Despite the different reasons for male and female pilot error, cockpit resource management can make single-pilot flying almost as safe as in a two-pilot environment.

Vern Weiss

In the 1970s there was a rash of airline accidents. This was particularly startling because the accidents did not involve inexperienced flight crews but, instead, professional and highly trained flight crews! It was revealed in subsequent accident investigations that the accidents were preventable and largely due to human errors and frailties as well as crew members not utilizing all the resources available to them, including each other.

What I am about to tell you may find disfavor with some and if this is so, it is not my intention to cause controversy, but instead discuss these findings and how they relate to safer flying. In 2001, Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health released a report of the findings from research done on behalf of the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating:

Male pilots crash due to inattention. Female pilots crash due to aircraft mishandling.1

Johns Hopkins professor Susan Baker pointed out that air crashes by males are most often due to flawed decision-making and inattention. Flying aircraft with known mechanical problems, running out of fuel and landing gear up, the study reported, are typically male problems. Whereas women tend to be more cautious, follow the rules but exhibit more errors such as incorrect rudder use, poor control response and recovery from stalls.

Citabria aircraft suffering from landing gear accident possibly caused by pilot error
Photo by: Jeremy Zawodny

So regardless of who you are there’s work to be done by everyone. Each of us may have weaknesses and though the weaknesses are in different areas we should put our emphasis on mitigating them so we can limit or avoid pilot error.

Crew Resource Management was originally centered around airline operations with 2 or 3 pilot crews (flight engineers on aircraft such as the Boeing 727 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 were considered the third pilot). However, when cockpits become downsized to a flight staff of only one pilot, things change dramatically. 71-80% of all general aviation accidents are due to pilot error and a single pilot operation statistically is 1.6 times as probable of having an accident.2

Isn’t CRM What We Were Supposed To Be Doing All Along?

When I first heard about the concept of CRM, I didn’t quite understand it because I thought that its methodologies were what pilots did naturally. But apparently they weren’t. I thought the elements of single pilot CRM were pretty much covered by FAR 91.103 (Preflight action – “Pilots are required to familiarize themselves with all available information concerning the flight prior to every flight”) and 91.7 (Aircraft airworthiness – “The pilot in command is responsible for determining that the airplane is airworthy prior to every flight.”). However, NTSB accident reports indicate otherwise. Have pilots just become too lazy to do due-diligence properly when guiding a lethal craft at high rates of speed on invisible roadways without shoulders on which to pull off when things get hectic? Or does the seriousness of what we’re doing when flying get lost in distractions and minutia?

The choices and solutions to the challenges, decisions and tasks of flying seldom are limited to a single one. Single pilot CRM begins with recognizing your own limitations and acknowledging your own experience level, personal minimums and physical and mental health. Are you really cranked-up after a big fight with your boss? Don’t go flying. Think you’re coming down with the flu? Don’t go flying.

Cessna aircraft with glass cockpit
Photo by Dmitry Sumin

Limitations are not absolute. Some days your personal limitations may be different than others. Let’s say you’ve been renting a Cessna 182 a lot but today you arrived at the airport and the only 182 available is one with advanced avionics with which you’re not familiar. Good single pilot CRM might dictate that you should not attempt flying that airplane in deteriorating weather even though you’d be quite comfortable in one of the other airplanes with more familiar avionics. Some of the sloppiest flying I have observed by otherwise skilled pilots was when they were flying sick (and also when they are sick of flying). So single pilot CRM begins with you. Once you determine that you are fit for flight you can begin a running assessment of all the resources available inside and outside of the aircraft before and during the flight.

The FAA developed a simple memory gouge to help single pilots evaluate every component of the pilot’s job. They call it the “5 P Approach” and this mnemonic represents (in order) PLAN, PLANE, PILOT, PASSENGERS and PROGRAMMING.

For each “P” you collect all pertinent information available, analyze it and then make decisions. Most importantly, always be willing to change your plan should conditions indicate the need for a change. Head-strong pilots have got themselves into trouble by making a plan and sticking to it even when alternatives would have been more prudent.

Start by getting a good weather briefing and study your route, carefully working out the fuel requirements based on both. This includes potential deviations you see which might need to be made for weather. Use all the resources that may help. Pilots who have just landed are excellent resources to fill you in on weather conditions. If the FBO has a flight planning room, print out all the weather information you think might be useful so you can take it with you. What good does a METAR report do when it’s an hour or two old? I’ll tell you. You can spot trends in weather and determine if it is deteriorating, improving or staying the same.

Next analyze your plane. Assess its airframe, engine, systems and avionics. If you’re knowledge is a little weak about one of the systems like its avionics, bone up before the flight. Pilots who must use an instruction manual during flight are adding to their workload. It’s helpful to stop by for a brief visit with the mechanic who may have worked on the aircraft you’re flying to ask about recent squawks or maintenance that’s been done. Even if something was recently repaired it might justify extra vigilance as you fly.

The planning portion for a cross-country flight is as important as the planning portion to determine aircraft performance and limitations. If you’re going to have a big fat guy sitting in the back seat, taxiing out to the runway is not the time to be wondering what elevator setting you should set or worse…when rocketing down the runway and wondering why the airplane rotated so soon and controls feel so spongy. Go back to basics and do a careful weight and balance computation. FAR Part 121 and 135 commercial operators do it for every leg they fly.

