Competency based training. By trying to solve one training problem are we creating another?

At the beginning of this month I tuned in to the Royal Aeronautical Society’s webinar titled, Flight Crew Competence; Assessing what and how? The webinar aimed to address the concept of Evidence Based Training and Competency Based Training (EBT/CBT) and consider the impact it has had on the experience of instructors, examiners and trainees. The panel represented a series of viewpoints from across areas ranging from flight operations, academia, learning and development, and psychology, to share insights about the history and development of the programme, and how competencies are identified, observed and trained. As you would expect, I found some areas more thought provoking than others, but by the end of it I was left with one nagging question that stood out for me. It was this:

By trying to solve one training problem by establishing CBT techniques in the industry are we creating another with the complexity and extent of the knowledge demanded of the instructor cadre to be able to train these methods effectively?

I was lucky enough to be able to put this question to the panel, and the response was an interesting one. In short, they agreed that this could indeed present a challenge to the practical success of converting CBT from theory into practice on the aviation front line.

The problem that CBT purports to solve.

How do you define a competent pilot? 

The point is, that whatever definition you come up with, it will inevitably change and evolve over time. What we deem to be a good pilot now looks quite different to what it was 50 years ago.

The origins of Evidence Based Training arose from an industry-wide consensus that changes in operating practices, technological advances, and the understanding of teaching and learning techniques have taken place. The time was right for a strategic review of the way we approach recurrent and type-rating training. The aviation industry has changed and progressed, and how it trains its crews needs to change and progress with it.

The problem with traditional methods of training and checking is firstly that they are quantitative. One example of this is that they require that you meet a quantified minimum hours of practice as a standard, which speaks nothing to whether or not an individual is actually competent. Some will require more hours and others less to become competent in any given skillset. 

Secondly, they are proscriptive. That is to say, the training required for any individual is determined by the testing criteria (which is set top-down by the regulator) rather than being determined by an individual’s progress towards being capable of doing the job they are training for. 

Thirdly, the testing criteria itself is outdated. It is mostly based on evidence of accidents relevant to airline operations alone, and principally derived from accidents to early generations of jet aircraft. The traditional philosophy is based on the belief that simply repeating pilot exposure to ‘worst case’ events in training is enough to ensure competency. Over time, as new incidents and accidents occurred they were added to the requirements, resulting in ever more crowded training programmes. This created a ‘tick box’ approach to training and one which often overlooked the more complex contributing factors behind the technical failures that might have been the trigger factors for an accident.

As an example of the dislocation between traditional mandated training and the real world, consider the unstable approach paradox. When a final approach is unstable pilots are expected to go around. Evidence shows that they usually don’t. But when they do the missed approach is almost always badly flown. In contrast, when they land from an unstable approach, 98% of the time they do so with no issue. The requirement to go around from an unstable approach therefore arguably works against safety. 

But let’s look at the root cause of the problem. Go arounds in training are usually performed with one engine inoperative from a defined minima and with no visual references. Go arounds in real life are almost always flown with a low weight aircraft, all engines operating, and are usually visually. We are not training how we are flying.

The proposed solution: Evidence Based Training and Behavioural Competencies.

Evidence Based Training has been developed on the basis that pilots should be trained to become competent in the specific demands and challenges of their particular aviation operation. This can be done by using evidence drawn from relevant accidents, incidents, training reports, and academic studies to design training programmes that meet those specific requirements.

Having identified the kind of training required – the things that you want your pilots to be competent in to carry out their role safely – the next challenge is how to develop and evaluate crew performance according to a set of competencies.  This is where things become much more complex. We are no longer able to separate training into a series of individual skills or manoeuvres that can be simply (and largely unthinkingly) ticked off by an instructor. Instead we need to determine the idea of competency within the context of an integrated set of both technical and non-technical skills.

Under a competency based system trainees have to be able to demonstrate – and instructors have to be able to assess effectively – all of the following:

  1. Application of Procedures
  2. Communication
  3. Aircraft Flight Path Management, (automation & manual)
  4. Leadership and Teamwork
  5. Problem Solving and Decision Making
  6. Situation Awareness
  7. Workload Management

It is relatively easy for flight instructors to concentrate on the technical side of training. It’s definable, it’s measurable, and it is more easily assessed and critiqued. The same cannot be said for the non-technical skills listed above. They all interplay with each other and are not easily picked apart. The exercise of judgement in assessing the non-technical aspects is much more subjective compared with assessing the success of a rejected take off, or actions in response to an engine fire. And there are lots of non-technical categories to assess. They require the assessor to be attentive to many different aspects of performance at the same time.

