AIN Blog: How To Fix Pilot Training

 - July 2, 2013, 7:18 PM
Hang gliding
Perhaps flight training should begin at a really basic level. Photo by Matt Thurber

Rod Machado, a prolific aviation author and educator, is a voice of reason when it comes to how we can improve aviation safety, and his recent comments in response to an FAA notice on new training standards put a fresh spin on an old problem.

The notice highlights ideas to change the knowledge testing and practical test standards that govern private pilot and instrument rating testing in the U.S. The proposal seeks to create new Airmen Certification Standards (ACS), based on recommendations from the Airman Testing Standards and Training Working Group (ATSTWG). What the working group and the FAA are attempting to do is improve testing and training materials to try to lower the number of fatal general aviation accidents “by incorporating task-specific risk management considerations into each area of operation.”

Machado correctly points out, in his comments on the proposal, that the FAA has provided no quantifiable and measurable metrics for the reduction in accidents, but merely seeks to “safely manage the risks of flight.” With regard to risk management, he doesn’t see an urgent need to make risk assessment a subject of special treatment during the practical test. “Where did we come up with the idea that risk assessment isn’t knowledge and therefore needs to be isolated as its own category in the proposed ACS? This is a very strange idea. Risk assessment is knowledge. The risk assessment associated with a physical skill can be evaluated during the performance of that skill. That’s the purpose of a practical test. Risk assessment associated with aviation concepts (other than physical skills) can be assessed during the knowledge exam.”

In Machado’s opinion, this effort is just another example of what he calls “do-something activities,” an attempt by a frustrated FAA and aviation industry to do something to reduce the accident rate. While the idea is well intentioned, he explains, the likelihood of its having a positive effect is low, and there could be negative effects. “The fact is that isolating risk assessment as its own special distinct category that will be applied to each and every required task in the proposed ACS seems to be a do-something activity of sorts. This activity appears to bloat and obfuscate the practical testing process. If it produces any discernible effect on aviation safety, it will likely be to increase the difficulty and expense for someone to obtain a private pilot certificate, thus resulting in producing fewer pilots.”

The fact that the volume of material associated with the proposed changes is already almost double the number of pages of the private pilot practical test standards is already worrisome. There is no way that training will become more efficient or effective just because the requirements are ever more stringent and complex.

Machado isn’t one to complain without offering a solution, and he suggests that we learn from history. “If you really want to reduce accidents, then follow the recommendations in the 2005/2007 Human Factor Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) study. The HFACS study says: ‘The study demonstrated that the greatest gains in reducing aviation accidents could be achieved by reducing skill-based errors.’ The study also indicates that ‘skill-based errors were associated with the largest portion of GA accidents (79.2 percent of the 14,436 GA accidents)….’”

“The HFACS study suggests that we are no longer teaching pilots how to physically fly airplanes. Instead, we’re teaching them how to mimic the behavior of airline pilots in hopes of achieving the low accident rate of commercial aviation. The problem is that nothing about flying big airplanes pertains to flying small ones, while everything about flying small airplanes pertains to flying big ones. Were we to emphasize stick-and-rudder skills during the training and the practical testing process, we would most likely see immediate gains in aviation safety. It’s clear to me that the proposed ACS is a step away from testing an applicant’s stick-and-rudder skills, not a move toward it.”

Machado’s comments are exactly right, and I hope the ATSTWG people take them to heart. But there is a reason, beyond the simple sensibility of what he wrote, why his comments are true. And that is because we have real evidence, beyond the HFACS study.

This evidence comes from the FAA’s application of Special FARs in situations where action was needed to lower accident rates in specific aircraft. With the two training SFARs that are appended to Part 61—SFAR 73 for the Robinson R22 and SFAR 108 for the Mitsubishi MU-2 twin turboprop—accidents dropped dramatically after the regulations went into effect. In the case of the MU-2, there has been just one fatal accident since SFAR 108 went into effect in February 2009. These SFARs mandate that pilots be taught specific skills, and they don’t get into the squishy subject of risk assessment.

Maybe all we need to do is stop wasting time on “do-something” ideas such as rewriting the knowledge and practical test standards and simply refocus on the fundamentals of flying. It is such fundamental skills that were lacking in pilots involved in accidents such as the Colgan Air low-altitude stall and the Air France stall into the ocean. No amount of risk assessment training would have prevented what those pilots did, but a little more time on slow flight at minimum controllable airspeed, reduction of angle of attack to exit a stall and other basic skills might have been a great deal more effective.

(Incidentally, plenty of commenters to the ATSTWG agree with Machado and believe that changes to the practical test standards will have no beneficial effect on the GA accident rate and will make training take longer and cost more. You can add your comment until July 8.)


The best way to avoid accidents is to prevent the aircraft from approaching or entering or even coming close to an undesired state. Basic flying skills should still be in focus but the study of human factors as well as evaluation of when the aircraft is at higher risk of reaching a dangerous state should be emphasized. By understanding human factors as well as looking at what scenarios increase the risk for an undesired aircraft state, the need recover can be prevented all together. In the case of aircraft malfunctions, the basics are still of utmost importance, but it will aid in knowing the critical phases that increase risk so that awareness can be heightened and monitoring levels increased and focused.

Machado is correct, the Cologan and the Air France type-airspeed control- accident cannot be avoided by more flight time experience. One of my early flight students stated a trueism, "Perfect practice makes perfect". - And so, "Imperfect practice results in imperfect flight". So, flawed understanding of flight results in flawed flight control.
Without a doubt, the first four hours of flight instruction are the MOST important hours in a pilot's understanding aircraft control. The law of Primacy is very strong. Choices for airspeed control must be avoided.
Machado is correct.

And once again another low airspeed/
possible stall w. Asiana??

Pilots need to learn basic piloting skills in aircraft that are devoid of all of the enhancements on even the most elementary new aircraft. Perhaps even a simulator that will allow you to spin if you are slow and a little cross-controlled or a training aircraft that flies like a very basic old Cessna 150 with no aero-dynamic enhancements or a Piper Tomahawk, something that will bite you if you mistreat it. The big problem is that the insurance companies would make the rates so high that no one could afford to fly them. All of these "easy to fly" trainers scare the hell out of me, people get licenses now with the firm conviction that "properly equipped" i.e. stall-proof and spin-proof aircraft are the best trainers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Cologan, Air France and Asiana are not to blame, their limited and approved training gets the pink slip.
Civil pilot training today is the most stupid pipeline to airline ever and getting worse! All just an a to b airline sim in flight. FAA has forgotten their basic premise of safety by flight knowledge. Lawyers and insurance companies rule everything else from the back seat.
So, whom are we working for? Those need to be put in the seat and turn the aircraft upside down first and a spin next. All the button pushing and control limits will not help them to recover.
Where are the HANDS? We are not allowed to use them.


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