Is Your Circle of Safety a Burning Ring of Fire?
- Erika Armstrong
“I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down…And the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns…The ring of fire, the ring of fire…”
~ Johnny Cash
There is an invisible Circle of Safety around each pilot that grows with experience and knowledge, but it still has an edge and a limit. NTSB accident reports are what happen when we operate outside of that circle. The challenge for those working in the aviation industry is that the Circle of Safety has variables so it will be constantly changing, not just in a single day, but throughout a pilot's career.
At each stage of a pilot's career, risks shift and change the size of our Circle of Safety. It gets pushed farther out the more we know so that even if we make multiple minor mistakes, their culmination does not put us outside our safety circle. A professional in aviation will have self-awareness of the risks for that day, both internal and external, and redraw that circle for every flight. When we are tired or under pressure, weather is moving in, there are mechanical or crew scheduling issues, or just the daily variables of flying are creating a high demand on a pilot, that's the moment a professional in aviation will acknowledge those variables and realize that their Circle of Safety is getting too small to operate within…and then do something about it.
Solutions go beyond training. They trace back to the need to understand how a pilot learns, processes information, and reacts, especially during an emergency or any situation outside of their previous experiences. It goes beyond rote memorization abilities and connects with a basic need to have a safety thought pattern and to teach safe reflexes to keep that circle wide.
In the beginning of a pilot's career, that safety circle is small. Private pilots use their knowledge to avoid getting into weather challenges, which too often result in getting outside that circle and losing control of their aircraft. In a perfect world, VFR pilots wouldn't wander into IMC and they'd recognize stall characteristics and avoid the progression, but reality proves that wrong. And yet, we contradict ourselves by setting the bar low. One mile and clear of clouds? Sure, you can go. Go for it, Class G airspace. Have you ever tried to fly VFR with 1 mile and clear of clouds? That Circle of Safety which you thought was suffocating will now be your noose.
Flying is freedom, so we resist the constraints. We want the right to be uncontrolled and left alone with our conscience to guide our decisions. The irony is that pilots who operate unsafely won't care what the rules are, no matter where we set the bar. Who we need to save are those who use the rules as their guide, but sometimes don't realize what that looks like in reality.
Once pilots begin to get paid for their profession, their safety factors shift from avoidance to acceptance. They can operate with a very large circle of safety because they've experienced so many variables, they know how to respond. At this point, pilots must complete the mission given the circumstances. You cannot tell the owner of the airplane, your boss or your charter clients that you just can't get them to their destination. Your focus shifts from not "if" to how and when. You must be in the weather and deal with mechanical issues, ATC, unfamiliar airports, and all the demands of C-Suite clients.
For longtime professional pilots, there is an enormous, priceless Circle of Safety around them and their crew. What draws that circle closer on any given day is complacency and the idea that they've seen it all, so they let little mistakes slide. One after the other, and each time that edge is brushed, it creates friction. Weakness. Heat. At some point, your safety circle turns into a burning ring of fire.
Maybe Vref plus 15 has been working for so long, you forgot how much that matters on a short runway. You've done it before, but now there's a little contamination and your tires are a little worn. It's been so long, do you remember how to recover from a bounced landing? What does anti-skid feel like when it's activated? Those experiences are in their brains, but it's a dusty path to the reaction.
Teaching safe reflexes begins by resetting our safe parameters from the very beginning. Maybe your Ops Specs allows a 500 RVR departure, but how often have you done it? Your circle of safety with 500 RVR matches the size of your private pilot Circle of Safety. Just ask Kobe Bryant's highly trained and experienced pilot about the disconnect between rules and reality. Rules vs reality. Oh, that's right, you can't. The irony is that Kobe's pilot was trying to follow the rules. He and the aircraft were IFR rated, but company Operating Specifications only allowed VFR flights. He was trying to stay VFR and follow the "rules" but too often for a paid pilot, the company rules and requests reflexively are stronger than the FAA's minimums, so why not set the bar a notch higher?
So how do you change a reflex to make it safer? Make the rules the bad guy. If you are a Part 91 flight department, why not set the safety bar a little higher and train to Part 135 parameters. You can still operate Part 91, but why not train your pilots to 135 standards and knowledge? Why are you willing to operate with less margin of error than the corporate charter jet sitting next to you on the ramp? Are you or your passengers worth any less? It's rare to have to operate on the edge, so why set that expectation? Train for the edge but set the rules higher. How many approaches to minimums have you shot in the last year? How many low RVR departures? If you're not doing it routinely, your Circle of Safety is small; so why not set the bar a notch higher and let the company rules set the standard so the pilot's not the bad guy, the rules are?
Complacency is going to happen. It's unavoidable. What we can do is make sure the muscle memory is strong. In aviation, we do that by practicing. A pilot spends hundreds of hours locked in a box over a lifetime, practicing a checklist of emergency procedures in the simulator. These procedures become rote so that we can deal with the real-life variables that come with every emergency. And before a pilot ever gets into an airplane, it's important that all the parameters that define that Circle of Safety are clear. To do that, the industry requires all Part 135 pilots to meet a level of ground training in their Initial and Recurrent training intervals. Many Part 91 flight departments have also widened their Circle of Safety by participating in International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) or Business Aviation Safety Consortium (BASC) and even if they don't participate, many have still raised their safety bar and require their pilots to have strong muscle memory on a wide variety of safety topics. Strong knowledge of the rules allows the pilot brain to reflexively make the right decision to widen the Circle of Safety.
Advanced Aircrew Academy has created hundreds of Circles of Safety. It was created by pilots who wanted to expand every pilot's circle efficiently and effectively. They do that by creating customized eLearning that can be accomplished at the pilot's convenience. No more pulling pilots off the line for days of ground training.
Aircrew Academy's Part 135, IS-BAO, and BASC Programs include customization of our training modules to your company's operations. This enables you to meet FAA, IS-BAO, and BASC training requirements or your own company standards. We use YOUR General Operations Manual or Flight Operations Manual to make the online training modules part of your training program, not off-the-shelf training. Have some unique training requirements? We can take care of that! We've worked with over 500 flight departments, so we've seen it all.
So, the next time you start seeing the edge of your safety circle coming closer to you, start humming, "Burning Ring of Fire." You can't get the song out of your head, which is the way it should be…
If you'd like to see a free demo module, free in-depth analysis of your training program, or if you have any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org, check out our website, or call 1‑843‑557‑1266. Tell them the ghost of Johnny Cash sent you.