Debrief - Airmanship: Dead or Alive?

by Michel Treskin, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector, System Safety, Ontario Region, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

Last summer, I was at a weekend fly-in hosted by a local airport, with 60 to 70airplanes and flying enthusiasts attending. On the last day, I went to see how so many aircraft might leave in an orderly fashion from a congested ramp and only one runway. I was shocked to notice that roughly 90% of the pilots did not perform a walk around of their aircraft before hopping into it, and similarly never called "clear prop" before engaging the engine's starter. I could not believe what I was witnessing! Even more shocking was how these pilots prepared to depart. I expected that each aircraft would be taxied to a point short of the runway where the usual magneto check, carburetor heat check and the other important checklist items would be completed. However, roughly 90% of these pilots did not perform those checks, and appeared to be in a rush to leave. This was not the first time I observed pilots not carrying out their pre-flight inspection and pre-flight checks. These checks are as important to complete as getting the weather before flight. It is the duty of a responsible individual in control of an aircraft to carry out these checks. This professional behaviour is known as airmanship.

When I went through training in the military, airmanship was treated equally as important as the regulations. We were taught how to become better aviators; how not to cut corners when important tasks were required to be done. We were deemed to be professionals. One dictionary defines a professional as "one skilled in a profession, craft or art." The flying industry definition is "someone who has received training in a professional training facility." Can a professional automatically be an expert in airmanship? Or is airmanship an acquired skill that someone achieves after years of experience? To answer these questions (of what airmanship is, and whether or not it exists within our personalized skills), we need to understand the fundamentals of airmanship.

knowledge of your aircraft, knowledge of the environment and also the risks associated with flight. It also proficiency and discipline. When all three are applied together, one becomes a safer and more efficient pilot. Skills come in four levels (Tony Kern): level one is safety (good enough to be safe); level two is effectiveness (being able to handle the local and cross-country environment that you wish to operate in on your own); level three is efficiency; and level four is precision and continuous improvement. The average general aviation pilot will usually reach level two in their lifetime. Only with additional training will they be able to move up to level three. Research (Wiegman & Shappell) has shown that over 80% of all general aviation accidents were attributed to lack of skills (skill-based error); the basic stick and rudder handling, or lack thereof. There is no substitute for flying skills.

Now, imagine what automation will do (degradation) to your basic flying skills. Proficiency is much easier to achieve. Basically, the more you fly on a regular basis, the more you will become skilled in doing so. "Poor proficiency is as high a risk factor as low experience" (Yacovine et al., 1992). You should not be reluctant to hire a qualified flight instructor after a long period of not flying. You can bet that one hour of refresher will go a long way and will definitely reduce the risk. Generally, most of us fly on a very casual basis, during hospitable weather conditions. Because personal proficiency is such an individualized subject, it is difficult to generalize, from either the regulatory requirements or research findings, in a way that is meaningful for everyone.

Flight discipline is the cornerstone of airmanship. There is no room in good airmanship for intentional deviations from accepted regulations, procedures or common sense. Violation of flight discipline is a major factor in many human factor accidents. Airmanship also involves maximizing situational awareness, in order to prepare ourselves to have the necessary attention to handle unexpected events. All we must do is build a solid and complete airmanship structure, and then good judgment will naturally flow from it. Good judgment leads to better decision-making, and that is what it's all about.

As professional pilots, we need to be ready for any complication or deviation from the normal flight envelope. Don't forget that flying is a risky business and we need to constantly reduce/manage the risk to a minimum acceptable level. The cure for the rash of human-error accidents and incidents lies at our fingertips: through self-improvement, we (as aviators) can affect a cultural change in aviation. Let's all think and act like professional pilots whenever we are preparing to go flying!

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