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Legal - But Safe?

In recent years, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the failure of the pilot in command to maintain control of the aircraft has been cited as a recurring probable cause in a number of glider accidents. For the five-year period 1991 - 95, for example, 26 glider accident investigations were concluded with this brief and compelling statement. Furthermore, the number of accidents in which loss of aircraft control is a factor increases dramatically with the inclusion of stall/spin related events. This is especially troubling because the very essence of pilot responsibility is the ability to maintain control of the aircraft in all flight regimes. It is important to note, however, that this problem is not unique to the soaring community. NTSB accident data for 1995 indicates that almost one-half of the fatal general aviation airplane accidents occurring in that year involved loss of aircraft control as a primary or contributing factor.

Accidents, which result from loss of aircraft control typically, involve multiple contributing factors, the most notable of which is pilot proficiency. Proficiency, by definition, is "the state of performing a given skill with expert correctness." Unlike other activities, however, proficiency as a pilot encompasses a wide range of required knowledge and skills, including the ability to operate the aircraft in a precise and coordinated manner, an understanding of the regulatory requirements for operations in the national airspace system, and a knowledge of the aircraft and related systems. Furthermore, a pilot must be able to continuously evaluate the effects of a dynamic meteorological environment on the conduct of the flight. Pilot proficiency, therefore, relates to the pilot's ability to perform tasks associated with the safe conduct of a flight with expert correctness.

In a 1901 speech to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright stated, "...that practice is the key to the secret of flying." Although this sentiment was expressed soon after the Wright Brother's first experimental expedition to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the concept is as applicable for pilots today as it was almost a century ago. The importance of maintaining proficiency in critical aviation skills in today's complex operational environment continues to increase proportionally with advances in aircraft design and technology. The FAA, recognizing the importance of proficiency in these critical skills, created regulations to define the minimum level of activity required for a pilot to exercise the privileges of his or her pilot certificate.

The first of these regulatory requirements is addressed in FAR 61.56, Flight Review. This regulation states that no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft unless that person has accomplished a flight review in an aircraft for which the pilot is rated within the preceding twenty-four calendar months. This review requires a minimum of one hour of ground training which must include a discussion of current FAR Part 91 General Operating and Flight Rules. The flight portion of the review must include one hour of flight training on those maneuvers and procedures that, at the discretion of the person giving the review, are necessary for the pilot to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of his or her pilot certificate. Of course, the flight review must be conducted by an authorized flight instructor and a record of the satisfactory completion of the review must be entered into the pilot's logbook or permanent record.

The second regulatory requirement is addressed in FAR 61.57, Recent Flight Experience. This regulation states that no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days. These takeoffs and landings must have been accomplished in an aircraft of the same category (airplane, glider, etc.) and the pilot must have acted as the sole manipulator of the flight controls.

The rationale for these regulations is based, in part, on certain aspects of the human learning process. Professor Edward L. Thorndike, an early pioneer in educational psychology, theorized that the ability of an individual to learn new skills, or to retain previously acquired skills, is influenced by certain conditions. These conditions, referred to as Thorndike's Laws, have served as the foundation of aviation instruction for many years. The first of Thorndike's Laws that pertain to a pilot's ability to accomplish specific tasks is the Law of Exercise, which states that tasks most often repeated are best remembered. Consequently, to maintain a minimum level of competency in a specific task, it is important to perform the task on a regular basis. In other words, the old adage "practice makes perfect" is good advice.

Professor Thorndike also suggested that tasks most recently performed are also best remembered. This means that not only is it important to repeat tasks on a periodic basis, but within a recent time period as well. This principle is referred to as the Law of Recency. The influence of these conditions on the pilot's ability to perform certain tasks illustrates the importance of conducting critical flight operations on a periodic and recent basis. Although regulations pertaining to recency of experience and recurrent flight training attempt to ensure that pilots conduct these critical flight operations on a periodic basis, accidents occurring during critical phases of flight continue to plague the entire general aviation community.

To address this dilemma, it is important to first distinguish between being current and being proficient. Remember that proficiency, by definition, means performing a given skill with "expert correctness." In contrast, currency simply refers to being up to date or occurring within a recent period of time. These definitions are useful in illustrating the point that being current in a particular task does not necessarily imply proficiency at that task. If we apply these definitions to the recency of experience requirements specified in the regulations, it becomes evident that a pilot, while legally current, may not be adequately proficient in certain critical flight skills to act as pilot in command.

In 1983, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University conducted a study designed to measure the skill retention levels of newly certificated pilots and to determine how accurately these pilots were able to predict their own level of personal proficiency. The results of this research provide some interesting insight into potential cause factors of the most frequent types of glider accidents.

