More Information‎ > ‎Newsletters‎ > ‎

Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor


The Rote to Ruin

Imagine, if you can, a pilot that successfully passes multiple FAA check rides for various licenses, yet at the top if his game should buy a boat and probably leave IT tied at the dock.

How can this be, you may wonder?  Sure, if a pilot is rusty, any number of variances from perfection may occur, but if the pilot is firing on all cylinders, how can things be so bad that the pilot shouldn’t be allowed onto the field?

First of all, we recognize even during the training process that phase checks and check rides are somewhere between slightly and completely artificial environments.  And despite the FAA’s professed desire and mandate to make the Practical Test a scenario-based event, there is still a LOT of predictability.  In fact, I’ve seen cases in which the check rides (including the oral) were as scripted as a figure skater’s long program or a gymnast’s floor exercise routine.  When you know what’s coming and you can practice each of the maneuvers over and over, even a marginally talented pilot will pass the Practical Test.

In the real world, however, things happen that aren’t on the original plan.  Even when things don’t go wrong (as they sometimes do), any number of things can happen.  When was the last time you had a flight go EXACTLY according to plan?  I’ve certainly had some that were close.  I’ve even had some aspects that went exactly according to plan, while other parts of the same flight differed from the original plan.  Recently, for example on a five and a half hour flight from Kansas City, Missouri to Truckee, I had planned to land with 600 pounds of fuel (jet A is usually measured in terms of pounds instead of gallons – except when dispensing it from the truck), and actually landed with 599.  I’m pretty sure if I’d hit the fuel reset button several times, one of the readings would have been 600, so we’ll pretend that part was exactly according to plan.  On the other hand, the flight route wasn’t what I filed.  It wasn’t even what I was originally cleared for.  The winds aloft weren’t what I’d planned, and I totally lost GPS signals over Nevada (were they doing something in Area 51, perhaps?).  And, despite the advertised “clear and a million” at Truckee, the conditions were just barely good enough to allow a visual approach – if you feel comfortable doing one among some serious rocks and interesting up and down drafts.  Each of those “variations on a theme” required conscious thought and consideration, as well as application of other knowledge. 

And this is the point at which preparation for a scripted check ride does the pilot absolutely no good.

According to the Flight Instructor’s Handbook, there are four levels of learning (listed here with my editorial interpretation).

1.  Rote – The ability to repeat a bit of knowledge or an action without understanding the underlying concepts or how to apply the knowledge or action to a new situation

2.  Understanding – The knowledge of why and how an action is performed

3.  Application – The ability to execute a particular action consistently and within acceptable standards

4.  Correlation – The ability to see when a particular skill or bit of knowledge would be appropriate in a different situation, and the ability to perform it successfully in that situation., or when it should be combined with another skill or bit of knowledge

What the FAA would like to see is pilots knowing and flying at the “correlation” level.  Unfortunately, most of our preparation and most of the testing is to the “rote” level.  

How comfortable are you when the aviation gods throw you a curveball?  As you may have guessed, many of my columns fall out from what has happened when I’ve been on the receiving end of a curveball, knuckleball, or spitter.  And long-time readers may have noted that some of those occasions have gone, let us say, less than smoothly.  The longer you’ve been in the flying game, the more likely it is that you’ve had at least a couple of those things, as well.  Did things go as well as you wanted?  Of course, if our standard is “any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, and if the plane is reusable, it’s a GREAT landing,” we may not be setting the bar quite high enough.

So, when things didn’t go according to plan, and assuming you were somewhat less than totally pleased with your response, two questions fall out:

1. What did you learn?

2. What would you like to do about it?

This by the way is one of the reasons (aside from the fact that the insurance company demands it) that I go to recurrent training once a year in the Pilatus and various jets (back when I was fortunate enough to have a jet to fly).  Sure, some of the training is scenario based, but you can pretty much guess what some of the scenarios will be, and when they will occur.  On the other hand, I like to ask the sim instructor for some special scenarios and ask him to integrate them into the training.  The ones I ask for are ones that I’ve had to deal with during the previous year, or which (from the literature) I’ve heard about biting other pilots recently.

Most of us don’t have access to training simulators with the capability of a Pilatus sim, so most of what we do must be done in the plane.  And what better time than during a flight review – a pilot’s input regarding issues that have happened in the past two years can provide a creative CFI with the fodder for some pretty relevant scenarios.

And it may keep a Flight Review from being a repetition of the normal steep turns, slow flight, and stall recoveries – it could actually help make you a better pilot.