Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Ultimate Choice

Using crew resource management for the decision-making process

During simulator training for the airlines, crew resource management is an integral part of the syllabus.  This includes dynamics such as leadership, assertiveness, error management, conflict resolution and workload management.
Single-Pilot CRM?
The airline industry has worked very hard in the last two decades to increase flight safety, and today's remarkable safety statistics can be attributed to many factors, one being CRM. I truly believe that. I also believe very strongly that these CRM tools can and should be used by pilots flying in general aviation today. Large corporate and charter operators flying multiple-pilot aircraft have outstanding CRM programs. Some even rival and exceed that of the airline industry.

Where the gap occurs is in the single-pilot cockpit. Perhaps it's the perception that CRM principle can only apply to multiple-pilot cockpits. However, if you study in-depth recent NTSB reports on general aviation accidents, some interesting details begin to emerge, suggesting that lack of cockpit resource management principles lead to decreased flight safety. Statements such as: "pilot's lack of situational awareness," "pilot's poor communication," "pilot's fatigue and or failure to manage workload," regularly emerge. Statements such as "pilot's final choice" or "ultimate choice contributed to the fatal accident" should really be an eye opener to all general aviation pilots. In one example, the NTSB final findings of a fatal Cessna 206 accident from 2003 stated that the pilot's decision to take off into a severe thunderstorm contributed to the accident.

Dividing up workload is one simple solution for increased flight safety.
While it may be difficult to apply all CRM principles to single-pilot airplanes (SPA), there are some very important ones that should be focused on. In an SPA, there's no inter-crew interaction, authority or leadership issues, however, communication both with ATC, Flight Service, a safety pilot, passengers and other aircraft is critical to flight safety. I would even suggest that correct phraseology, clear and concise pronunciation and listening skills are vital to the communication element. Next would be Situational Awareness with a sub element of Workload Management. A pilot can increase Situational Awareness by being well rested and in good health to fly, which increase alertness, and execute good pre-flight planning, thus reducing workload. A poor example of this would be a pilot who didn't get a weather brief from Flight Service, didn't file a flight plan, hopped in the plane for a quick trip and ran into either a mechanical issue or poor and deteriorating weather. The workload for this pilot can become overwhelming very quickly.

Ultimately, a pilot will make a decision whether it's as simple as just the decision itself to go flying or as dramatic as deciding to head for a plowed field or a paved highway following an engine failure. Experienced pilots have the benefit of being experienced. Many times, their decisions are based on the, "Been there, have the t-shirt," philosophy. Newer pilots, however, should rely on "reaching out" to help them make decisions. A co-pilot and a dispatcher may not be available, but a pilot could easily communicate with a pilot mentor, a flight instructor or contact a Flight Service Station to help in the decision-making process. My favorite phone call was from a pilot friend of mine with less than 600 hours wanting my opinion on continuing a flight or just getting a hotel room. I really admired him for reaching out and was happy to suggest that he just pack it in for the night. He avoided an IFR single-pilot night flight with embedded thunderstorms. I was sure glad to see him safely land the next morning.

Perhaps pertaining to Cockpit Resource Management for an SPA, we can say this: A pilot who's fit to fly and has properly planned/preflighted communicates better has increased Situational Awareness, thus reducing workload, makes better Decisions, and ultimately increasing their Flight Safety.

Captain Mike McEllhiney flies the A320 for a major airline based in San Francisco, Calif. He holds an ATP with type ratings on the Airbus A310, A320 and Boeing 747-400.


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