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Decision Training for Pilots -- Building Blocks

Every flight you will ever take consists of a series of decisions -- it's the quality of those decisions that determine the level of your safety. Unfortunately many pilots take decision making for granted.

Every flight you will ever take consists of a series of decisions -- it's the quality of those decisions that determine the level of your safety. Unfortunately many pilots take decision making for granted. They spend time and dollars practicing maneuvers, but little or no time practicing how to make decisions.

Practice Makes Perfect
We know that human performance improves with practice. But while pilots repetitiously practice various flight maneuvers, we often overlook the fact that decision-making takes practice as well. The "real world" of flying is not made up of a series of instructor directed maneuvers, but rather a series of decisions that come one after the other. Does it make sense to train using maneuvers exclusively -- ignoring the pilot's responsibility to make decisions? No, of course not. Now I am not saying that maneuvers are not valuable, but they are simply tools. How the tools are used takes judgement and superior decision making skills. I say that pilot training should be made up of both "maneuvers" and "missions."

Pilots should practice placing themselves in situations where they must make decisions -- that practice can be a mental exercise and doesn't have to take place in the cockpit.

Building Blocks
To teach pilots to become competent decision-makers, flight instructors must become storytellers and students must become riddle solvers. It will take creativity on both sides, but the result will be pilots better prepared to deal with situations in the real flight environment. To pass a checkride every pilot must meet the minimum requirements of the Practical Test Standard (PTS), but judgement and decision-making skills are hard to evaluate, so the PTS has evolved into a very "maneuver based" document. Unfortunately this means there is an incentive to "teach-to-the-test." Becoming a pilot therefore dumbs-down to a series of maneuvers performed with a certain tolerance of altitude, airspeed, and heading.

Creative instructors and examiners are required to apply the PTS to real world scenarios - the kind a pilot is likely to face. What's more likely to happen: 1) a controller asked a pilot to keep their speed up; or 2) a controller asks a pilot to perform an "S" turn. Preparing for the real world of flying, not just preparing for the test, should be the goal of every pilot. The good news is that you can do both.

The maneuvers that pilots learn can be grouped into families. Lets look at the families or blocks first and then move on to the way maneuvers can be best utilized. In flight training the building block method works well. This is also known as the "you-must-walk-before-you-can-run" method. A more simple skill is taught so that it can be used to facilitate the learning of a more complex skill. The skills build one on the other with mastery being the goal. I think a Private Pilot course should look like figure 1.

This picture has all the major building blocks that are required for a person to become a Private Pilot and they are prioritized from the ground up. A person could not be expected to fly the airplane solo until they had been taught to fly the traffic pattern. A person could not be expected to fly a solo cross-country unless they had dual cross-country instruction first. So the blocks are prioritized and stacked so that a firm foundation is built. Each block has an entrance and an exit.

Moving from bottom to top, the entrance is the Lesson Objective, or a statement of what it is you want to get accomplished in this block. The exit is the Completion Standard, or what the person must be able to do in order to move on to the next block. Meeting the standard of one block means its time for the person to move up to the next block. When the person arrives in the next block they will be using the knowledge and skills learned in the previous block to work toward the Completion Standard of their new block.

NOTE: The number of flight hours is never shown here. A student might need five one-hour lessons to meet the standard of a particular block while another student gets it done in three. In this method the use of minimum flight hours are out -- standards are in.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Today the Completion Standards are mostly comprised of maneuvers that a person must perform. Once they can manipulate the airplane to a particular skill level, they move on. But learning to be the Pilot in Command takes more than machine manipulation so true Completion Standards must also include decisions. The real world offers the pilot an unlimited number of decision circumstances, so we should be placing would-be pilots into circumstances where decisions are required and let them practice. This real-world element can be injected into any flight training situations if the student and instructor use a little creativity. In the coming weeks I will offer some real-world training situations that combine maneuvers with missions so we can become pilots not just test-takers.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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