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Improving Flight Instruction (in New Zealand)

The New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission  is looking into flight training in New Zealand as a result of a dramatic rise in incidents and accidents in that sector over the past decade.

Having started instructing myself just 4 years ago, and having experience at 4 different schools, I have a fairly fresh perspective on it. Some experiences were good, some not so good. I have not personally seen an accident occur, though I have seen the aftermath of a few. I have experienced a number of minor incidents, mainly ‘near misses’ but a few other minor things as well.Queuing for take-off

The following is based on my knowledge and experience here in New Zealand, but is probably relevant to many other places in the world, as well. This is just my perspective, though, and others may differ. Feel free to comment and discuss this.

The minimum requirements to be a ‘C-Category’ instructor is 200hrs flight experience, and 25hrs dual instructing experience. That’s not very much. A basic commercial pilot’s lisence requires 150 – 200hrs. A pilots still has a LOT to learn at that level of experience. That’s not to say that a new C-Cat isn’t capable of effectively teaching at that level; the basic lessons at least will have been well learned and will probably be well taught. I remember my early days of instructing, teaching lessons like medium turns; I was so current and had hammered lessons like it so hard in my instructor training that I could demonstrate them with almost zero divergence from the perfect turn. But the first lesson I was given to teach wasn’t a basic, early lesson. It was compass turns.

In instructor training, we had focused primarily on the basic lessons. The thinking being that at the school I trained at, new instructors were given the early, easy lessons to teach, and would gradually be advanced into the more advanced ones, with plenty of preparation possible ahead of time. Unfortunately, there were no instructing jobs available where I trained, and where I did get my first job, there was no such system.

I had been shown a compass turns briefing once, and might even have been demonstrated it (briefly) in flight. But I had never taught it. I honestly don’t recall how those early ‘advanced’ lessons went. I do remember that I didn’t really feel like I was teaching them effectively until almost a year later, when after trial, error, and practice I found an effective method.

C-Cat instructors with less than 6 months and 100hrs of instructing are supposed to be ‘directly supervised’ by a Category A or B instructor. This did not occur in my case, except where instructing was discussed with my colleagues at the school (there was a ‘B-Cat’ present at times). Had more guidance and mentoring been available, perhaps I might have developed my effectiveness much sooner with the more advanced training.

I have already discussed some aspects of what I think needs to change and improve in a previous post. But there are other changes that need to be made, as well.

ExperienceBent and broken 152

Increasing the minimum experience required to be an instructor will have multiple benefits:

1) There will be far fewer instructors who are just there to build hours, without any particular motivation or passion for their role. A gain in quality.

2) By the time pilots have the experience to become an instructor, there will be other opportunities that may appeal (and pay) more to many. If the pilot does choose to become an instructor, they will bring with them more experience, including operational experience of various kinds.

3) As a result of #2, there will no longer be an excess of low-time instructors willing to work for less than poverty wages. Increased demand, lower supply; terms and conditions for those who choose to instruct should improve dramatically, as should the quality of the instructors themselves.

4) Being a ‘career instructor’ becomes a viable possibility in this country. There are some today, but they are few, and are usually more than just instructors (otherwise it would likely not be financially viable to remain so).

Airspace

Mid-air collisions mostly occur in uncontrolled airspace, and that has certainly been the case in recent training accidents. Following the collision of two PA-28s in the Manawatu training area (the uncontrolled airspace between Palmerston North and Paraparaumu) the busiest part was designated a Common Frequency Zone, to ensure all aircraft operating there were on the same frequency, and could make position reports to each other. Other busy training areas have CFZs, but there is still busy airspace where there is no CFZ.

That’s not to say that CFZs are the solution to everything. Far from it, but they are better than nothing. Other problems occur when separate locations use the same radio frequency (uncontrolled aerodromes on 119.1 all over NZ for instance), often resulting in much of the radio traffic being irrelevant, or even causing interference with calls that are relevant.

Procedures

1) Radio usage.

Radio calls, when made properly, are invaluable in helping pilots in the area form a mental picture of where other aircraft are, and what they are doing. Unfortunately in some aircraft, the radio calls overwhelm what is being said on the intercom (equipment bad by design or old and degraded, I don’t know), and the radio will be turned down or off to enable instruction to take place. This obviously removes an important tool in the situational awareness toolbox, and substantially increases the chance of two aircraft trying to operate in the exact same location.

2) Visual scan.

