NTSB Bedtime Stories for Pilots
- Erika Armstrong
Pilots like telling stories. "There I was, in the clouds, one engine out, and the other anti-ice valve stuck in the closed position during a blizzard…" But, better yet, pilots enjoy listening to stories because as visual learners, they will listen to a story and without even realizing they're doing it, picture the scenario again with themselves in it and play the scene over with their own thought and actions. They visualize scenarios and ask their own brain; what would I have done differently?
In a roundabout way, the FAA has incorporated storytelling into the list of tasks in the new Airman Certification Standards Concept for new ATP and Type Ride applicants. "…the evaluator will assess the applicant’s understanding by providing a scenario that requires the applicant to appropriately apply and/or correlate knowledge, experience, and information to the circumstances of the given scenario." Give me a story.
Scenario Based Training
This type of Scenario Based Training is as old as the cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave. The simple idea of sharing knowledge through a story resonates deeper than having someone stand in front of the classroom regurgitating facts and figures. I've had Chief Pilots read the entire Operation Specifications out loud, verbatim. I once had a flight instructor read the FAR AIM, out loud, verbatim, for a week. That was the training. After 20 minutes, my brain drifts off into a parallel universe and nothing will stick to my brain matter, because it doesn’t matter. The brain wants a scenario in which to apply these mundane facts.
Just a few weeks ago, at least two aircraft were accidentally fueled with DEF. Both aircraft experienced engine flameouts, one experienced dual engine failure at 8,000 feet and the pilots managed to glide it to the airport. Ironically, the week before, on the final exam I gave to my Aircraft Systems and Propulsion students, at the end of the multiple-choice test, I asked them one essay question: Tell me what would happen if both (all) engines flame out at cruise altitude. Explain how that would affect the various systems and what would you do? I just wanted a general overview and thought process. Only one student remembered to put on the oxygen mask first. After the test, I received a few whiney emails saying that question was too hard and what are the odds of that ever happening? One student even said, "It just doesn't happen these days." The impossible happens in aviation all the time and it always will. (Cough, MCAS, cough, cough).
Speculation is an Obligation
Anytime there is an aircraft incident or accident, I can't help but speculate. I'm often chastised for even suggesting what happened. "How dare you armchair quarterback the pilots without having all the facts!" is the exact phrase I saw. I say, "How dare you not?" It's imperative to run all the scenario variables in your head with what little information you have because that’s how it happens in real life.
In every aviation accident, the pilots involved didn't have all the facts, they just had filtered information. Hindsight is where facts are gathered so you should always speculate and see how close you can come to the truth with what little information you have. In that moment of crisis, all you have is information, not necessarily the facts. Scenario-based thinking is a way to safely practice terrifying scenarios. I don't question the pilot's actions, I make myself see what they saw and justify their actions. In every case, I can imagine why they did what they did, even if it was wrong. In that moment it felt correct for certain reasons, so I want to learn and remember so my own muscle memory reflex has already worked through the wrong actions. I don't want to fly with pilots who don't speculate. Every pilot should imagine the worst. Think it through. With dual engine flameout at FL350, which engine would you try to restart first? Why? What if you were at FL510? What if you are over a thunderstorm? What altitude does your airplane allow for an inflight restart? Would/could you start your APU? How would your cabin hold pressure – would you have a rapid cabin pressure loss or slow? Every make and model is different. Speculate. You can’t train in the simulator for this, you must read the stories of pilots who've had this happen to truly understand what happens in the flight environment.
Speculating is a pilot obligation. It's not something to base a regulation change or draw conclusions to base decisions on. It's to practice a thought pattern. To understand how one system failure affects the others. To never criticize a flight crew's action but rather, to understand why they did what they did, even if it was wrong. It's your obligation to see why they did what they did. I can "see" why the Max crews thought they didn't have pitch control. The reality is that they did (after one flip of two switches), but no one had speculated on all the possibilities of what might happen if the sensor for MCAS malfunctioned. Have you ever tried to turn the trim wheel of your airplane in manual mode (if you have one)? If you're over 400 kts with aerodynamic force pressing on control surfaces, it feels like manual trim isn’t working either. No one had visualized this particular speculation or played out the possibilities. Instead, assumptions were made, but we know what happens to those.
The most important reason why pilots must speculate is because the ultimate purpose of flying is people. An NTSB report carries the heavy burden of talking about how lives are lost and no matter the cause of the accident, someone had to pay with their life, even if they live. They will never be the same. They don't have the chance to redo that moment so as an aviation society, we must work together to speculate the accidents away. Aircraft manufacturers should always draw upon the pilot brain pool to speculate on possible scenarios, especially on new equipment and automation. For each change or addition of a new system, what would happen if…? I guarantee that pilots will give you all the possible scenarios if you let them speculate.
Advanced Aircrew Academy is weaving Scenario Based Training into its eLearning training modules. The scenario overview helps reinforce what was presented in the lesson contents by applying it to a real-life situation. Flight departments can also use the sample scenarios at their next pilot safety meeting to get a new thought process going. It's a great way to get pilots speculating on current safety topics. Maybe by having them think about it now will prevent them from reading about it in a future NTSB report.
If you want to share your opinion with Erika, she can be reached at Erika@aircrewacademy.com.