The best and most objective system that has been put forward to observe and assess these kinds of complex behaviours in action is a behavioural marker system and accompanying grading matrix. A behavioural marker system is basically a taxonomy (categorised list) of pilot behaviours. If a behaviour has been observed in flight it can be judged as evidence to prove competency in that category. For example, if the behaviour “seeks and accepts assistance, when appropriate,” is observed, then it is accepted as one evidence for competency in the category of Workload Management

Once those behaviours have been collected, or ‘observed’ in each category, an instructor can grade competency against a matrix that requires him to assess how many have been observed, how often, with what level of success, and with what resulting impact on safety. If it sounds technical, it’s because it is. Not only are there multiple competencies to consider, the arrival at a decision on a grade to apply is also multifaceted.

The problem of instructor training –  how to train the trainers.

The methodology is not perfect, but then it doesn’t claim to be. Nor am I suggesting that it doesn’t work. It does. The problem is that for it to be able to work effectively and achieve that paradigm shift in training practices that Competency Based Training purports to do, it depends in turn upon instructors who are themselves competent in how to apply these techniques.

Instructional Competency

Instructional competency in Competency Based Training techniques depends upon:


  1. A full understanding of the rationale behind the concept and its key principles. 
  2. An in depth knowledge not only of the competencies themselves, but of the behavioural markers taxonomy behind their evaluation and assessment.
  3. An understanding of the assessment criteria and grading methodology.


  1. This knowledge underpins the development of root cause analysis, the key instructional skill in making a success of competency based training. Understanding how to identify the root cause of an error or an adverse cockpit event takes practice and a capacity for analysis.
  2. A skilled instructor will be able to understand the KSA (Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes) demanded of trainees and how to apply them – particularly the impact of attitudes – on improving crew competency. 
  3. The ability to apply the grading matrix to come to as objective a judgement as possible on an assessment outcome. The fact that a pass/fail can be based on any of the competency areas including non-technical skills makes this decision-making skill even more challenging.


  1. Empathy is a key trait to allow an instructor to apply the above skills successfully.
  2. Buy-in: For some, adapting long engrained practices to these changes will mean a paradigm shift in instructional technique. Instructors have to want to take this step, and have an open mind to its benefits. 

The EBT/CBT initiative to address an outdated and sometimes anachronistic system of pilot training has led to a paradigm shift in thinking about how flying training should be approached, and major changes in training philosophy and methodology. The weight of all this has fallen on training departments and instructors, requiring that they get to grips with new knowledge and the practical skills to put these changes into practice. But despite the breadth and depth of these new demands on the training teams and the simple fact that the success of any competency based programme will depend upon the competency of the instructor cadre themselves, very little extra attention has been paid to what we demand of our instructors, how we choose who is suitable, and what we should be doing to teach them the skills to train others effectively. 

The training on EBT/CBT that is given to instructors is sometimes not as comprehensive as it might be. It is sometimes passed on by people who themselves don’t have a firm grasp of the concept. It can leave more questions than answers, and often involves minimal experience of actually applying the techniques in practice, before sending instructors off to spearhead the change. As ever, even the Authority admits in CAP 737 that “In terms of operational flight safety, instructors hold one of the most influential positions in the industry…[but, although]…the regulation is clear on the expectation and abilities required of the instructor, it offers little in the way of guidance.”

The problem of instructor selection.

It is not just about ensuring that we train the trainers adequately either, because the instructors that go on to lead CBT programmes need to have more than just the knowledge and skills. They need the right attitudes as well. Success will depend above all on the attitude to embrace change, and the attitude to learn a new and challenging set of skills. Not everyone will see it as progress, and not everyone will buy in to the changes.

Accepting a shift in the balance of training towards non-technical skills and briefing and debriefing using facilitation isn’t for everyone. Some instructors simply aren’t comfortable with facilitation as a valid and valuable instructional technique. Facilitation depends more on the character of the instructor than other forms of instruction. They might prefer a more hierarchical and autocratic teaching style, and will continue to defend its efficacy, asserting that facilitation doesn’t get the best from their trainees and undermines their own status and authority as an instructor.

Even more won’t have the motivation to put in the effort required to learn and apply the new knowledge, preferring to remain in their comfort zone and fall back on an easier path of the familiar style that ‘has worked for all these years’. How to identify the willing from the reticent, and the motivated from those stuck in the past is one of the challenges such significant change brings. And how we go on to separate the two groups so that CBT can achieve its goals led by an instructor cadre who are willing to invest in it is a more troublesome question than it might first seem. 

