Recently, a VFR pilot flying a Cessna 172 departed after dark in VMC and flew into IMC. Shortly after takeoff, the pilot reported an electrical failure to ATC, but continued into a thickening blanket of fog. The accident chain continued to build until its predictable conclusion.
Weather-related accidents continue to be a problem. It’s time for a new technique for training students about weather. Scenario-based training stands out as the best tool because of its ability to capture the whole range of possibilities in rich detail. By identifying accident causes and other uncertainties, an instructor can construct a series of scenarios that helps students learn everything—from estimating distances from a cloud to exercising good judgment—that’s appropriate to the phase of training.
Experienced instructors know that a student’s perceptions about weather evolve as training progresses. During the solo phase of training, students center on the weather regulations and compare them to local meteorological conditions in making the go/no-go decision. Information of most concern to the student pilot at this point in training is wind, ceiling and visibility. The question on the student’s mind is, “Can I take off?”
Instructors and their students can incorporate scenario-based training into this phase with the help of a computerized weather program such as DUATS. Sitting at the computer, check for METARs at several different locations around the country. For instance, could you legally take off from St. Petersburg, Fla., today? Could you land with the current conditions in Oshkosh? Survey airports in different airspaces and practice decoding and interpreting conditions. Look at favorite vacation destinations—the airport near grandma’s house—and at favorite locales, and decide if a legal takeoff can be made.
This may sound overly simple. However, in 2002, a survey of pilots visiting EAA AirVenture found that only 55% of pilots correctly interpreted weather reports and forecasts, and only 61% scored correctly on questions pertaining to weather-related regulations. As a group, the survey participants didn’t understand weather as it pertains to real flying.
Without scenarios like the one mentioned above, METARs are only a collection of numbers on the computer screen. Scenario-based training brings these numbers to life by applying them to a specific flight the student is likely to fly.
During solo cross-country training, decisions about weather have to be expanded. In this phase, the emphasis should be on evaluating changing weather conditions and developing a new plan to deal with those changes. Good instructors would assess the student’s decision making through discussion. The student’s mind-set would be characterized more as, “Can I reach my destination?”
A well-known accident like John F. Kennedy Jr.’s continued VFR flight into IMC makes a great scenario. Ideally, an instructor would use a flight simulator or training device to give the student an opportunity to experience gradually deteriorating weather. The scenario could make scud running look like a viable option, allowing the student to underestimate the risks involved with flight into deteriorating conditions.
Students who become aware of the deteriorating weather often will react with overconfidence in coping with the conditions. The perfect training scenario would include those social pressures that influence “get-there-itis” so that students could learn firsthand how pilots get caught in the trap.
Scenario-based training at this phase should enhance methods for the student to update weather en route using FSS, ATC and onboard technology. The scenario should allow a possible 180-turn-back as a realistic option. It should introduce the concept of reconfiguring the aircraft for a slower speed, allowing the student to think and assess the situation. And it should promote patience—that is, the student should land and wait for the weather to improve.
A safe, weather-minded pilot is one who understands that weather conditions are dynamic—moving and changing in three dimensions, with different conditions at different altitudes. Before graduation, the correct student mind-set is, “Should I continue the flight as planned?”
Presentation software like PowerPoint can be used to construct scenarios during this phase of training. The presentation should feature weather across a lengthy cross-country outside of the student’s familiar flying area. The instructor should provide natural points throughout the scenario to ask the student to choose between “Should I continue?” “Should I divert?”or “Should I land?” Phases of flight where students may be asked to make the continue/divert/land decision might include: (1) before leaving the flight-planning room, (2) before takeoff, (3) hourly en route updates, (4) before initial descent and (5) before beginning approach.
In the perfect scenario, the student is asked to consider the weather pattern and its hazards; to use weather services; to apply weather regulations; to interpret weather data; and to make the ultimate continue, divert or abort weather-related decision. It’s much more than an hour of ground training; it’s a realistic flight experience.
Another presentation could feature a scenario that slowly reveals itself. Preplanned events would build the accident chain in small, barely noticeable ways—just as in real life. Perhaps the departure time is delayed while waiting for fuel, then the groundspeed is five knots slower than planned, then weather starts a slight deterioration, then there’s a short ATC delay, add a small inconvenience with a nonessential cockpit technology failure and an impatient passenger, and you have all the ingredients for an accident chain. But with scenario-based training, this accident chain has a happy ending with the student correlating weather information in a realistic situation. Students should integrate information over different areas, interpreting it and demonstrating an understanding of it on a realistic flight.
Such presentations encourage a constant state of vigilance to detect changes from what was expected. The scenario should promote situational awareness and teach how to organize information, recognize changes and decide what, if any, revision should be made.
The newest Aviation Instructor’s Handbook introduces the “5P Checklist,” which encourages pilots to periodically reassess each of the five Ps (plane, pilot, passengers, programming and plan) during flight. Some instructors encourage the student to consider the five Ps at the top of each hour. Others suggest that it be completed when fuel tanks are being changed. The 5P Checklist is a tool that pilots can use to organize their assessment about the changing conditions of the five Ps.
With the five Ps, the pilot is encouraged to consider the following questions: What has changed since we last completed the evaluation? What are the major risk factors now? How does the change affect us now? How will it affect the duration of the flight? Are we comfortable with the effect? Is an accumulation of concerns—an accident chain—beginning? What resources in the cockpit can we use to assist us? What additional information would we like to have? From where or whom can we get this information? How can we solicit help? What resource do we wish we had? What can we do to improve our situation? Should we abort the flight, continue as planned or continue with a diversion?
Scenario-based training can transport the student to a realistic weather “experience” where he or she can practice thinking, assessing and deciding on the best course of action for a safe flight. Try it. You’ll like it.
Arlynn McMahon is the training center manager at Aero-Tech in Lexington, Ky. She is the author of Train Like You Fly: A Flight Instructor’s Guide to Scenario-Based Training and is the 2009 National Flight Instructor of the Year.