You may have heard it said that flying is hours of boredom accentuated by moments of “sheer terror,” but it need not be so. If a pilot is paying attention…monitoring…cross-checking…watching the systems, you lessen the chances of pilot error and other surprises befalling your flight. There are usually warnings when things are about to go wrong. The dimming of lights, roughness of the engine, oil pressure fluctuations, they all portend possible problems in the making. Remember, as a single pilot, you are also in the flight engineer’s seat, and can often get a heads-up on potential system problems just by watching, listening, smelling, feeling and comparing.

The third of the “5-Ps” is “pilot.” Are you physically, mentally and emotionally fit to fly? Before you even think about flying you should take a personal inventory. This inventory includes illness. Are you sick or showing symptoms of illness? Are you taking any prescription or over-the-counter drugs? Are there aspects of your life causing stress (job, financial, marital, etc)? How ’bout alcohol? You been tippin’ any? Remember the regs say 8 hours “bottle to throttle” but only then if your blood-alcohol content is less than 0.04%. Are you fatigued? When you’re tired your reflexes, coordination and thinking are dulled. Are you emotionally wrapped-up tight? Sad? Angry? Ecstatic?3 The guy in charge at the FAA (Federal Acronym Administration) stitched together Illness-Medication-Stress-Alcohol-Fatigue-Emotion and came up with IM-SAFE. Get it?

Pilot and passenger in a small Cessna aircraft
Photo by Dan Darling

The number four “P” is passengers. Passengers can come in handy especially when there is go- fer jobs to do like, “hand me that pastrami on rye” or on the ground, “go back in the FBO and ask that receptionist’s phone number for me.” However they also can create distractions, especially when they’re a frightened scare-d-cat white-knucklers, airsick or just a blustering blow-hard that will
not shut up. Although you’re busy as a single pilot, you should provide whatever assistance is within your power to do so to alleviate passenger apprehensions. When busy you might just have to “tune them out” so that you can focus on your job as pilot. Commercial operators procedurally adhere to the cockpit rule of no talking except that which is required for conducting checklists or other duties below 10,000 feet. Although your flying may rarely take you above 10,000 feet it isn’t a bad practice to tell passengers there are certain periods that are “sterile” and no talking is allowed such as when it gets busy on the radio as you approach an airport. You can signify this to them by furrowing your forehead and hissing s-h-h-h-h-h loudly. If your passenger is also a pilot, it is important to establish who is flying the plane and who is not. Sometimes rated pilots will move in on a flying pilot’s turf and this can cause confusion and lead to big problems. Make sure the passengers who are pilots recognize they are to behave as passengers.

The final “P” stands for programming. Flying has been inundated with lots of automation and electronic gadgetry. While this gee-whiz technology can reduce the pilot’s workload it can also lure the pilot into pilot error and potentially catastrophic scenarios. An obvious bad one is ignoring control of the aircraft while making programming inputs. It is essential that pilots become functionally familiar with their navigation systems, tablets, flight management systems et cetera so that they’re not “trying to figure it out” during high workload times. Routes should be preprogrammed prior to take-off and then only minor adjustments will need to be made to accommodate any ATC changes. Double-check your work, too. You may plug-in a navigation fix incorrectly by “fat- fingering” the dinky little buttons or touch screen. Once you’re done go back over it to make sure you’re not headed for Norfolk, Virginia (ORF) instead of Chicago O’Hare (ORD).

Unforeseen things still happen while flying, and no matter how much planning and prep you’ve done, doggone it…the demons sometimes still can reach out and grab your plane. When those demons have got you in their clutches keep these rules in mind:

1. FLY THE AIRPLANE. Period. Don’t allow ANYTHING to take you away from doing that.

2. FLY THE AIRPLANE!

3. ISOLATE the problem. Consider probable causes and possible causes.

4. Use the appropriate CHECKLIST for your problem. It will likely lead you to resolution of the problem and probably suggest the best or the only alternative.

5. Calculate how much TIME and FUEL you have to remain aloft and work on the problem.

6. Evaluate all ALTERNATIVES and assign pros and cons to each.

7. You always have 3 choices: LAND NOW, LAND SOON or CONTINUE.

8. Utilize all RESOURCES both on the ground and in the air including ATC and other aircraft to relay your radio message if you’re too low in altitude. Don’t be afraid to confess your predicament.

9.Remember the most important FAR of all is 14 CFR § 91.3(b) “In an in-flight emergency
requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.”

10. FLY THE AIRPLANE!

Single pilot flying is busy flying but when you do your best to thoroughly prepare for a flight it greatly lessens chaos and the chance for pilot error. The philosophy of CRM is a good one. And although it is a fairly new term in aviation, it is really a very old concept that good pilots have been practicing for many years.

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Footnotes and Resources:

1 – “Gender Differences in General Aviation Crashes,” Prof. Susan Baker, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health news release, May 15, 2001

2 – https://www.nbaa.org/events/amc/2010/news/presentations/1018_mon/safety_stand/Halleran-SPRM.pdf

 3 – You think you’d be in any mental state to fly if you just won the $35 million Powerball?

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