Cockpit Leadership

Leadership Diamond©


[Peter Koestenbaum] 
To have no illusions.

On Leadership Reality
Pilot statements from Professional Pilot Magazine and Aviation.Org subscriber surveys.

Learning, Listening, Skill Development, Self-Critique, Personal Limits, Preparation, Awareness
Pilot views on cockpit leadership reality are paricularly instructive. Pilots respect pilots who: 

  • have a “thirst for knowledge.”
  • seek to increase their grasp of aviation.
  • have an aptitude for learning new systems and techniques.
  • listen, are teachable and learn from their mistakes.
  • sharpen their skills to limit complacency and critique themselves.
  • are humble, know their personal limitations and are unwilling to exceed them.
  • make a conscious commitment to safety, and review “the first few minutes of flight before it leaves the ground.”
  • are prepared, pay attention to detail and analyze what’s going on.
  • maintain awareness of the reality of the situations faced.

The Pilot’s Real World . . . 
. . . as described by the SHELL Model Checklist, a basic aviation Reality reference.

Adapted from ICAO’s Human Factors Training Manual, this list is a compilation of the conditions, equipment functions, relationships and other flight-related circumstances or situations that test the pilot’s awareness, knowledge, proficiency and performance.

SHELL Model Human Factors Checklist
Interfaces and Relationships 
Note: L is Liveware (person or persons).


  • Written information. Manuals, checklists, regulation, charts, SOPs, directives (physical or digital).
  • Software, user friendliness, effectiveness.
  • Workload, monitoring, task saturation, situational awareness, piloting skill, maintenance,
  • Regulatory requirements. Qualifications, certification, medical, license/rating, noncompliance, infractions.


  • Equipment (switches, controls, displays). Confusion, standardization, design, location, movement, colors, markings, illumination.
  • Cockpit workspace. Layout, standardization, operation of instruments and controls, workload, communication equipment, restrictions to movement, illumination, information displays, visibility restrictions, alerting and warning, comfort, data link.


  • Internal to the cockpit and interior. Heat/ cold/ humidity, ambient pressure, illumination/ glare, motion sensations, noise interference, vibrations, air quality/pollution/fumes.
  • External to the aircraft (weather). Actual, forecast, visibility/ ceiling, surface winds/ winds aloft, fog/ precipitation/ temperature,
  • Traffic.
  • Airport/ airport facilities, personal/ company facilities and equipment, aircraft maintenance/ equipment/ interfacing/ parts availability, servicing/ inspections, operational standards, procedures/ practices, quality assurance, training, documentation.
  • Time of day, lighting/ glare,

L—Individual pilot (Inner L, an individual flight crew member).

  • Visual and vestibular and other limitations.
  • Degradation due to fatigue, duty time, incapacitation, decompression, illusions.
  • Perceptions due to disorientation, information processing, attitudes, expectations, confidence, stress, personality.
  • Mental pressure, conflict, finances, family pressure, lifestyle changes.

L—Other Personnel (Outer L, persons who interact with the Inner L).

  • Oral and visual communications.
  • Crew interactions. Briefings, compatibility, CRM, task management, personality, experience.
  • Briefing, coordination.
  • Behavior, briefing,
  • Management relations. Training, policies, scheduling, support, procedures, instructions, directives, operational pressure, morale, peer pressure, regulations, standards.

Of fundamental interest is:

  • the interface of the Inner L (you or me) to surrounding parameters (S, H, E, Outer L), and
  • the practical effect of these relationships on the flight.

Perhaps not conscious of it, pilots use personal SHELL versions during flight planning/ briefing and flight critique/ debriefing.

Each organizational level is a barrier that may prevent a failure at a higher level from penetrating to a lower level. These barriers are typically depicted as slices of Swiss cheese wherein each hole represents a failure.
An accident occurs when holes in each barrier line up and all barriers are breached. As we know, the flight crew is the last line of defense!

On Situation Awareness
Reality—Summary; Knowledge of Flight Conditions
Gaining and Maintaining Situation Awareness, a Slide Presentation in the Cockpit Leadership Library
* Courtesy of Dan Gurney *

Situation Awareness
Awareness of the flight’s situation is:

  • Having an accurate understanding of your surroundings
  • Knowing what is going on around you

what happened?
where am I?
what is happening?
what could happen?

Levels of Situation Awareness
Three increasing levels of situation awareness:

  • First we have to see (sense) something
  • Second we need to understand was has been seen
  • Finally, we have to use what we have understood in thinking ahead

Situation assessment involves a continuous mental process of gathering data, combining data into information, comparing and assessing its relevance, and planning ahead.

  • Look for and gather data (sensing data)
  • Combine data into meaningful information (perception)
  • Understand what the information means (comprehension)
  • Use your understanding to think ahead and reconsider the plan (projection)

Situation awareness describes the pilot’s knowledge of what is going on around him; where he is, his orientation, what mode the aircraft is in, and what other people are doing.

Gathering Data
Scan the important aspects of our surroundings; compare data with experiences and knowledge in memory.

