Wings Magazine

Exercising Judgment: Complementing skill-based flight training

Of all the challenges faced when training to be a pilot, flying the airplane is generally not the most difficult.

March 28, 2008  By James Marasa

In a simulated flight environment, students are able to make more
decisions in a limited timeframe and see the effects of their actions,
both positive and negative.  (Photo courtesy of Alsim)

Of all the challenges faced when training to be a pilot, flying the airplane is generally not the most difficult.  Apart from an unusual flight condition, maintaining control of an airplane is a skill that can be mastered with a high likelihood of success.  With the appropriate amount of study and time at the controls, most individuals could successfully join the roughly 2,000 private pilots who are licensed in Canada each year.

The traditional system of flight training has worked effectively, though the industry has been playing catch-up with advances in technology as the relationship between pilot and machine continues to evolve.  Many of today’s aircraft are more than capable of flying themselves – the precision of an autopilot far exceeds that of a human – and technically advanced aircraft have demanded that general aviation pilots attain competency in managing advanced technology.  Nevertheless, even in the face of the most ultramodern instrument panel, a human is meant to assure the system works the way it is supposed to.

 With the responsibility for flight safety still resting on the pilot’s shoulders, skill and judgment are the two most critical attributes needed to captain an aircraft.  Any private pilot curriculum will teach the skills required to fly an airplane, but with the vast majority of aircraft accidents attributed to pilot error, how is one meant to edify good judgment?

The student-friendly environment of a controlled-aerodrome circuit is vastly different than the type of flying a commercial operator or serious recreational pilot will routinely face.  Though there are legal amounts of cross-country flight and air exercises to be completed, the circuit encompasses the bulk of the flying a student pilot will experience before he or she is able to attain a private licence. “Teaching someone to fly is not the same as teaching them to be a pilot,” says Clark Duimel, chief flight instructor at Pacific Flying Club, one of the major flight schools at Boundary Bay Airport near Vancouver. “It’s a mindset.”

Pacific Flying Club’s Paul Harris navigates through the AL200’s
setup menu. The system can simulate up to 18 different aircraft in
various weather conditions at any airport in Canada or the United
States. (Photo courtesy of Edward Lee)

Certain students approach aviation with an innate ability to grasp the concepts of piloting an airplane and the responsibility they accordingly take on.  Others enter their first airplane from a less-enlightened position, and the “coaching” required to bring the student to a high level of decision making becomes a priority that permeates the entire flight training process. Paul Harris, manager of flight operations at Pacific Flying Club, believes it is up to the instructor to “model” good attitudes, leadership and professionalism.  In a process of “Incremental Decision Making,” Harris advocates that the student needs to be involved in the decision-making process from the very beginning.  From analyzing the weather to conducting flight-planning scenarios, the student must learn to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations. “You are teaching people to think,” he says.

How then, is Pilot Decision Making measured or tested?  Harris would agree that assessment of a pilot’s decision-making abilities is difficult. “No one makes all the right decisions,” he admits, and there are no objective criteria within the Transport Canada standards from which to evaluate one’s critical thinking process. “It becomes an intuitive decision on the part of the examiner,” he says. One of the crucial ele-ments when training someone to make good decisions is allowing them to learn from their own mistakes. However, airplanes can be brutally unforgiving of lapses in judgment, yet theoretically, a student pilot cannot stumble into a potentially dangerous situation without the instructor taking control to ensure flight safety.  Such corrective action is necessary of course, but it robs the students of the opportunity to see the results of their actions.  Consequently, a vast amount of learning takes place within a pilot’s first few hundred solo hours – but so do many accidents.  The question is, how can flight training allow a pilot obtain this experience without taking on the inherent level of risk?

Simulators, like the Alsim 200 MCC, afford decision-making
opportunities that are not available in real airplanes.  (Photo
courtesy of Alsim)

In 1990, the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Lab in Daytona Beach, Fla., released a study evaluating the effectiveness of a simulator-based approach to training skills in risk-assessment and decision-making in the cockpit.  The study took a group of pilots enrolled in an aviation science program, provided them with classroom instruction designed to enhance their judgment abilities, and followed up with four hours of simulated flights during which numerous critical events took place.  The results of these sessions were measured against a control group who had not received judgment training.  It was determined that the students who received the training and simulator practice fared much better during the evaluations than those who did not receive the extra practice. In November 2001, a dissertation submitted to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University reached similar conclusions.  The author, Edward L. Deitch, suggested that presenting in-flight scenarios to students by way of simulation would result in a more profound learning experience as a simulated flight environment more closely replicates actual experience than does classroom instruction or ground briefings. Deitch said decisions made in-flight are generally tainted by stress and involve “ill-structured problems” clouded in a dynamic and uncertain environment.  He advocates that allowing a student to see the effects of an ambiguous scenario will create a lasting impression – more so than by merely discussing “theoretical outcomes.” 

Pilot Decision Making is a mandatory subject in groundschool and though it may be discussed in length, Deitch suggests that complementing theoretical knowledge with actual decision-making scenarios has proven far more effective. Unlike ab-initio flight training, air traffic control instruction is centred on students making decisions and learning from their mistakes during simulation.  Students are not permitted to interact with live airplanes until 8 to12 months into their initial course at an Area Control Centre.  ATC Instructors generally find simulators to be a significant teaching tool as they allow students to learn from situations that occur only sporadically in the real world such as medical emergencies, fuel dumps and NORAD operations.  In turn, students are afforded the liberty to see the consequences of their decisions, both good and bad.  Most experience one or more losses of separation in the simulator, mistakes that provide valuable learning opportunities, but are strongly discouraged with real airplanes.

Though commercial and airline operators have stressed simulator training for years, the same technology has not become available to General Aviation in Canada until quite recently. After discussing the challenges instructors face while teaching in an airplane, Harris eagerly led me through a dimly lit doorway at the back of the flying club.  In the centre of the large room was a 180-degree wraparound projection simulator.  The Alsim AL200 MCC is a Level 5-capable flight-training device, which Pacific Flying Club is introducing to its curriculum. “You can’t acquire judgment without exercise,” Harris insisted as he climbed through the back of the device into the well-crafted model cockpit.  He explained how the system had recently been used while training a flight instructor candidate.   “We were able to do several forced approaches to the runway in one hour… the computer takes the aircraft right back to 3,000 feet.”  In a simulated flight environment, students are able to make more decisions in a limited timeframe, and ultimately to see the effects of their actions, both positive and negative.

Duimel has found similar advantages during his time evaluating pilots in the Alsim. 

“One pilot stalled during the flare to land, and the airplane crashed down to the runway” – an experience he would not have allowed to happen in a real 172.   “You can’t do that!” he laughed. Duimel was glad, both he and the other pilot were able to see the result first-hand.  It may have ultimately saved the pilot from making that same mistake in the real world.

As technology evolves and the pilot’s role changes, it is important that such advances filter through the flight training industry as well. Simulators afford decision-making opportunities that are not available in real airplanes, and often provide a way for pilots to improve upon their errors before the stakes are raised.  The goal of training is to learn from mistakes in a controlled and safe environment so as not to suffer the consequences in an unforgiving reality.  New pilots shouldn’t be forced to learn that the hard way.

James Marasa is an air traffic controller, commercial pilot and former flight instructor. He and Edward Lee are co-founders of .


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