The problem of systemic and cultural factors

A further issue that is a product of a long-held culture within aviation is that instructors are not necessarily chosen by the system for their instructional potential. Ideally the system would select on the basis of character – for empathy and likability as well as other more obvious flying instructor traits – and for expertise and dedication in the area of teaching and learning as a vocation. Instead the system often selects its instructors on the basis of technical flying skills. For example, the RAF has always demanded an above average ability in the air to be able to go on to instruct. This may seem like a sound policy, but selection of pilots to go on to become instructors on the basis of their technical skills alone, means that they are being chosen for factors totally unrelated to their knowledge, interest, and skills in teaching, learning, and development. It also ignores the fact that under the new paradigm, technical skills sit alongside a raft of non-technical skills that also need to be taken into account. Worse than being selected for their technical skills, many instructors reach their position by virtue of seniority, status, or reward. Many of these are not best suited to teaching this kind of training. Furthermore, the coupling of TRI/E status to seniority often means that those individuals are burdened with other responsibilities as well forcing them to divide their time and attentions between training and other management tasks.

By trying to solve one training problem are we creating another?

In EBT/CBT we have layers of complexity which themselves need to be explained sufficiently that the trainers can then pass them on to trainees with confidence and competence. A lot of thought has been put in how to solve the first problem, but in solving the first it is my sense that we have created a second, which has so far been somewhat overlooked.

Progressing training practices towards the concept of EBT/CBT is an ambitious project of technical and cultural change. Doing anything well takes time, effort, and resource. Furthermore, such significant change was always going to throw up problems of change management and opposition created from engrained cultural habits. These are not intractable problems, but they do address embedded beliefs and practices, making it easier to come up with the solutions in theory than to put them into practice. The ideal solution is a dedicated training team with a vocation for teaching and learning. These would be people who are specialists in the specific domain of flying instruction but who are also people who are able to set their instructional skills within the domain-independent context of the theory and practice of education and learning. Aspiring instructors should be prepared to specialise and dedicate their careers to the field of training, leaving others to management and operational leadership.


The concept of the ‘Sterile Cockpit’ as a defence against distraction is a well known one, even well below the cruising levels of the world’s airline operations. The chances are most helicopter pilots will be familiar with it as a company Standard Operating Procedure. Not so many will know that it is in fact a formal regulation under both US Federal and EASA regulations, in the latter case under PART-ORO, and therefore non-compliance is a violation of these. The rule was first enacted by the FAA in 1981 which makes it 40 years old this year. Since then, evidence from the airline world and beyond shows that this regulation is still frequently ignored by crews. Non-compliance with the sterile cockpit rule is a very common violation.


The term ‘Sterile Cockpit’ is used to describe any period of time when crew members shall not be disturbed except for matters critical to the safe operation of the aircraft and/or the safety of the occupants. In addition, it states that during these periods of time the flight crew members should focus only on their essential operational activities. 

Unpacking this a bit, there’s really two halves to this rule, with one objective. The first half is that you shouldn’t be disturbed by anyone. The second half is that you shouldn’t do any disturbing.

Before we go on to discuss the concept in more detail, it helps to have a little background on where it came from in the first place. The rule was created in response to the crash of Eastern Air Lines flight 212 at Charlotte Douglas International, USA, in 1974. The accident investigation determined that one of the principal causes of this accident was that the pilots were distracted by an attempt to visually identify a nearby amusement park whilst setting up for final approach and flying at a low altitude. In this case (as in many others) they were both the disturbers and the disturbed, the distractors and the distracted.


The sterile flight deck procedures were published in Regulation (EU) 2015/140 as an amending regulation to (EU) No 965/2012 on air operations. The associated guidance material is AMC1ORO.GEN.110(f).

It states that:

Sterile flight crew procedures should ensure that:

  1. flight crew activities are restricted to essential operational activities; and
  2. Cabin crew and technical crew communications to flight crew… are restricted to safety or security matters.

The sterile flight crew procedures should be applied:

(1) during critical phases of flight;

(2) during taxiing 

(3) below 10 000 feet above the aerodrome of departure after take-off and the aerodrome of destination before landing, except for cruise flight, and;

(4) during any other phases of flight as determined by the pilot-in-command.

