Accidents, as they say, are written in blood. The result is usually a set of new regs that, in retrospect, should have been written earlier. Pilot deviations, on the other hand, are usually written because of complacency, and the result is usually a new set of procedures.
Many years ago, the pilots at (then) USAir were suffering from a rash of altitude deviations. Pilots would respond to a radio call from ATC with a new assignment, and the non-flying pilot would put the new altitude in the altitude pre-selector, and all would be well…until it wasn’t. Somehow, the airplane would wind up where it wasn’t supposed to be, creating separation issues and scaring the daylights out of the controllers, the pilots, and probably a few stray birds.
After studying the problem, USAir changed the procedure. The nonflying pilot would dial in the altitude, then keep a finger pointing at the pre-selector, and verbalize the altitude again. The flying pilot would point to the altitude and also verbalize, as a means of verifying, that the correct altitude had been programmed. Both pilots would then actively monitor the performance of the airplane to make sure that it performed as expected. Once this new procedure was implemented, altitude deviations virtually vanished, and the procedure became the industry norm. It was a simple change that had a huge impact on safety, especially since the airlines so willingly share such information.
Nowadays, the new process—verbalize, verify, and monitor—has been adapted to virtually everything we do. Course changes, autopilot mode selection changes, approach selection—all are subjected to the VVM philosophy. All-glass cockpits have made this process even more critical. It’s easier than ever to miss something on a screen or to make the wrong selection. The automation on a modern jet is so intertwined and complex that a mistake could be programmed in an hour before it will be executed, and it may not make itself known until a violation has occurred.
As you prepare for your entry into the professional ranks, start adding the VVM philosophy to your standard practices. Teach it to your students. When flying single pilot, make a habit of writing down new clearances and commands. When flying with another pilot (not just a passenger), get into the habit of splitting the workload. If you are by yourself, definitely make a habit of talking out loud, both as backup and as a means of staying alert.
To give an example of how effective the VVM concept can be, it can be used when one pilot is out of the cockpit (using the lav, for instance) and a jumpseater is on board. If ATC issues a new altitude, the pilot can dial it in and ask the jumpseater to verify that the correct altitude has been set. In fact, this procedure is routinely used. I’ve even had flight attendants who are familiar with the procedure not only verify the new altitude, but also catch a bad one. If that isn’t crew resource management, I don’t what is!
Altitude deviations are among the most common, so the VVM policy is used to verify settings on the flight management system for descend- and climb-via procedures, as well as to properly preset the missed approach altitude on nearly every single approach, even in visual meteorological conditions. They are still a big threat, but thanks to the simple wisdom of the good folks at USAir, that threat is not just recognized, but dealt with thousands of times each day.—Chip Wright