Critical thinking

August 26, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

Last month we discussed the FAA Practical Test Standards and whether they were stringent enough and current for today’s environment. My view was that if all pilots flew to Private Pilot PTS the number of accidents would plummet. Most of the commenters seemed to agree. Contrarian opinions are still accepted.

A few of you mentioned judgment or “critical” thinking. In my view, most judgments involving aircraft become “critical” if one waits long enough but to oversimplify flight training into the three parts:

1. Physical skill – handling the aircraft

2. System/ Aircraft knowledge – Performance numbers, operating the avionics, knowing the regs etc.

3. Judgment, decision-making, critical thinking

Pilots can often be very good with the first two and make a fatally bad decision despite years of success, or luck, which results in VFR into IMC, descent below IFR minimums, or buzzing, etc.

The hard part is how to infuse the right mindset into those prone to misuse the hardware. The airline and military flight systems have two ways of managing this: They generally weed out the inept and the trouble makers although the Continental Q-400 accident in Buffalo where the Captain’s training record was not exactly stellar shows an occasional flaw. There’s also a fairly robust system of oversight that makes it tough to stray too far without some one else knowing about it and blowing the whistle, either internally or externally. This is one of the fundamental differences between GA and the more structured environment.

GA could give up much freedom, improve the safety record and likely decrease in size fairly quickly. Or, continue to accept gradual improvement and tolerate individual lapses as a cost of doing business. This approach is used in other personal transport activities: cars, motorcycles, boats, etc. despite the fact that these modes kill many more innocent bystanders and participants then GA. That’s a good philosophical question!

Do the Right ThingTeaching critical thinking such that it results in a consistent change in behavior without a lot of external oversight and expense, is very difficult. In spite of this, ASF has produced a number of programs on decision-making. We offer a free DVD or online course to every new private pilot and instrument pilot to help them learn the process. We have anecdotal evidence it helps but nothing in this business is 100%.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Chris Burns


    I love the ASF courses and all of the various learning tools provided by ASF and AOPA. However, I do not believe that general aviation can save itself or reach its potential by this ‘gradual’ approach alone.

    There are aspects about the airline and military environments that are misstated in your post. On the first two aspects of the safety picture, airmanship and technical/procedural knowledge, I am fully in agreement. The airline or military pilot ,through initial screening, practice and training, reaches a higher average standard than is possible among a diverse population of private pilots. And, to insist on this standard would limit GA. But on the point of ‘critical thinking’, this premise is false. I know of no tests that can detect what Rod Machado so aptly called the “Cockpit Buddha”. And, it is my observation that the professional cockpit is populated by individuals who have about the same proportion of naturally gifted decision makers as the community at large.

    Further, it is not the threat of supervision that keeps them in line. One can complete an entire career without any supervisory contact. Detachment is one factor that helps the professional pilot make reliable decisions; he does not have the same emotional stake as if he were flying for his own purposes. To wit the lawyer’s quip: “Only a fool would represent himself.” Another is sheer repetition that reduces even some complex decisions to ‘routine’. But perhaps the greatest support for deciding well is cultural; he learns with the support of others who have established value prescriptions that embody the best practices for getting the job done safely and efficiently. And, it is on the power of cultural inducements that GA is virtually void. The private pilot operates as an isolated entity.

    Having culture support of this type, is freeing rather than limiting. It encourages safety, efficiency and utility.

    From my perspective, there has never been a better time to travel by small aircraft as the technology is truely fabulous. Unfortunately, this capability is little recognized because the human system has seen little recognition of its natural limits.


    Chris Burns

  • Avi Weiss

    Hey Bruce;

    While it is tempting to compare GA to other forms of flying, given the difference in level, intensity, and frequency of training, the wide spectrum of possible missions, and the even wider spectrum of pilot skills and mindset, such comparisons are hard to make on an “equal footing” basis.

    As Chuck Yeager is fond of saying: “Rules are for those who can’t make any for themselves”, and it applies firmly when trying to legislate safety. No amount of rules applied to the GA world will significantly reduce the accident rate, unless that rule bans ALL flying, in perpetuity.

    So what CAN be done to promote a safety-centric mindset in the widest amount of the GA pilot population, in a cost-effective while still retaining GA’s unfettered operating style? One possible tactic would be to use honey instead of vinegar.

