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Risk Assessment Tips and Tools for the Single Pilot

How to Transform an Owner-Pilot Into a Super Aviator

Hard-charging business people need to become focused pilots once in the cockpit. NBAA's Safety Committee is working on resources to help single-pilots fly more safety and professionally.

Adventures of Super Aviator

May 16, 2016

From the moment that Orville Wright became the first operator of a powered airplane, pilots have been drawn to the unmistakable appeal of flying an aircraft solely by themselves. Although owner-flown business aircraft have been on the market for decades, advances in cockpit technology now enable single pilots to operate some of the most complex aircraft available today. But along with those expanded capabilities, pilots must also expand their thinking in order to operate these aircraft safely.

The NBAA Safety Committee, along with the committee’s Single Pilot Working Group, are working on a variety of resources to help single-pilot business aviators fly safer and more professionally. While that might seem a relatively simple challenge, results from a recent risk-assessment survey conducted by the Safety Committee paint a sobering picture of how single pilots assess risk versus their two-person flight crew counterparts.

Among the more than 800 survey respondents, the majority of single pilots polled (53 percent) admitted that they don’t regularly participate in regional safety meetings or activities, while 64 percent do not utilize flightdata monitoring or flight operations quality assurance programs that use electronic flight data downloaded from the aircraft for analysis.

Nearly the same number of single-pilot operators surveyed (61 percent) said they receive only annual training with an instructor or in a simulator, while the percentage of dual-pilot crews (59 percent) that receive such training do it at least twice a year.

“The risk-assessment survey revealed how threat perception and risk management relate to operating in the single-pilot environment,” noted Mark Larsen, NBAA senior manager of safety and flight operations. “Anyone who has reached the level where they can afford to own and operate an airplane has taken calculated risks to get where they are; they’ve put a lot on the table, and it’s natural that they will take a similar approach to flying.

Listen to the related NBAA Flight Plan podcast titled “Flight Management Systems Can Help, or Challenge, Single-Pilot Operators

“This affects how we look at the concept of single-pilot safety, while also acknowledging the business needs the aircraft helps to support,” continued Larsen. “A lot of these pilots are their company.”

ADAPTING THE ‘BUSINESS’ MINDSET TO AVIATION

Despite having the best intentions to operate safely, business obligations often make it difficult for single-pilot operators to take time for required training, or to fly with an instructor to refresh their skills.

“Safety training should be a scheduled event just like an annual audit, insurance review or other business event,” said certified flight instructor Thomas P. Turner, who also serves as executive director for the American Bonanza Society Air Safety Foundation. “It’s all too common to have business get in the way of a planned training appointment, and that leads to a lack of opportunity to hone piloting skills.”

“Successful business people and successful pilots have at least one thing in common,” Turner continued. “They are usually ‘alpha’ personalities, and those who do both often adopt the mindset that ‘I run my business, and I’ll run my airplane.’

“However, the decision-making processes and risk tolerance that makes a successful entrepreneur or business owner are different than those required to fly an airplane,” Turner explained. “Business leaders tend to focus on the positives and take risks in the hope that things will turn out okay; if they don’t, they’ll deal with the aftermath. Yet in an airplane, you must constantly consider what could go wrong.”

MANAGING RISK KEY TO IMPROVING SAFETY

Robert Wright, president of Wright Aviation Solutions, LLC and a 22-year FAA employee who retired from the agency in 2005 as the chief agency executive for general aviation flight standards, pointed to data indicating that as many as 70 to 75 percent of single-pilot business aviation fatal accidents stem from failure to properly assess a known risk. Poor risk management is the No. 1 cause of fatal accidents in general aviation, he added.

There are several tools available for pilots to assess risks, including flight risk-assessment tools that often are part of a flight organization’s safety management system. Pilots operating their own business aircraft may utilize checklists to review and quantify the possible risks during their preflight planning.

One such checklist is PAVE, which assesses the pilot’s (the P) aeromedical condition and qualifications; aircraft condition (the A); environmental factors (the V), including weather, airspace and terrain; and any external pressures (the E) on the pilot to complete the flight.

For Wright, during the period when when he flew throughout the Pacific Northwest in a Beechcraft Bonanza that was not equipped for flight into known icing, the flight risk-assessment process often meant starting planning as many as 10 days before a flight.