Primarily, the study revealed that general aviation pilots suffer a significant degree of cognitive and flight skill loss within a short period of time following the completion of structured flight training. Cognitive skill loss, in this case, refers to pilot judgment and decision-making ability. The areas of flight skill loss most affected include critical flight operations such as takeoffs and landings, stall recognition and recovery, minimum controllable airspeed, and emergency procedures. This finding is especially relevant for the soaring community considering that more than 70% of all reported glider accidents occur during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. Furthermore, stall / spin events, loss of aircraft control, and takeoff emergencies represent a substantial percentage of the number of takeoff and landings accidents that occur each year.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the study, however, was the finding that a pilot's ability to predict and evaluate his or her own skill retention levels for specific flight tasks is negligible. Simply stated, pilots are seldom accurate in assessing their own level of proficiency in a given task. This is especially true for infrequently performed maneuvers such as emergency procedures. The inability to accurately assess personal proficiency combined with the potential for loss of critical flight skills helps to explain why in-flight emergencies such as the PT3 continue to pose such a formidable challenge to soaring safety. In many cases, the FAA mandated flight review is the only exposure many pilots have to recurrent training in emergency procedures. However, the Embry-Riddle study suggests that the flight review required by the regulations may not be sufficiently frequent for relatively inexperienced pilots to maintain critical flight skills. The same may be true for more experienced pilots who do not exercise critical flight skills for prolonged periods of time.

It is equally important to consider that the requirement for the flight review may be satisfied in any category of aircraft for which the pilot is rated. This means that an individual possessing pilot in command privileges in both airplanes and gliders may accomplish the flight review in either an airplane or a glider. The privilege to carry passengers is then extended to both airplanes and gliders as long as the 90-day takeoff and landing requirement is satisfied for each category. Consequently, it is possible for a pilot, rated in both airplanes and gliders, to be in compliance with the flight review requirement, yet never participate in recurrent training in a glider.

The most important component of any accident prevention strategy is the pilot and the need for every pilot to maintain a high degree of proficiency in critical flight skills is a crucial factor in the prevention of soaring accidents. One of the most effective ways to address the problem of proficiency in critical flight skills is participation in a personal recurrent training program. The primary advantage of this type of activity is the flexibility available to design a recurrent training program that not only satisfies the requirements of the regulations, but allows the integration of individual training needs as well. The development of a personal proficiency program will require an accurate initial assessment of individual flying skills and aeronautical knowledge by a competent flight instructor. This evaluation can then be compared to a known standard such as the FAA Practical Test Standards. The assessment period may also be used to provide the training necessary for the pilot to regain the level of proficiency required for initial certification.

One of the most important aspects of participation in a personal proficiency program is the establishment of a recurrent training schedule. As previously noted, current regulatory requirements may not provide an adequate level of recurrent training for every pilot. Participation in one of the many programs specifically designed to promote proficiency in critical flying skills can be used to supplement the training required by regulations. One such program, the FAA Pilot Proficiency, or Wings, Program encourages participation in recurrent training on an annual basis. Not only does successful completion of each phase of the program satisfy the requirements for the flight review, but participants receive a distinctive set of wings and a certificate of accomplishment as well. Other opportunities for structured recurrent training include the ABC and Bronze Badge Training Program and the instruction required to qualify for a higher level of a pilot certificate, or to add additional privileges to an existing certificate. Regardless of the type of program selected, the most important point to remember is that training is the foundation of proficiency. Unless each pilot continues to participate in a regular recurrent training program, critical flying skills erode very quickly.

One final thought concerning the influence of pilot proficiency on loss of control related soaring accidents. Because transition training for single seat gliders consists almost exclusively of ground-based instruction, it is extremely important for pilots to become completely familiar with all procedural and operational aspects of an aircraft prior to the first flight. This includes the operation of all aircraft systems, a knowledge of normal and emergency procedures, aircraft limitations, and any operational requirements that may be specific to an individual aircraft, especially weight and balance considerations. Furthermore, until a reasonable level of experience is obtained in the aircraft, pilots should establish a specific set of personal limitations that preclude operations in conditions of high wind or other meteorological conditions that may have an adverse effect on the initial operations of the glider.

In closing, remember that current and proficient are adjectives used to describe separate and distinct levels of competency. In the context of aviation, being current simply means that a pilot has complied with the regulations and is legal to exercise the privileges of his or her pilot certificate. Proficiency, on the other hand, describes a pilot who conducts each flight with competence of a professional or, in other words, expert correctness. Proficiency also means making the commitment to put safety above all other considerations every time we fly. Most important, however, proficiency means much more than simply being legal to fly. It's about being safe to fly.

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