Knowing What to “See”
Knowing what to look for requires knowledge of:

  • What to search for
  • When to look at specific information
  • Where the information can be found, source and reliability

Failing to “See”
Where data is not available or difficult to detect:

  • Actively scan for new data, use alternative sources
  • Avoid concentrating on one item
  • Use checklists to reduce errors
  • Reduce workload, share tasks
  • If distracted, return to the starting point
  • Be aware of visual illusions
  • Cross check with flight instruments, always believe the instruments
  • Do not change what is seen to fit expectations
  • Check with other crew members

Combine knowledge and experience recalled from memory with the sensed information from the real world:

  • What has been trained for—use SOPs
  • What happened last time—experience and training
  • What is the plan, what is intended—recall items from memory

Understanding—Comparison and Analysis
For understanding:

  • We have to compare and update our mental models with the real world
  • When they agree, then we have an understanding of the situation

Not understanding

  • Information may be misinterpreted
  • Beware of false memories and personal bias
  • Failure to recognize that the mental model needs to change
  • Do not choose information that only supports the plan
  • Cross check with SOPs and flight rules
  • Do not expect a good outcome
  • Manage workload and time pressure

Question yourself, monitor yourself and be aware of your own situation,

Maintaining Situation Awareness

  • Monitor; Focus and direct your attention
  • Scan: Plane, Path, People
  • Anticipate, Stay ahead of the airplane
  • Use: “What if?”

Remember that:

  • Automation keeps its secrets
  • Expectations can reduce awareness
  • It’s hard to detect something that isn’t there
  • Don’t assume your partner is taking care of it
  • If something doesn’t look or feel right, then it probably isn’t right

And, remember to:

  • communicate!

Library Presentation
Examine the full presentation, Gaining and Maintaining Situation Awareness, to expand on these introductory topics and further consider:

  • Loss of Awareness
  • Recovering Awareness
  • Improving Situation Awareness
  • Summation

Remember to always ask questions:

  • Of yourself
  • Of others
  • Of the situation

And to:

  • Always fly the aircraft!

Painting the “Big Picture”
Getting It Done

Situation awareness—the “Big Picture”—is not methodical task management. Instead, it is an aspect of leadership in the cockpit by each pilot that contrasts his or her individual concept of the flight with knowledge of the circumstances that exist or are anticipated.  This concept (“Vision”) is what we are striving to accomplish; it is what we see and sense about what lies ahead with regard to all facets of the flight. The knowledge of what is or will be transpiring (“Reality”) is rooted in our preparation and our aviation experience.

Seeing the “Big Picture” is essential, but more is required. Situation Awareness alone (“Vision:Reality”) doesn’t get the job done. We must be prepared to act (“Courage”), at times decisively, and do so with commitment and integrity (“Ethics”). In other words, more than seeing the big picture, we paint it with all the talent and skill we can muster.

Norm Komich quotes a front-line responder, “I just did what I was supposed to do,” to emphasize the value of emergency training

Norm further stresses the continued need for individual preparation and learning.

Assessing the Conduct of the Flight
Post-Flight Debriefing
United Airlines’ Skyliner Street Smart Survey Response on Awareness

Individual Debriefing
[Andre Ludovick] After each flight or proficiency check, I debrief myself and record items I want to change in a notebook. The act of writing it down causes me to memorize the change.

On Making Better Decisions
Flight Debriefing

A Slide Presentation in the Cockpit Leadership Library
* Courtesy of Dan Gurney *

[Dan Gurney] We can learn after each flight and training session by considering:

Plus points:

  • What was good? What went according to plan?

Minus points:

  • What was not so good, and why? What didn’t you know?

Interesting points:

  • What was learned, when, where, and why?
  • What was the source of the information?
  • Have you changed how you see things?

Any issues for a confidential report? Did you experience:

  • Poor attitudes or biased opinions?
  • High workload or time pressure?
  • Unanswered questions?
  • Surprise or stress?
  • Memory failure?

Flight Critique
Post-Flight Debriefing

Blue Angels Briefing and Debriefing, a Video Presentation in the Cockpit Leadership Library

Flight Critique
The Debrief is as important as the flight itself

The pilots “hash out”:

  • What worked
  • What didn’t work

Violations of their own standards (“Safeties”) are:

  • Identified
  • Acknowledged with a promise to correct errors

All pilota are wide open to criticism

  • No punches are pulled
  • Flight leader: “It’s the only way to improve”

Each pilot strives for personal and professional improvement

  • Individually
  • As a team member

Each expresses the good fortune “we feel for flying”

  • All pilots: “I’m glad to be here”

The individuals risk management approach is seen

  • Each pilot is his own worst critic
  • A commitment is made to take corrective action so it will not be repeated
  • All pilots: “I made this mistake and I’ll fix it!”

[Greg Woolridge, Flight Leader] Not a flight goes by where any of us makes a mistake or two, however minor, and to improve we need to learn from these experiences and make corrections.

On Spatial Disorientation
A Summary, Causes and Defenses
Understanding Spatial Disorientation, a Video in the Cockpit Leadership Library
* Courtesy of Dan Gurney *

Spatial Disorientation
Spatial disorientation occurs when there are difficulties in orientation, or there is a mismatch between the real world and what the pilot senses.

  • Visual Illusions and Spatial Disorientation have contributed to many aircraft accidents; their effects are most pronounced at night and in IMC.
  • The only solution to all forms of spatial disorientation is for pilots to trust their instruments rather than rely on their own sensations.
  • 21% of Approach and landing accidents involved disorientation/visual illusion.

Failures in Orientation

  • Vertigo: A sensation of spinning or dizziness, typically caused by a malfunctioning of the vestibular (inner ear) system,
  • Sensory illusion: A false perception of reality caused by the conflict of orientation information from one or more mechanisms of the equilibrium.
  • Spatial disorientation: The inability to determine position, attitude, or motion relative to the surface of the earth or other significant objects.
  • Orientation or balance: The perception of position, attitude, and motion relative to the earth.

Vision Orientation
Vision is the most important bodily sense for orientation. During flight, 80 percent of orientation is dependent on the visual sense.

The Visual System
Central Vision:

  • allows pilots to perceive images clearly (object recognition and identification),
  •  is the basic mode for judgment of distance and depth (relative distance).