VFR flight training is all about ‘see and be seen’, yet visual scanning techniques are not taught in many schools. Simple ‘look out before you turn’ is apparently deemed enough. Interestingly, one of the busiest areas for training in New Zealand that I have flown in has had no mid-air collisions in recent times (as far as I am aware). At least one of the schools in the area puts a lot of emphasis on visual scanning techniques; it seems to work. The same area has had many reported near-misses (including a few myself), but perhaps this is a result of the amount of traffic, and the fact that the other aircraft are actually seen!

3) Control Zone procedures.Alpha near Raglan

Some control zones arrival and departure procedures place both inbound and outbound traffic in close proximity. Their separation inside the control zone may be reasonably well defined, but often the ideal position to enter or exit the zone puts opposite direction traffic in potential conflict just outside the control zone (NZHN for instance). To make things worse, in busy periods there may be aircraft holding just outside the zone waiting their turn. Procedures could be modified to lessen the risk outside the zone, as well as inside.

There is a lot more that could be said and discussed on this subject; perhaps I’ll write more another day. For now, please feel free to comment and discuss, and consider making a submission to the TAIC on the subject if you are a Kiwi pilot with experience to share.

Airmanship (AWOL)

This is a bit of a negative start to the blog, but nevertheless…

The USAF is considering a ban on airshow displays of large aircraft (that is, bombers and transports) following the loss of a C-17 practicing for an airshow display on July 28 2010 at Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.

The remains of the tail of the C-17 after the crash

The remains of the tail of the C-17 after the crash

Banning airshow displays of large aircraft would certainly reduce the risk of losing additional aircraft and crews on airshow related flights (banning airshow displays entirely would save more…), but doing so would be treating a symptom, not the cause.

This is not the first time a large USAF aircraft has been lost practicing an airshow routine. A very similar accident occurred in 1996, this time involving a B-52 at Fairchild AFB. Both accidents were caught on video:

(Even longer version, showing entire display)

Both aircraft crashed while performing very steep, low-speed, low-altitude turns.

Both aircraft busted USAF regulations regarding airshow displays (such as safe height).

Both aircraft flew outside of the permitted flight envelope.

Both pilots were considered very highly skilled.

Both pilots knew they were exceeding aircraft limits, but considered themselves able to safely do so.

The C-17 pilot is reported to have claimed that the stall warning and stick-shaker is inaccurate (C-17 test pilots disagree), and intended to ignore the stick-shaker during the display. Despite this, he was considered an excellent pilot, requiring very little supervision.

The B-52 pilot was a known ‘cowboy’, who had been performing increasingly dangerous airshow routines for years, and had taken this sort of flying into non-airshow flights as well, prompting complaints from junior officers. On one occasion, his B-52 cleared a ridge by just 30ft, and that after the co-pilot took the controls and pulled up!

Most pilots will certainly look at these cases and shake their heads. They would never be so stupid. But I suspect most pilots have, at some point, thought after a maneuver; ‘that wasn’t such a good idea…’ and hopefully taken more care in the future. That’s an important rung on the ladder of Airmanship. But most pilots probably don’t take it any further than that, denying themselves the opportunity to develop their airmanship further.¬† It’s hard to criticize them for that, however, they didn’t know to do anything more!

It appears to me that there is a gaping hole in our pilot training systems. We spend hours poring over the details of the operation of gyros (presumably in case we need to design and build one in flight), and are thoroughly tested on them. Yet Airmanship gets perhaps a brief mention in Human Factors, an exam question if you are very lucky, and a few tips from your instructor (who may have completed the training your are doing himself just a few months or years ago) as opportunity and example arises.

The majority of accidents today, by far, are blamed on pilot error. Most if not all of them could be linked to an Airmanship failure of some kind. Millions of dollars and countless hours have been devoted to improving aircraft and systems, and now we are finally starting to see progress in improving the human aspect of the equation. Most widely known today is probably CRM (Crew Resource Management), which itself has a come a long way in recent years. But this is just one part of the Airmanship puzzle (though a very important one), and may not be taught to pilots until they reach higher levels in their careers.

There needs to be a dedicated and thorough education of pilots in all aspects of Airmanship. Ideally, this would include theoretical examinations, separate and far beyond what exists today as Human Factors. It should also be taught in every briefing, in the cockpit, and in de-briefings. This will require additional training for instructors, as well, even if they themselves have completed the Airmanship training suggested above.

This is true for all levels and all kinds of pilots. The examples shown here involve military crews in heavy jets, but Airmanship spans all sectors of aviation. There is no doubt some excellent Airmanship training in some places, but if we are to improve the present statistics, this training needs to become universal.

For those wishing to learn more about Airmanship, I highly recommend Redefining Airmanship, by Tony Kern.