    Most pilots are urged to practice “safe flying” to reduce their chance of having an accident and/or saving their lives. While a strong motivator to be sure, it is still “negative motivation”: “Do / Don’t do X Y Z so something bad wont happen”. Naturally, this produces the mindset of “If I do X, Y, or Z right now, what are the chances of something bad happening VS the good thing that can happen?”…a relatively easy one to answer since almost always there is some “motivator” encouraging the “less than safe” behavior to begin with.

    So the trick is to “positively motivate” the good decisions, which can serve to change the dynamics of the analysis. “If I choose the safe option, I get this reward”. That puts the “cause and effect” of being safety conscience into much closer proximity with each other, and actively encourages “good behavior”.

    For example, while many pilots have taken advantage of the wonderful ASF online safety courses, there are many more who haven’t. Rather than motivate participation by the classic mentality of “its good for you”, why not use directly attainable “additional benefits” to drive participation: “complete an on-line safety course once a month for 12 months, and get a 30% discount on liability insurance”. Or perhaps my favorite dream of having the FAA waive enforcement action on a accidental violation if a certain number of safety courses are completed in a specific amount of time.

    While saving ones life SHOULD be enough of a motivator to encourage pilots to participate in safety seminars and fly safely, nothing motivates action like getting directly rewarded with “material goods” for taking that action.


  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks for a very thoughtful reply. We agree on several aspects but I diverge on a couple of points. In every corporate environment that I’ve flown in there has always been oversight. In the air carrier world it is a way of life. You are monitored constantly – 6 month checks, FAA, check airmen, the ever-present FDR & CVR and your companion in the other seat.

    The last is perhaps the most important – with a few well publicized exceptions. In a crew environment with two competent and reasonably mature people up front the single point failure is eliminated. It was the same concept we had in the military with a “Two Officer Policy” in nuclear weapons. Both of us had to screw up for something bad to happen. A second set of eyes and a brain consistently cuts the failure rate. Add in dispatch and the safety layer is usually enhanced.

    In the GA single pilot environment we have to keep all the balls in the air ourselves.

    Between your comments and Avi’s there’s probably a Safety Pilot column in the future. There are no easy answers or trade-offs or we’d have gotten to them long before now.

    Very good discourse – thank you for writing.

  • Jim McCord


    Thanks for your column and especially for this one. I think that it is telling that there are so few comments when the subject is Critical Thinking skills for pilots. It is not something that many pilots want to think about (no pun intended). The ASF does a great job with seminars, on-line courses, and materials and you should be commended for that. I am also impressed with the continuing improvement in quantity and quality of the material on the website. I am a FAASTeam rep and try to host several safety seminars a year, in addition to leading the FAASTeam CFI workshops.

    The conclusion that I’ve come to is that this is not enough, and the concern that I have is that when (if?) we are all successful in expanding the pilot population (and the annual flight hours) through some of the exciting LSA aircraft on the horizon, we will have a problem, not with the accident rate, but with the total number of accidents that occur unless we drastically LOWER the accident rate.

    There are no easy answers to this and I am strongly opposed to more regulation in this area as I don’t think it will solve the problem. Certainly ASF and FAASafety. gov need to continue and expand their work. For my part I’m working on a local Safety workshop that will combine risk factor data (do we really know how risky some of the things we do are?) with decision making exercises, and include creation of a personal development plan for pilots to improve all three skill areas you mention in your post. The intent is to get small groups of pilots to interact and learn from (1) the data, (2) the proven processes, and (3) each other.

    This, of course, is just one additional step in the process of improving the GA accident rate. I’d be curious if you are aware of any others that have tried this approach and what you think of it.

    We also need to reach more pilots – those that don’t take the classes or attend the seminars. Maybe through pilot to pilot “peer pressure” we can get people working towards a 10x improvement in the GA accident rate.

    BTW I look forward to attending ASF’s latest seminar in a couple of weeks in Santa Rosa, CA.

  • Jerry Faust

    I always read your blog and I like the way you think. I have a suggestion pertaining to writing style. Don’t say “etc”. If there are more pertinent items to be listed (either individual words or phrases) then list them. Don’t use etc either out of laziness or to cover yourself in case you forgot something.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Jim & Jerry….

    Many thanks for comments- both are appreciated.

    Jim — I think many people get uneasy on the topic which is not so easy to discuss. Watch ASF website later this year – we’re going to launch something new- will it work ? Who knows?

    Jerry – you’re right — “etc” is hereby stricken from the vocabulary .