Peripheral Vision:

  • provides orientation within the environment. It is the primary mode for detecting motion.
  •  is mainly independent of central vision (reading as opposed to motion).
  •  detects motion and provides orientation information, regardless the information that is coming from the inner ear.

Visual Illusions
Visual illusions may occur when visual cues are reduced by clouds, night, and/or other obscurities to vision. When there is no horizon, visual cues arising can easily be misinterpreted and lead to disorientation.

False Horizon Visual Illusions

False Horizon
The false horizon illusion occurs when the pilot confuses cloud formations with the horizon or the ground.

Flicker Vertigo
Flicker vertigo is technically not an illusion; however, viewing a flickering light can be both distracting and annoying.

Confusion with Ground Lights
Confusion occurs when an aviator, mistakes ground lights for stars. This illusion prompts the aviator to place the aircraft in an unusual attitude to keep the misperceived ground lights above the aircraft.

Black Hole Approach Visual Illusions

Black Hole Approach
A Black-Hole Approach Illusion can happen during a final approach at night (no stars or moonlight) over water or unlighted terrain to a lighted runway beyond which the horizon is not visible.

Height-Depth Perception Illusion
. . . the aircrew member will experience the illusion of being higher above the terrain than actual.

Fascination or Fixation
This illusion occurs when aircrew members ignore orientation cues and focus attention on their object or goal.

Black hole approaches encourage pilots to develop a glideslope based on the orientation of the lights to a standard of lights in their previous history . . . ; the lack of visual cues close into the runway may encourage variable flare techniques with undesirable landing outcomes.

Aerial Perspective Visual Illusions

Aerial Perspective Illusions
These illusions may make pilots change (increase or decrease) the slope of their final approaches, and are caused by runways with different widths, up-sloping or down-sloping runways, and up-sloping or down-sloping final approach terrain.

Somatogyral Illusions
Vestibular (false sensations)

Somatogyral illusions are caused when angular accelerations and decelerations stimulate the semicircular canals.

Somatogyral Leans Illusion

The Leans
The most common form of spatial disorientation is the leans. This illusion occurs when the pilot fails to perceive angular motion. . . (and) may experience perceptions that disagree with reality, the reading on the attitude indicator.

Somatogyral Coriolis Illusion

Coriolis Illusion
Regardless of the type of aircraft flown, the Coriolis illusion is the most dangerous of all vestibular illusions. It causes overwhelming disorientation.

This illusion occurs in a prolonged turn when the pilot makes a head motion in a different geometrical plane. . . The pilot may experience an overwhelming head-over-heels tumbling sensation. This illusion can make the pilot quickly become disoriented and lose control of the aircraft.

Somatogyral Turning Illusion

Turning Illusion
After ± 30 seconds (in a sustained turn), the canals stop responding and the brain has no sense of turning any more. . . If the trajectory of the aircraft is now straightened, the pilot’s brain senses a turn in the opposite direction due to the angular deceleration.

Turning Illusion—Defenses
Rely on the flight instruments—never on your perception (or your internal instruments)

Recovery from Spatial Disorientation

Spatial disorientation can easily occur in the aviation environment. If disorientation occurs, aviators should:

  • Refer to the instruments and develop a good cross-check.
  • Delay intuitive actions long enough to check both visual references and instruments.
  • Transfer control to the other pilot if two pilots are in the aircraft; rarely will both experience disorientation at the same time.
  • Debrief on your erroneous perception and realize that it is a perfectly ‘human’ and ‘normal’ sensation (humans can’t help it). But, the condition is ‘not suitable’ for flying.

Preventing Spatial Disorientation

Spatial disorientation cannot be totally eliminated. However, aircrew members need to remember that misleading sensations from sensory systems are predictable. . . However, training is essential to redirect the pilots attention to the instruments. Training, instrument proficiency, good health, and aircraft design minimize spatial disorientation.

A high level of attention will contribute to limit spatial disorientation because the brain will focus and interpret immediately the right instruments.

Fatigue will enhance spatial disorientation . . .

To prevent disorientation, aviators should:

  • Never fly without visual reference points (either the actual horizon or the artificial horizon provided by the instruments).
  • Trust the instruments.
  • Avoid fatigue, smoking, hypoglycaemia, hypoxia, and anxiety, which all heighten illusions.
  • Never try to fly VMC and IMC at the same time.

Again, 21 % of Approach and Landing accidents involved disorientation/visual illusion.

Library Presentation
Examine the full presentation, Understanding Spatial Disorientation, for more detailed descriptions, including those of the following additional topics:

  • The Leans
  • Coriolis illusion
  • Graveyard spiral
  • Inversion illusion
  • Elevator illusion
  • Autokinesis

[“War” story? Leave a comment below.]

See and Avoid
Conflicting Aircraft Over a Lighted City.

[Norm Komich] The controller kept calling out traffic and the crew of the military plane scanned diligently but, as we all know when on collision course with another aircraft, its position on the windscreen didn’t change. Therefore, the nav lights of the conflicting aircraft were motionless and were lost in the lights of the city.
            We are able to pick up traffic at night because of the relative motion of the other aircraft’s nav lights compared to the static lights of the background. Believe it or not, the military aircraft flew right into the other airplane. Knowing of this accident, you might consider requesting a diverting vector if ATC should call out traffic at night that you don’t see.

Determining and evaluating options. Making choices. Finding potential alternative actions requires effort.
Digging for them; developing compatible in-flight risk management strategies.

A Way Out
Being able to determine a way out for the varied predicaments that may be encountered requires a high degree of situation awareness, and playing “What If?” can be helpful to this end.

The Yerkes-Dodson or Inverted-U Curve has been criticized as and oversimpification. However the conclusions reached may seem logical to pilots. A moderate degree of tension and attentiveness (good stress) results in acceptable or better performance, and very high stress is distracting and may become disabling. 

