Realistic Expectations?

December 14, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Based on the quality and quantity of comments from last week’s blog – in political parlance it looks like “the base was energized.”  How opinions varied! As is typical of pilots, with any dozen you’ll get at least 24 strong observations.  At the time I wrote this on Tuesday morning,  the statistics shook out as follow:

  • 71% thought ongoing education was the best solution and recognized that some losses were unavoidable.
  • 14% thought judgment and decision-making could be effectively taught.
  • 10% believed that staging an intervention would help.
  • 6% thought technology could be beneficial
  • 0% voted in the poll for more regs but a few of you made comments that additional enforcement might get a lot of attention.

My brilliant observation is that a mix of all of the above would likely yield the best results – probably in about the proportions shown above but your mileage could vary. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a plate glass window (I may have garbled that but you get the idea.) Expand the tool box and the results are better – a crow bar works about as well as a hammer on windows!

Does anyone know who has done any research on teaching judgment to humans, especially over the age of 20? The hard part is the follow up over the ensuing decades to see if it really resulted in a long-term behavioral change. According to one of my psychiatrist friends (Personal relationship – not professional!) our personalities and risk tolerances are largely set by age 14. By the time one enters the flight training system at age 16 or 45, according to my friend, our ability to influence is limited. Those that are careful and methodical, are and those that aren’t, are not. Is this absolute and can people older than 14 still learn? Of course, which is why 71% voted the way you did.

As we work on improving flight instruction, the whole business of teaching risk management is worthwhile. Explain and study the high risk areas. Communicate clearly and know that a few will ignore or forget the hard lessons that we discussed last week. Perhaps the biggest challenge is being realistic in our expectations and knowing how much time and treasure to put into attempting to reach the unreachable.

It’s a little surprising that technology didn’t score higher because there has been a marked decrease in fuel mismanagement accidents in new technology aircraft with flow transducers and ” idiot lights” that are independent of programming. When the light comes on ” Ya got about 5 gallons left in this tank – Jack! ” One of the biggest reductions in accidents in history was the invention of the nose wheel – ground loops largely disappeared. For the airlines, it was the advent of the jet engine.

Old Age

We discussed the issue of aging pilots a couple of weeks ago in conjunction with the loss of the OSU women’s basketball head and assistant coaches in an accident involving a 82 year old pilot – probable cause has not been established. The Air Safety Institute now has a new online course for aging pilots so please invite all of your slightly “mature” aeronautical acquaintances to give it a peruse and let us know what you think.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Michael Damiano

    Bruce, one significant question you might want to put to your psychiatrist friend is how experience and life changing events for example having children or death of a close friend or relative changes our view point. Until I got married and had children I was convinced I was immortal and invincible. With experience and those life changes I realized others were depending on me and I became more methodical and conservative. So by the time in my 50’s when I began my training I was more risk adverse than the younger students.
    I was pre-solo and lost a lot of confidence when a student crashed my favorite training airplane N65875. Check the FAA/NTSB report for details. When the facts came out I finally realized that his poor judgement was not mine and my confidence was restored.
    The old adage is true judgement comes from experience. The question may be how with out a life changing event or a bad experience do you communicate good judgement and decision making skills?
    See what your psychiatrist friend thinks.
    By the way one of the most satisfying things was getting the private ticket, thanks to my very understanding and supportive wife!

  • Thomas Boyle


    That’s an interesting point. I think, however, that age has at least as much to do with it as life-changing events. I am unmarried, and childless, but I see myself becoming much more risk averse than I was when I was younger – indeed, I look back on things I did in flying, thinking I was being very conservative at the time (and I probably was), and wondering if I would do them again.

    I used to teach sailing when I was a teenager. I noticed that my teenage students were much more (over)confident of their abilities, than my middle-aged students. Indeed, my middle-aged students were often overcautious, hiring me to go sailing with them when there was no real need – they were quite competent already.