“If you start making those [planning] decisions well ahead of time, chances are excellent that you won’t be boxed into making a potentially dangerous choice due to a lack of options,” explained Wright. “You still have time to complete that required maintenance on the airplane, or to book an airline seat while one is still available. You must plan for any contingencies that may arise.”

In addition to PAVE, Wright also considers the TEAM checklist as a particularly important resource for single pilots unable to complete a lengthy flight risk-assessment process, although he prefers to swap the last two letters to create “TEMA.”

The decision-making processes and risk tolerance that makes a successful entrepreneur or business owner are different than those required to fly an airplane.
– THOMAS P. TURNER Executive Director, American Bonanza Society Air Safety Foundation

“If the weather simply was unflyable, I would transfer [the T in TEMA] my risk to the airlines, as they’re better equipped to mitigate those risks,” Wright noted. “Or, I could eliminate [the E] the risk by cancelling or rescheduling the meeting, although in many cases that’s not possible. Mitigating [the M] the risk may entail finding another route that takes you around the weather, or, again, choosing to leave earlier or when conditions are more favorable.

“Lastly, we must accept [the A] whatever risk is left,” he continued. “I put ‘accept’ at the end because it all comes down to the question of whether you can live with the remaining risk that you’ve decided to accept. You don’t want to die with it. You want to live with it.”

Learn more about single-pilot risk management at www.nbaa.org/lba-flight-ops-manual.

THE FOUR STRIPE PILOT

As part of his work to improve single-pilot safety, certified flight instructor Thomas P. Turner identified four key “stripes” that pilots should focus on earning in order to become more skilled aviators.

“If anything, the minimums prescribed by the FAA represent a blank captain’s epaulet,” said Turner. “Pilot education focuses primarily on the physical skills of flying the airplane, but it’s critically important that to truly be considered the pilot in command of an aircraft, you must master several things that go beyond the regulations.”

STRIPE 1 – MASTER YOUR AIRCRAFT’S TECHNOLOGY

“It’s possible – in fact, quite normal – for a pilot of even an advanced business aircraft to focus so much on basic flying qualities that they never really develop a complete understanding of the specific techniques required in their aircraft,” Turner said. “In a corporate environment, a pilot may be very well trained to fly a Citation jet, yet deficient in the skills required to fly the glass-panel-equipped turboprop alongside it in the hangar. The mindset is “if you can fly the jet, you can fly anything.”

STRIPE 2 – MASTER THE ENVIRONMENT, INCLUDING WEATHER

“Even today, you can pass every single [FAA] written test, up through the ATP [air transport pilot rating] while missing every single question related to aviation weather,” Turner said. “We don’t teach a great deal about weather interpretation, yet we rely upon it more than ever in the self-briefing world today.”

Pilots must familiarize themselves with the ATC environments where they fly, he added, including any ‘quirks’ encountered at new destinations.

STRIPE 3 – MASTER HUMAN FACTORS AND SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

“Understanding fatigue plays a large part in this process,” Turner said. “A 45-minute flight may not seem like a big deal, but when it comes at the end of a 10-hour day, that obviously poses a tremendous risk.”

Turner recommended that pilots establish their own duty limitations “starting from when their alarm clock sounds and ending at engine shutdown. Younger pilots may be able to plan for a maximum duty time of 14 hours, which, as we age, should be ramped down further to 12 hours, or even 10.”

Pilots should also accept their own physiological needs and tailor their flying to them. “For example, like many people, I tend to ‘slow down’ in the middle of the afternoon, so I avoid flying between 2 and 4 p.m.,” he said. “Instead, I’ll use that time to catch up on email, or to rest, and then fly home after that ‘siesta cycle.’ Or, I’ll resign myself to an overnight and leave the next morning when I’m well-rested.”

STRIPE 4 – MASTER BECOMING PILOT IN COMMAND

Turner acknowledged that the fourth stripe is the hardest to master, as “there is very little guidance out there about mastering responsibility and the concept of command.”

“A pilot truly in command of their aircraft understands that they are in command, and they use their situational awareness and understanding of their aircraft and the operating environment to take decisive actions to safely and successfully complete their flight. That includes being able to confront an emergency situation.”

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This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Business Aviation Insider.