CFIT is the result of the loss of near-ground position awareness, the airplane is controllable and the results are fatal.
Avoidance requires preparation, set boundaries and feedback control.
      Dan Gurney summarizes common themes involving situation awareness and crew monitoring.
      Thomas P. Turner lists the four primary CFIT occurrences and reviews general aviation’s most common: Descent below safe altitudes during instrument procedures.

Flight Preparation
CFIT thoughts to keep in mind

Pilot CFIT related comments:

  • Even when solo I give self a detailed briefing, particularly on airport characteristics and obstacles.
  • Gather information, as much as you can, about the flight to improve. situation awareness.
  • I study the VFR sectional, even though most of my flying is on IFR flight plans.
  • I look for certain clues to the presence of obstacles-displaced thresholds, circling minima that vary with the category of the aircraft, circling restrictions, departure procedures.
  • Non-precision approaches need special briefing attention.
  • Being an east coast pilot, I think any airport above sea level deserves my full attention.

Pilots understand the need to be aware of hazard potential. However, many don’t think of CFIT as distinct and separate issue since, with proper preparation, terrain and obstacles are part of the normal flight environment:

  • My concept is that CFIT/terrain awareness must be embedded in everyday activities and is not a ‘special’ or bolt-on activity.
  • Most of my routes are into areas of high ground and prone to heavy rain and poor visibility, so terrain separation is an everyday exercise.

Minimum Safe Altitude (MSA)
The altitude established to provide at least 1,000 feet of clearance
above the highest obstacle in a near-airport sector.

Pilots develop rules and have definite thoughts about how to use this information, a few of which follow:

  • The MSA is the tip of the iceberg on being aware of what hazards lie around the airport.
  • Do not fly below MSA unless under radar control or established on a charted approach, or visual-VMC.
  • Situational awareness is knowing . . . your MSAs and having all cockpit instrumentation setup for what’s going to happen over the next 5 to 10 minutes.
  • If you are vectored or directed by ATC out of the routine, MSA is a good guide to use to be at a safe and clear altitude from the terrain.
  • MSAs should be included in approach and departure briefings with the intensions of how to use them.

Briefing and Call-Out

During the traditional approach briefing one of the briefed items is minimum safe altitude (MSA) as depicted on the approach plate. Stating “We are below MSA” as a standard call-out descending through MSA (particularly in mountainous terrain) enhances crew awareness.

Stabilized Approach
Inviolable rules and clear thinking are the hallmarks for maintaining control during landing approach.

Pilots establish defined tolerances for approach entry, the point the aircraft must be properly configured, the point at which they are stable within their boundaries (speed, rate of descent, +/- GS/LOC dots, etc.). Related comments follow:

  • A stabilized approach is my safety net.
  • On a typical ILS approach, I get it fully configured and stabilized by 800 AGL or earlier.
  • On non-precision approaches I try to be fully stabilized beginning at the FAF.
  • I adhere to the stabilized approach philosophy and approach gate concept.

When flying alone, many pilots brief themselves and make altitude callouts through the intercom. It’s not loneliness—it comes from the knowledge that speaking out loud makes each thought more concrete and specific, less abstract.

  • During an approach I try to verbalize what is happening, even to me if I am alone in the plane.

As with “what if?”, asking and answering questions is a proven method of defining the situation more clearly than simply observing events taking place. Here is how one general aviation pilot maintains a stable approach and position awareness:

  • I think about each segment of the approach using three questions: (i) “how low?”; (ii) “how far?”; (iii) “what’s next?”

By answering these questions, this pilot establishes specific targets by which to measure performance (and expands the concept of “what’s next?).  We can learn from this pilot’s thoughtful and comprehensive method for asking and answering questions that give pilots  confidence of being in control of their flights.

Terrain Warning Systems (TAWS)
History and Progress

In the following segment on Taws “Saves,” Dan Gurney describes the evolution and capabilities of TAWS. His Background section is repeated herein as a TAWS introduction.

Throughout the history of aviation, CFIT has been a major cause of fatal accidents. In response to this hazard, the industry developed and implemented the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS), which automatically warned pilots if the aircraft was dangerously approaching the ground. Since the mandate for large airplanes to carry GPWS in 1974, the number of CFIT accidents reduced significantly. In 2000, the requirements were extended to smaller commuter planes.

GPWS is limited in only being able to detect terrain directly below the aircraft. If there is a sharp change in terrain, GPWS does not detect the aircraft closure rate until it is too late for evasive action. Furthermore, the detection logic has to be switched to enable aircraft to land without unwarranted warnings, thus, when the airplane is configured for landing the GPWS will not warn of insufficient terrain clearance. Even so, the system has been very successful as indicated by the marked reduction in the accident rate.

To overcome the limitations of GPWS, a new technology Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGWPS) was introduced; which combines a worldwide digital terrain database with an accurate navigation system, ideally using the Global Positioning System. The aircraft’s navigation position is compared with a database of the Earth’s terrain; if
there is a discrepancy, pilots receive a timely caution or warning of terrain hazards. EGPWS or generically TAWS, will provide a warning in advance of steeply rising ground and also extends the warning area almost to the runway threshold, overcoming the limitations of GPWS. 

Celebrating TAWS “Saves”: But Lessons Still to be Learnt
Pop-up includes a link to this paper by courtesy of author Dan Gurney

Dan’s paper presents his description and analysis of six CFTT incidents involving flights towards terrain where fatal accidents were prevented when TAWS alerts prompted pilot crews to take evasive action. A “save” is an accident avoided.

It the paper’s addendum, Dan analyzes three additional CFTT events, all in night VFR flight conditions. In Incident 7, Dan analyzes a night visual approach, and Incident 8 covers two night visual terrain encounters.