    Maybe we really should focus on recruiting more “grey eagles”! 😉

  • Ken Kaylor

    Evaluating student pilots and in general all pilots involves three element just like teaching surgical residents–
    Didactic knowlege -do you know the written material
    Psychomotor skill – can you fly the plane
    Values- respect for people, rules, risk v. benefit, ethics etc.

    The interesting part of this values are usually set mid teen years – so while we can effect the first two it is hard to change the third. All you can usually do is assess them and then make the hard decision-are those the values that you want of a person coming out of your program. In flying words – is the a person who will make a decision that puts him or other at risk.

    Flying training does little to assess this but I think that the ASF safety courses could be adapted to be a “values assessment tool” based on the choices a student pilot makes in going through a lesson. Perhaps this should be come a part of the sign off for a check ride?

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Great discussion – all. I’d like to hear from more of you as it helps us in untying the Gordian Knot of decision-making and how it should be taught.

    As has often beein pointed out, If this were easy, it wouold have been done by now.

  • Daryl Wade

    Human risk assessment evolves all the way through our mid-twenties. High risk behavior is much more common before this age. Study after study has confirmed this. That said, I do believe that some of the high risk personality traits are set for life in many pilots. As I have gained experience in flight instruction, I have come to realize that some pilots are going to “misbehave” no matter what I teach them. I frankly tend to raise the standards with them until they go somewhere else.
    What are the most common activities leading to fatal accidents? Unnecessary maneuvering flight (showing off), running out of fuel and VFR into IFR conditions are some of the biggest culprits. Extra instruction is not going to solve these problems. I can show a student the dangers of maneuvering flight. I can teach a student how to properly manage fuel and leave a safe reserve. I can teach him how to understand weather reports and give clear guidelines on go/no go decisions. Once the student is on his own, the judgement is all his own.
    What I can do is be prejudicial and to some extent I am. If I think I see a pilot who is not going to use good judgement I take a long hard look at them. If they don’t show me the better side, I don’t teach them.
    There has been this grand idea floated around in the last couple of years that general aviations poor safety record (as compared to commercial aviation) is due to bad instruction. I don’t think this idea has any basis in fact. I think rather that it is driven by a desire to eliminate freelance competition to the 141 schools and funnel new business towards a new technology by creating new requirements. One of the biggest proponents of this grand idea are owners of Redbird Simulators and part of their solution is, guess what, more required simulator time. I frankly don’t see how simulator time for private VFR pilots will in anyway change the accident profiles of the big three fatal accident causes I outlined above. In fact, if it substitutes for actual flight time I think it will increase the accident rate.
    Do you want to know how to decrease the accident rate? Do what the pros do. Require two experienced pilots for every flight. Have complete oversight on all flights. Have specialists do weight and fuel calculation and weather. Fly only on instrument flight plans and ATC control at all times. Don’t like the sound of that? Well I don’t either. But if you are going to have the freedom in GA that we do now, you are also going to have pilots that use that freedom in an unsafe manner.
    Now here is a grand idea, as part of our license check rides, we have a way to really assess a prospective pilots judgement.

  • Jack Tyler

    Bruce, JUST before reading this blog I took the ‘Aging Gracefully’ course (I’m 67). Some of the points above are wonderfully captured by the candid comments of the 5 pilots who openly discussed their adjustments to flying – and interestingly, one theme is that technology can be a barrier (if it is unfamiliar and complex, which is usually true) rather than an aid to safety. Thanks to your team for offering that honest discussion; it’s one of the best ASI courses I’ve taken to date – not because it was deep, technical material but because of its candor about something we all eventually face as aging pilots.


  • Bruce Landsberg

    Daryl…. Very thoughtful post . Thank you for taking the time to lay out your views.

    Jack. …On behalf of the ASI team that put the Aging program together – Thank you! The technical courses are relatively easy to do – The ones that deal with psychology and judgment are clearly messier and more complex. Our hope is that by pilots come to realize that almost inevitably there comes a time to slow down or stop. Then you can start to pass on those hours and years of wisdom to some of the younger ones – some will get it, as Daryl notes and some won’t.