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Defining Pilots: The Lost in Space Category

I have performed simulator studies with large groups of pilots and found that among them there are sub-categories ... different "types" of pilot. The name of this category should speak for itself. The pilots of this group are characterized by being oblivious to the safety concerns that are all around them. They are simply driving the machine with no comprehension of their surroundings. They have little or no situation awareness. Points of decision in a scenario can arrive and they are unaware of their existence. It is not that these pilots make poor decisions, the problem is they do not even know that a decision is called for. They make no correlation between actions that are going on around them and the consequences of those actions. They get into real trouble and never even know they are in danger.

I have performed simulator studies with large groups of pilots and found that among them there are sub-categories ... different "types" of pilot. The name of this category should speak for itself. The pilots of this group are characterized by being oblivious to the safety concerns that are all around them. They are simply driving the machine with no comprehension of their surroundings. They have little or no situation awareness. Points of decision in a scenario can arrive and they are unaware of their existence. It is not that these pilots make poor decisions, the problem is they do not even know that a decision is called for. They make no correlation between actions that are going on around them and the consequences of those actions. They get into real trouble and never even know they are in danger.

CHARACTERISTICS
Simulator and airplane training scenarios in this case are designed to place the pilot in a position that warrants a decision, and the variable to be measured is the time it takes to make the decision. This group's pilots generally fly the simulator or airplane fairly well, but that's all they do. My most unexpected observation has been that a segment of the pilot population never makes a decision at all. Worse yet, they fail to make a decision due to the fact that they were unaware that a decision is desperately needed.

Other observed problems customary to this group were:

  1. Improperly switching a navigation radio when they were -- at that moment -- using that radio to navigate.
  2. Repeating instructions back to the controller by rote, but then not carrying out the instruction that they had just repeated.
  3. Failure to prepare for an upcoming flight procedure.
  4. Losing position awareness during an approach procedure, which led to failure to descend on the approach course at the proper time.
  5. Consulting the wrong approach chart when setting up the radios for an approach.

One pilot flew the approach at the destination airport without the glide slope, made a missed approach and asked to divert to an alternate that had a full ILS approach. Upon arrival at the alternate he elected to not use the ILS approach (although it was available and was the only approach that could safely get the airplane below the clouds). He never understood the implication of loosing the glide slope at the destination so he did not think it a problem not to use it at the alternate.

THE UPSIDE AS A DOWNSIDE
The Lost in Space pilots seemed less stressed than others and were quite talkative during the scenario:

"Smyrna Tower I am over the outer marker." (This comment was made as the pilot passed over the middle marker - the markers in that scenario were 4.3 miles apart and the airplane should have been approximately 1,000 feet lower over the middle marker than the outer marker).

"Nashville Tower this is Frasca 141 requesting a low approach." (The reason for flying an approach procedure in the first place is to get under the clouds and land. Why would a pilot ask for only a 'low approach.' He should desperately have wanted to land, not fly a low approach, at the flight's intended destination).

"I need to get down."

"Over the outer marker inbound." (This comment was made 5.5 miles outside the outer marker).

"I almost broke out." (This comment was made to the controller. At this point there was no way the pilot could have known how close the airplane was to breaking out from under the clouds - I guess that was wishful thinking!).

"I see the (approach) lights!" (Seeing the approach lights means that the runway is in sight and a safe landing can be made, however, when this pilot said this, the lights were in fact not visible.) In this case, it meant the pilot was lying.

"Am I dead yet?" (This comment was made 6.4 miles past the approach runway and 300 feet lower than the minimum altitude. Although I did not answer the question during the scenario, the answer was - yes).

And one participant said when a scenario had concluded, "This is a different world."

CREAM OF THE CROP
Many of the comments recorded by the members of the "lost" group suggested they missed key elements of the scenario they had just completed. "I know I missed something," was a popular phrase, but my personal favorite was, "Simulator malfunction!" (I was never aware of any simulator malfunction!)

"Noticed DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) went out." (In that particular scenario, I never caused the DME to fail nor was it a part of the scenario. The participant had just tuned in an incorrect frequency.)

THE BOTTOM LINE: Remember, I am not accusing any pilot of being "Lost in Space." The categories are simply a grouping of traits that seem to go together. When you fly you probably are not "Lost in Space," but you should be careful to watch for some of these traits as they appear in your own flying -- from time to time, they likely will. Watching for tendencies will make it easier to spot flaws in your own performance.

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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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