The lessons learned and still to be learned are a valuable resource for pilots of all aircraft shapes and sizes.   

Terrain Warning Systems
Pilot Comments

Pilots with operational TAWS experience offer advice and cautions:

  • In today’s high tech world it’s really easy to become complacent.

There’s no question that pilots need to find ways to stay mentally active and involved in automated flight. Continuing,

  • With a Red ‘pull up’ warning, pull up immediately and climb to MSA (not when the warning stops).
  • Practice the pull up maneuver in the simulator; know the aircraft’s capabilities and remember the feel of the aircraft.
  • We practice CFIT scenarios in the simulator in addition to the classroom discussions.

Terrain warning systems have proven effective in reducing CFIT but, regarding the pull up maneuver, one pilot comments:

  • The evidence from incidents is that the aircraft is only maneuvered sufficient to stop the warning.

The need for the personal commitment to performing escape maneuvers is absolute,

The non-precision approach is the ultimate challenge in a hazard-filled environment. 
            One pilot recommends use of the radio altimeter (if installed) during non-precision approaches, and has established specific operating and readout guidelines. The same pull up and escape commitment applies.

A helicopter pilot uses radar at low level “as a means of establishing a clear path ahead” and, in addition, “demands precision in maintaining radar altimeter heights.”
            A reminder to know your systems and how to operate them effectively.

Automation and Situation Awareness
What Am I Thinking?

At times pilots may ask in frustration, “What is it doing?” It’s often appropriate to also ask, “What am I thinking?

Automation and Induced Complacency
Since automation is designed to relieve pilots of routine tasks at hand and allow time developing flight strategies, the question arises as to what pilots are actually thinking during automated flight. Studies have indicated that, paradoxically, automation has led to lesser awareness, presumably due to induced complacency.

Pilot Thought Processes
A Human Factors and Ergonomics Society looked at pilot thought processes in flight and concluded that although pilots may have more time to think, automation may encourage pilots “to reinvest only some of this mental free time in thinking flight-related thoughts” and noted that mind wandering, or thoughts not related to the flight, is a normal human condition and desirable to a certain extent. Apparently we do need moments and periods of mental relaxation to recharge and even promote creative thinking.

Maintaining Awareness During Automated Flight:
A few related thoughts:

  • The pilot’s first duty is to fly the airplane. In automated flight this duty translates to staying in the loop, being in control.
  • Choosing lower levels of automation aids in maintaining mental discipline. Hand flying, the lowest level of course, is desirable when possible.
  • There are times to be fully engaged and times to be more moderately engaged. Sterile cockpit or dynamic flight (changing flight profiles) fit into the former category.
  • Performing mental exercises, those that parallel and are comparable the computer’s calculations, help to maintain pilot involvement.

On this last point, anticipating what’s next (transition points, descent/ascent rates, etc.), determining tracks, fuel reserves and other flight parameters make for active monitoring of the automation, perhaps even to the extent of reducing the number of “what’s it doing now?” occurrences.

Remember “dead reckoning”? In earlier times this kind of disciplined thinking was absolutely essential. High levels of awareness—that combination of understanding and attentiveness—were achieved and maintained.

[Other ideas? Leave a Comment below.]

Technology, New and Old
Trust But Verify

Maintaining control in the cockpit is a recurring theme. The challenge during automated flight is to stay on top of the situation as changes are occurring and all seems to be going well. But, as we know, things aren’t always as they seem.

An Example
Instrument pilots know that ILS signals can have lobes that may provide faulty glideslope indications. A 3 degree signal may also generate spurious lobes in multiples of 3 degrees, most significantly 6 and 9 degrees. If approached from above, the ILS may lock on to one of these false signals. Pilots may know, but autopilots do not. In addition, in some circumstances the signals may be reversed and autopilot pitch up may be commanded. Is unwavering faith in your automation justified? Trust but verify.

Tried and true lessons to be learned/re-learned: Approach the glideslope from below; Verify your position, altitude and descent rate at key checkpoints.

[War story? Leave a Comment below.]

Asking “What’s Next?” helps a pilot prepare for the next upcoming task, the critical first step in setting that course of action.

Reducing Automation Reliance

Asking and answering specific questions in the What’s Next? format keeps the pilot/crew mentally involved and prepared for the immediate tasks ahead.

Dead Reckoning
An Anecdote

Flying mid-century jet fighters, our squadron aircraft were equipped with one ADF for navigation, one UHF transceiver for communication and an IFF (transponder). Not a very satisfying minimum equipment list for single pilot flying. We’d fly coast-to-coast and off the ship as a matter of course. Since strong ADF stations were far apart, much of the enroute navigation was by dead reckoning followed by high altitude jet penetrations with GCA pickups.

As a human factors aside, the UHF frequency selector was on the back right console. To see the radio dials (three concentric rings) you had to twist in the seat and bend and look back—the numbering was small on the dials and difficult to read. Complicating matters, the normal GCA procedure required a frequency change when being passed off to the final controller. And, the wingman was doing all this while hanging in tight.

The point in recounting this rather ancient history is that, as a pilot, you were required to be mentally active to perform basic navigation functions. You were continually calculating course corrections, ground speed, fuel consumption and other variables in your head. And you simply didn’t make IMC or night penetrations to airports in mountainous areas without thoroughly studying the approach procedure beforehand.

Fast forward to today and to integrated cockpit displays, automated control systems and increasingly sophisticated  avionics. Human factors engineering has made great strides over the years. Let’s applaud the progress but also accept the challenge that the pilot must maintain situation awareness and stay in the information control loop. Routinely questioning What’s Next? and employing some form of dead reckoning to confirm flight parameters are two active thought processes to consider.

