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How Threats Can Keep Pilots Safe

A training tool known as TEM is opening eyes.

A Mooney flying in the clouds - How Threats Can Keep Pilots Safe - Plane & Pilot

As pilots, we complete all kinds of training. Depending on what we fly, where we fly, why we fly, or who we may fly for, we all complete a certain amount of training. Most of this training is related to operating the aircraft, aircraft systems and all the other technical areas required for safe flight. Additionally, we receive at least some level of training in the human element of flight, human factors, as they are often called. 

This human element of our training has evolved throughout the years and is most commonly known as Cockpit/Crew Resource Management (CRM) and/or Threat and Error Management (TEM). These are names for management systems that train us to make the best use of all available resources, to make the best choices, manage/mitigate risk and to ensure situational awareness. Formal training in CRM/TEM is integral to most professional pilot training curricula but is just as beneficial in any type of aviation. It is not just for the professional pilot flight deck!

The latest iteration of this training is the TEM model. TEM training is extensive and is not a standalone class or procedure. It is designed to be woven into our entire training, evaluation and operating process; it is inherent in all we do. The reason for this is simple—it works!

When I say it works, I mean it helps keep us safe. What is safe? Entire volumes have been written, and continue to be written, about exactly what safe means. For our purposes, I think we can agree that safe means operating our aircraft without accident or incident.

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Since I do not have the time or space, in this article, for a detailed explanation of TEM, I will have to resort to a simplified but hopefully accurate and useful explanation. 

Threat and error management is just that. The management (mitigation) of threats and errors or mistakes.  

Pilots Make Mistakes 

Humans (even pilots) make mistakes. We always have, and we always will. For the purposes of this article, let’s consider our prior and potential errors/mistakes as “threats.” If we are always going to make mistakes (threats), what can we do about it? The goal is to use our training, experience and skills to recognize those errors, minimize those errors and mitigate any negative outcomes caused by those errors. This is a large part of the TEM model. We know we are going to make errors and errors equal threats. We can therefore be on the lookout for those threats.

What Is A “Threat?”

A simple definition of a threat is: a person or thing likely to cause damage or danger. When you think about it, flying has many inherent threats: weather, the aircraft, the aircraft systems, the environment, and of course, the human pilot as we discussed earlier. The important part is not in labeling the threats but recognizing that they exist and mitigating the risks associated with those threats. In other words, what are you going to do to prevent that threat from causing an accident or incident?

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Most of us think of the threats and how to avoid or mitigate them all the time. We call it flight planning. Threats and their mitigation are the very basis for flight planning. We ask ourselves during flight planning, what is the weather? What is the terrain I am flying over? What is the runway length at the destination airport? What are my personal limitations? What we may not think about, however, are the threats and mitigations as we are actually flying the aircraft. Which is just as important as the questions we ask ourselves while flight planning.

We Need To Actively Think About Threats

As I said, as pilots we spend a great deal of time planning flights. We verify airworthiness, check the weather, and ensure aircraft performance will be adequate. But how much time do we spend thinking about the actual flight itself as we are flying it? Are we thinking about the threats just before takeoff or just before beginning an approach? What would we do in the event of a non-normal situation? When is the last time you were mentally prepared for, or even thought about, a go-around while on final approach on a beautiful VFR day? 

Awareness of threats and mitigations does not have to be a complicated or time consuming effort. It actually takes very little time and can really help mentally prepare you, and your co-pilot or passenger(s), for whatever phase of flight you are in or about to be in. 

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For example, before beginning your approach to a short field, just think about the threats and mitigations. If you have a co-pilot or even an interested passenger (I wouldn’t do this with a fearful flyer), discuss it and ask if they have any questions. You might say something like, “This is a relatively short runway, so I will make sure I am on speed and properly configured by X. I will have touched down by the fixed- distance markings (or other reference point), or I will execute a go-around. On the go-around, I will fly straight ahead till xxx feet—any questions?”

You can add as much or little detail as you feel necessary; in fact, many times we discuss the go-around procedure as we don’t normally perform that maneuver other than in training. On the other hand, if you have done several lately, then just say we will go around. Let’s say it is a beautiful Saturday morning, and we are flying to one of our favorite local airports for a pancake breakfast. What are our threats and mitigations?

The dialogue might go like this: “It will be very busy today at xxx airport due to the fly-in breakfast, so I will listen to CTAF early, keep my ADSB traffic displayed, fly a standard pattern entry, and ask everyone onboard to keep their eyes out for traffic. Should we be in conflict with any traffic, I will just follow standard procedures and re-enter the pattern or go around and fly a standard pattern—any questions?”

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There are no specific rules. The idea is for you to think about what you have to do, what may be different this specific time (the threats), and what you are going to do (the mitigation) if something does not go as planned. 

The addition of the “Any questions?” allows for our fellow “crew” to feel free to speak up and ask questions.  It is also a question we should be asking ourselves, especially if we are solo and have no one else to question us. In that case, question yourself, because when you’re flying solo, you are your own “crew.”

Plane on the runway - How Threats Can Keep Pilots Safe - Plane & Pilot

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When is a good time to be thinking about the threats and mitigations? As I said before, there are no rules, but some appropriate times and items to discuss may be:

  • Before Taxi – Taxi route (especially if an unfamiliar airport)
  • Before Takeoff – Departure route, obstacles, engine failure procedures
  • Cruise Flight – Enroute weather, restricted airspace, nearest airports
  • Before Descent – Approach type, terrain, missed approach considerations

Don’t forget to include threats generated by the “human” pilot, which may include not only mistakes/errors but also threats from other limitations such as lack or recency of experience, limited experience in aircraft type or limited experience in specific weather or terrain conditions.

The important part of this technique is to be aware of and recognize the threats to your specific phase of flight and be aware of the mitigations that are available to you.

It also does not matter if we call it human factors training, CRM, TEM or whatever other names may be used.  The important thing to realize is that no matter what type of flying you are doing, there will always be threats.  It is how we manage these threats that is important.

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General aviation may not have opportunities or resources to provide extensive TEM training to all pilots, but perhaps we can learn from the TEM model and apply even a small part of it in all of our flying. 

By thinking about them on every flight, those threats can help keep us safe. So, what are your “threats” today? 

Thinking About Flying Emergencies Before They Happen

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