom vs. distance learning), the training vehicle (airplane vs. simulator), training material organization, instructional technique (student centered vs. instructor “spoon fed”), the training emphasis (maneuver-based vs. scenario based) and a lot more factors controlling the whole pilot training delivery process.

Another important point is curricula are almost entirely an industry responsibility, with very little FAA involvement. Hence, there is very little from a regulatory point that is holding industry back. For example, many in industry carp about the fact FAA doesnt allow enough regulatory credit for the use of low-level simulation devices, especially for the private pilot and instrument ratings.

In my view, this argument is irrelevant. It would be a huge advance, for example, if the training community would make effective use of all of the factors I described above to produce a safe pilot within the current FAA regulatory minimum of 40 hours in an actual airplane (35 hours under Part 141) rather than the current industry average of 60-70 hours. Effective use of simulation and other training tools, whether for reduced credit or not, is the key to success in training pilots to operate safely.

Instructors and Educators

The flight instructor is perhaps the weakest link in the entire training system. The current crop of 250-to-300-hour wonders coming out of the same pilot training system described above lacks the depth of knowledge, understanding and application of previous generations of instructors. All too often, their real goal is to land a lucrative $16,000-a-year job in the right seat of a regional airliner. Instructor training and testing is plagued by poor FAA stewardship of the process, especially the agencys emphasis on rote performance over real knowledge. The renewal process recently came under the FAA spotlight but the industry convinced the FAA to back off. Neither side bothered to ask hard questions, such as whether the renewal process improved instructors ability to teach higher order pilot skills rather than perform lazy eights or chandelles.

The SAFE Symposium Educator panel had the attendees undivided attention, even as the last panel of the day, since it was made up entirely of recent FAA National Flight Instructors of the Year who all held the coveted Master Instructor designation. They offered some tough medicine to fix the instructor problem and this was amplified in the associated breakout session the next day.

What About Existing Pilots?

We can improve initial pilot training all we want, perhaps in a way that will drastically improve the safety record for the 50,000 or so new student pilots each year and for the 15,000 or so new private pilots. We might even be able to increase these appalling low numbers.

Yet, what we really need to do is improve the safety record for the existing 500,000 pilots in a way really reducing the fatal accident rate. For most pilots operating non-commercially, this means we need to take a serious look at the flight review described in FAR 61.56. We might also want to improve the process by which flight instructors are renewed. The sidebar on page 9 explores some ideas of mine on this topic, as well as the instrument proficiency check and flight instructor renewal.

While many demand a regulation change to accomplish these changes, I favor another approach. There are two elements of this strategy. One of these addresses the safety culture of general aviation. I believe the general aviation pilot population-like most large groups-can be described as a typical bell curve. On the right are those already practicing effective risk management by, for example, attending type-club training for their aircraft model or some other recurrent training event (most of you probably read this magazine). On the left side are the pilots we probably will never reach with our message because of their attitudes on safety and risk management.

What about the rest? In my view, this is the vast majority of pilots (maybe 80 percent) who-in my humble opinion and with all due respect-dont know what they dont know. They faithfully conform to what they were taught and diligently practice the maneuvers in the PTS before they sign up for their flight review. They sit with their chosen instructor and go through the required one hour of ground instruction, covering Part 91 operating rules, and then go fly for an hour, performing maneuvers from the PTS.

From the point of view of real-world safety, none of this has much impact. During initial training, were taught an airplane may require 2000 feet of runway to land and has a maximum crosswind component of 18 knots. Does this mean were saying its okay to use a 2001-foot runway with a 17-knot crosswind? Maybe were better off teaching the risk management issues in this scenario so the pilot can mitigate the risk he or she is about to take.

Whats Next?

Pilot training reform may be interesting, but youre probably wondering what this means to you in the short-term. If youre about to start initial pilot training or are already a student pilot, congratulations; you still have time to shape your training process by working with your pilot school to tailor your training program to your needs.

You should request an emphasis on student-centered training approaches, scenario training, and a program that balances traditional maneuvers-based and scenario-based training approaches. You should definitely ask how risk management training is integrated into their curriculum. If you get a blank stare in return, you might want to consider a different school or instructor.

If youre already a private pilot or higher, you should take risk management training. There are several online options available for this, available from leading courseware providers. When your flight review is due, you should seek an instructor who will work with you to create a scenario-based flight review that addresses risk management procedures, especially the mitigation of identified risks.

Bob Wright is President of Wright Aviation Solutions LLC and a former FAA executive. He has 9200 hours of flight time and holds an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate with four type ratings, and is also a Flight Instructor. The opinions he expresses in this article do not necessarily reflect those of any of his current clients or former employers.


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