Avoiding Runway Incursions

Runway incursions remain a safety problem with numerous incursions recorded every years. Norm Komich lists a few thoughts from his training and personal experiences designed to counter runway incursions.

  1. As you are taxiing and approach any runway, always ask yourself, “AM I cleared to cross?” and, if you are not sure, “ASK!”
  2. Even if you ARE sure, clear both ways for traffic, either on the runway or on approach to the runway.
  3. Maintain awareness of other traffic by monitoring the frequency closely. Don’t just listen for your call sign, listen for ANY activity on your runway or taxiway that you are approaching. (I acknowledge that this can become very difficult at a place like O’Hare, but attempt to do so as best you can.)
  4. Taking the active and holding is a set-up for trouble. Some airmen simply will not do this, particularly at night; they only take the active for takeoff. ATC wants to keep moving traffic, and putting you into a hold position facilitates doing that, but it also sets you up for a problem. Food for thought.
  5. When beginning your takeoff roll consider turning your landing lights ON. This action provides an unofficial but highly visible warning that you are rolling.

Pilot Fatigue
FAA SAFO 09014
Safety Alert for Operators:
Concepts for Fatigue Countermeasures in Part 121 and 135 Short-Haul Operations

This FAA issued SAFO serves as a reminder of the need for continuing vigilance and awareness of potential adverse consequences of pilot fatigue. Within, the FAA provides fatigue guidelines and some contrasts between long- and short-haul flying.

Quoting: “Short-haul pilots commonly identify sleep deprivation and high workload as the main factors contributing to their fatigue. Conversely, long-haul pilots generally attribute sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption caused by multiple time-zone crossings as the main causes of fatigue. However, both short-haul and long-haul flight crewmembers report fatigue resulting from multiple flight legs, early wake times, consecutive duty days, insufficient recovery sleep periods, time demands and high workloads resulting from high density air traffic environments.  . . .” 

Continuing: . . . “Typically, short-haul (domestic) pilots are engaged in ‘hub and spoke’ operations with some limited point-to-point flying. Short-haul crews are challenged by schedules that involve short turn-around times between multiple flights. Pilots conducting these types of operations report their schedules typically consist of four to five segments, averaging approximately six hours of flight time. Thirteen to fifteen hour duty days typify this type of operation. The result is an increased workload due to the multiple take-offs and landings and time constraints of meeting schedule deadlines over the course of the long day.”

Policy and Procedure Review
This document encourages Directors of Operations to “review their current policies and procedures addressing flight crewmember fatigue countermeasures,” including current scheduling practices (“a major impact on a crewmember’s ability to sleep and maintain a proper level of alertness”), encouraging pilots/crews to seek adequate rest, and educating pilots/crews on fatigue issues. Importantly it concludes that pilots should understand their responsibility with regard to ensuring that they achieve the required rest . . .  [and be] fit for each assigned or scheduled flight.”

Pilot Fatigue
Notes from an NBAA Seminar

The key factors for pilots to keep in mind are:

  • Time awake
  • Time of day
  • Time on duty

Time Awake
Biologically, we are programmed to be awake and able to function for 16 hours. Studies have shown that after 17 hours the human ability to perform satisfactorily drops off markedly. It’s more than simply tiredness, a person becomes physically and mentally impaired, and this performance degradation is correlated to significant alcohol consumption. And, clearly, as time awake extends 17 hours then flight safety is compromised.

Time of Day
Our bodies experience biological oscillations over a 24 hour period, and peaks and valleys of alertness are encountered. The fatigue experts tell us that we are most alert from 9:00 to 11:00 in the morning and 9:00 to 11:00 in the evening and, conversely, most sleepy at both 3:00 to 5:00 in the mornings and evenings. Morning sunlight resets our circadian clock each day—the biological day is actually greater than 24 hours. Time zone travel causes circadian misalignment to local time that we call “jet lag.” Our natural rhythms become out of synch, the severity of which depends on the direction of travel and the number of time zones crossed. Eastbound shortens the day and is more severe since westbound is in the direction of the longer biological day (>24 hours).

Time on Duty
A large subject heavily influenced by the other key factors above. “Fit for duty,” being well rested before the first flight, is obviously desirable. Commuting to work, flying at night, long duty days, multiple day trips, number of flight segments, late arrivals/ early departures, takeoffs/ landings during periods of circadian lows, etc., all have a potentially adverse effect on pilot performance.

Combating Pilot Fatigue
Notes from an earlier NTSB, ICAO Webinar

Fatigue Factors
Factors that induce fatigue are numerous—sleep deprivation, physical conditioning, nutrition, personal stress, illness, medications, hypoxia, and the list goes on. The flight environment contributes—noise, vibration, lighting, night conditions, boredom, etc. Upsets to natural circadian rhythms certainly affect our abilities, and flight scheduling may also play a significant role in causing fatigue.

Detecting Fatigue
Fatigue is insidious. We must remain on guard but, still, it may be difficult to detect. Self- assessment is crucial. How is my performance? My ability to concentrate? To react? Am I missing checklist items? Radio calls? Am I communicating clearly? Symptoms such as these dictate taking action before impairment sets in.

We can agree that coming to work well rested and nourished is highly desirable; that water intake and maintaining hydration is important; that moving and stretching in-flight, if possible, is desirable. What else can we do? The use of supplemental oxygen, particularly at night, can improve alertness. It’s important to intentionally remain mentally active with flight-related tasks—e.g., calculating fuel, analyzing weather conditions, reviewing approaches, etc. Hand flying can be a boon.

Pilot Fatigue and Stress

As noted earlier, pilot performance requires a level of active stress (arousal) and, according to the performance/stress relationship (Yerkes/Dodson or Inverted-U curve), performance improves with increasing stress until peak performance is achieved; thereafter, as the level of stress increases beyond peak, working effectiveness drops off markedly.

It bears repeating that fatigue shifts the curve, reducing performance capability.

Human and Personal Limitations

It is important to acknowledge that a pilot’s capability to deal with changing events has human and personal constraints:
            Information processing—short term memory imposes a 6 to 8 item limit;
            Other factors, such as fatigue or stress, further narrow this processing capability, risking. overload.

Fuel Management
In-Flight Issues

Fuel Requirements
[Norm Komich] The FARs are very specific on what your fuel requirements are PRIOR to liftoff, but once you are airborne, guidance is nonexistent. Furthermore, the closest thing to in-flight fuel management directives in any of my past AOM or GOMs was the designation of a minimum amount of fuel for a missed approach (the high nose-up attitude would pool the fuel in the back of the tanks and not get picked up for use).

[Norm] When I used “Fuel Management” as the theme of annual recurrent training, I was surprised to learn that almost everyone had experienced a low fuel situation with an associated vivid “war story” to relate.
            One statement, “I once looked at low fuel warning light for 45 minutes!,” was followed by, “It was only ten minutes, but FELT like 45.!”

Back to Basics
Norm Komich provides answers to basic fuel related questions:

Q1: Under what circumstances may the Pilot in Command burn into reserve fuel?

A1: At the PIC’s discretion (i.e., anytime the PIC wants to). But, please consider this advice: NEVER intentionally plan to burn into reserve fuel; this reserve is ONLY for unplanned contingencies.

[Norm] This advice should really be a mandate because once you knowingly burn into reserve fuel you limityour ultimate options. This point is illustrated by a great “war story” from a Naval Aviator who accepted a challenge in the T-39 to fly from Pt. Mugu on the Pacific coast of California to Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast of Florida without stopping for fuel. To conserve fuel, a tug towed him to the runway before starting the engines. The flight went well and, even though very low on fuel, he had Jacksonville in sight. He was feeling pretty smug ‘til he called for the gear and got two green and one red. In this moment of epiphany he realized the folly of his plan. Fortunately, the gear was recycled and DID come down, but his story has a strong message.

Q2: What priorities will Air Traffic Control provide for you when you declare “Minimum Fuel” in the United States?

A2: In the U.S., declaring “Minimum Fuel” is ADVISORY only and you will get NO priority (and therefore have NO paperwork). Declaring “Emergency Fuel” will get you both priority and paperwork.

[Norm] I am amazed at the reluctance of pilots to declare min fuel. Instead they say things like, “We have a situation here” or, “Things are getting skosh.” Once I heard, “We are NOT declaring an emergency, we just need priority.” As a technique, do not wait till you are ready to divert to tell ATC you are min fuel. Give them some time to react with a call such as, “Tiger 123 will be minimum fuel in 15 minutes.” ATC is alerted that in 15 minutes you will be requesting to divert to your alternate. Often they can “massage” the system without giving you priority. Finally, remember the definition of declaring min fuel: “I need to proceed to my destination without any undue delay.”

Q3: When ATC asks you for your “Remaining Fuel” do you answer them in Gallons or Pounds?

A3: A trick question. They want time in MINUTES until dry tanks.

[Norm] One technique I liked is to fudge a little in your favor. If you have 40 minutes of fuel remaining, tell them 30 (the other 10 is for the wife and kids!; besides, how accurate are those fuel gauges?).

[Ken Foote] I agree that one should use a fudge factor in calculating minutes until dry tanks. However, I feel it’s important to stress that in this case the fudge factor is a subtraction. If you calculate that you have 22 minutes to fuel exhaustion, tell ATC a smaller number, like 15 minutes. We usually think in terms of additive fudge factors, and in a high stress situation, like about to run out of gas, is not the time to be reflecting on process of calculating.
            Also, the controller will ask about “souls on board.” For me, the first time I encountered this question, it also caused a delay in the thinking process.

Q4: You are holding 50 miles north of your destination which is landing to the north with a 20 mile final. Your alternate is 100 miles further north from your holding point. When do you declare “Minimum Fuel” and at what fuel do you divert to the alternate?

A4: This final question gets to the crux of fuel management and is worthy of considerable discussion. Many pilots I flew with had a canned number of gallons of fuel that they used for the diversion decision. In the 727 it was typically 15,000 pounds. But that approach was too rigid and could result in diverting early in some cases or too late in others.

[Norm] The approach I learned was as follows: Start with how much fuel you want to have on the ground at your alternate. Take that amount and back up, adding to it: a) fuel to alternate; b) fuel for the approach and missed approach at destination; and, c) fuel from holding to the approach.
            In the example posed, you should take into account you would be vectored south of the field for a long final, often be slowed down, flaps out, which takes even MORE fuel. If you use my suggested calculation, you will arrive at your alternate with more fuel than the reserve. Personally, I opt for this outcome instead of a longer hold that leads to puckering big time should you go missed approach.

Managing Fuel
A Leadership Test

There isn’t an experienced, goal-oriented pilot who hasn’t been in a fuel bind. Unsettled weather, unclear winds aloft, airspace congestion, runway availability, communication glitches, equipment problems, mental errors—the list goes on—compound to produce inflight uncertainty.

Effectively managing resources is a crucial airmanship skill, and managing fuel is one important test of this ability. It demands a high level of awareness, sound judgment and the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.

[War Story? Leave a Comment Below.]

Oxygen Depravation

Pilot Impairment
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis,
pulvinar dapibus leo. The rapid denigration of both skills and judgment in the cockpit. We may understand that hypoxia is insidious and potentially deadly.

The Hypoxia Risk
An improper selection of pressurization mode led to inadequate oxygen flow. The Helios Airways 737 leveled off at 34,000 feet and proceeded towards its destination on autopilot. The flight crew and passengers lost consciousness and the airplane crashed after fuel was exhausted.

The Learjet 35 crash that claimed the life of golfer Payne Stewart and others  was the result of the loss of cabin pressurization and the failure of pilots to utilize supplemental oxygen.

At the end of both of these tragic flights, military fighters watched helplessly as they flew alongside the crippled aircraft.

Insidious and Disabling
Who would have the imagination to make up a story like this?

The Boeing 727 reached its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet when the cabin altitude warning horn sounded. The right air conditioning pack was off! In an effort to reinstate the pack the FE inadvertently opened the outflow valve causing a rapid loss of cabin pressure. 

The confusion in the cockpit resulted in chaos—the captain incapacitated and incoherent, the flight engineer slumped over the console and the lead flight attendant (who was serving meals to the flight crew) unconscious on the deck. The first officer, with only 10 hours in type, had donned his oxygen mask when the warning first sounded and took the actions necessary to start an emergency descent and save the flight.

That was the cockpit scene. In the cabin the deployed masks were dutifully put on by the passengers.

One very junior pilot demonstrated the cockpit leadership that the situation demanded. He made the necessary personal commitment and proved worthy to the task.


Sometimes we run across a quotation that resonates. Those of us who often struggle to find the right combination of words admire the ability of others to express an idea precisely and clearly. As one example, and long before powered flight, the a noted French author observed (1746),

[Marquis de Vauvenargues] The things we know best are the things we haven’t been taught.

How true. Learning from one’s own mistakes and acute observations has staying power. Even minor errors have important lessons imbedded. When we are able to acknowledge missteps and get at their roots we stimulate self-learning and promote self-knowledge and awareness. The answers to simple questions—I knew better, why didn’t I react differently?; Why didn’t I anticipate that outcome?—help in forming the personal standards that define us and determine how we perform as aviators.

[Seasoned Flight Instructor] Learn something new every flight.
            See Andre Ludovick’s comment in Individual Debriefing above about recording “lessons learned” after every flight. This personal catalogue will will serve as a valuable resource.

Aircraft Icing
NASA Training/Refresher Courses and Resources

Essential Pilot Knowledge
Icing related accident reports and summaries are included in these NASA exercises.
Pilot checklists are also provided.

A Pilot”s Guide to Ground Icing
Primarily intended for pilots who make their own operational de-icing and anti-icing decisions. This includes private pilots as well as those who fly business, corporate, air taxi, or freight operations in fixed-wing aircraft.

Ground-icing related guidance from pre-flight to departure:

  • Go/No-Go decision making:
          – likely conditions, problems caused, types of contamination.
          – sources of weather information.
          – techniques for detecting and evaluating, including walk-around inspections.
          – basics of deicing and anti-icing fluids.
          – techniques to deice and anti-ice aircraft.
  • Use of ground icing checklists:
          – protected aircraft (certified for flight in icing)
          – unprotected aircraft.

A Pilot’s Guide to In-flight Icing
Primarily intended for pilots who fly aircraft certified for flight into icing. With an operational focus, this course provides tools pilots can use to deal with in-flight icing.

Your best protection against a hazardous encounter with in-flight icing is planning, early detection, and if necessary avoidance. If you fly into ice:

  • Clear even small amounts of ice.
  • Periodically disconnect the autopilot and hand-fly the aircraft.
  • Monitor for visual and tactile cues of impending handling anomalies.
  • Use flaps carefully.

Ice formation and the aerodynamic effects on aircraft performance and handling.

  • In Flight Icing Decisions:
          – avoiding icing, detecting icing and exiting from icing conditions.
          – effects of ice accretion on performance and handling and the particular hazard of Supercooled Large Droplet (SLD) icing.
          – thinking and acting, including the use of autopilot and the effects of configuration and power changes at different flight stages.
  • Examples:
          – do not accept an extended hold in ice.
          – closely monitor the aircraft’s performance/handling and keep the speed up.

Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) 
Advantages and Limitations

The primary NVG advantage is that the pilot is able to see objects at night that could not otherwise be seen by the naked eye. Some small degree of ambient light is necessary but, remarkably, even starlight can be intensified enough for NVGs to produce an electronic image of terrain and obstacles.

NVGs are often used during both military and civilian (e.g., Medivac) flight operations. their employment requires speciaized knowledge and training.

{ Subscriber] Operational conditions can severely limit NVG effectiveness and effective pilot training programs are required.

  • Whiteout, taking off in a snow covered area. Consider the case of the pilot encountering whiteout due to rotor downwash on departure yet attempts to land. First, there needs to be awareness that a whiteout might happen, and then a plan is needed if it does. An ITO (instrument takeoff) would ensure a stable departure and flight out of the whiteout. Is there enough power? Did the pilot do a high recon and low recon prior to landing to know where the obstacles are and what the best departure path would be?
  • Brownout, continuing to land during with surface dirt or sand. Does the pilot have a go-around plan? Similar power requirements and obstacle precautions are required.
  • Surface lighting will affect the pilot’s visibility during brownout. Responders with fire truck lights to illuminate the landing need to understand how the NVG pilot’s visibility will be affected.

From the comic movie, Airplane
Passenger Ted Striker (actor Robert Hays), a former Navy pilot, is required to take the controls because the aircraft’s pilots are incapacitated. Striker is not qualified and is completely unprepared for to fly an aircraft of this type, especially during stormy conditions at night.

In this scene, the aircraft is on final approach to landing. Pilot Striker fights to maintain control during the reality of turbulent conditions.

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