As ever, a first scan of the wording hints at the rule’s provenance in airline flight profiles but if you look more carefully its applicability is universal and straight-forward. In my opinion it is useful to boil it down even further to points (1) and (4). (Given that as the aircraft is under its own power, by many definitions taxiing is considered to be a flight phase, and approach and departure can be included into the definition of critical phase of flight). In fact, and in particularly in terms of its relevance to most kinds of rotary wing operations, we could make it even more simple, by agreeing that, sterile crew procedures should be applied, ‘on demand’.


What distinguishes the sterile cockpit concept in many helicopter flying tasks from its use in routine passenger flight sectors is that it is less of a rule based procedure. In an airline flight profile you can by-and-large apply the rule: No chitter chatter below 10,000 feet.

As a rule based procedure, the sterile cockpit is about good communication techniques and communication discipline. Most of us are aware of occasions when flight safety was compromised because crew members or passengers broke the silence, and our concentration. Although the rule is simple, well known, and easy to apply, it is also easily ignored, or overcome by our very human desire to share a thought, a sight, or get something off your chest right then and there before the moment has passed. Like many violations, not complying with it reinforces the sense that it is of little importance because most of the time it will betray no visible consequences. Most of the time.

In helicopter operations application of the concept is less rule-based and more of a skill-based procedure. Why? Because we are more likely to be interacting with the parts of the rule that require judgement, decision-making, and experience to decide how and when to apply it. Knowing when you have entered or are about to enter a critical phase of flight is not always straight-forward, can’t always be based on pre-defined flight profiles, and instead needs you to be able to interpret workload on behalf of yourself and on behalf of other members of the crew.


When many complex or concurrent tasks are performed in a short time interval, distracting events can cause errors and significant reductions in the quality of work performed. The performance of a non-safety related duty or activity when crew workload is heavy could be the critical event which precludes a crew-member from performing an essential task such as extending the landing gear. This not uncommon happening was the case in an incident in 2016 in Japan when a SAR configured AW139 landed on a beach directly next to the scene of a rescue, and high whole-crew workload distracted a crew of four from checking the gear was down before landing.

The need to assess and interpret workload is particularly true in the case of the often high tempo and multi-faceted task environment of SAR and HEMS missions. Defining critical phases of flight for an IFR transit doesn’t take as much analysis and consideration as it can do within the constantly changing risk profiles that make up the landscape of some helicopter rescues. Neither does it have the same multiplicity of unforeseeable distractions, all of which could be construed as ‘essential operational activities’. Take for example the monitoring of multiple communications networks transmitting simultaneously. R/T tends to demand a high proportion of attention to the detriment of other tasks, as well as being one of the most cognitively draining activities in the aircraft. Recognising this kind of thing contributes to your understanding of critical workload thresholds.

The sterile cockpit is about more than just communication, it is primarily about workload.


Highly effective crews tend to have a highly task-oriented communication, building in techniques such as ‘round robin’ interjections, or an information acknowledgement sequence. These kinds of advanced communication skills are developed by training and experience, and you recognise them when you see them in practice. These skills are also likely to be accompanied by an enhanced ability to intuitively understand and make judgements about the changing cognitive capacity of fellow team members.

Simply being quiet and not interrupting others is not the correct response to a call for sterile cockpit conditions. This is where the interplay with other non-technical skills such as crew monitoring come into evidence. When sterile cockpit is instigated it should be a ‘Red Flag’ warning you to tune into the workload of other members of the crew and up your rate of questioning and monitoring. It should trigger you to be on the look out for sources of distraction, and to start double checking the critical actions of other team members. It should also cause you to ask yourself whether you can contribute to sharing or distributing that workload.


In helicopter operations this is a whole crew function, and therefore semantically limiting the concept to a sterile ‘cockpit,’ in the sense that it is the domain of the pilots alone, is not helpful. That it is written this way highlights how it was conceived for a passenger jet with a closed door flight deck and a physical as well as metaphorical distance between the functions of the pilots and their crew. This compares with the different physical workspace of a helicopter as well as the important distinction of a more integrated team dynamic which is typical of helicopter crews.

During CRM training I listen to the perspectives of HEMS, SAR and firefighting helicopter teams. A question was raised recently as to whether any member of the crew could call for a sterile cockpit/aircraft. My answer was, absolutely you can. Doing so will not stop anybody on board from carrying out essential operational activities.

EASA’s regulation on sterile cockpit determines that the rule can be instigated ‘in any phase of flight’ on the judgement of the pilot in command. Whilst deferring to the ever-present authority vested in the figure of the Aircraft Commander, I don’t believe that the ability to call for a sterile cockpit is a role that should be restricted to the Pilot in Command, as the regulation would have you believe. It is not a demand for silence. Instead, it is a clear and known message to everybody else that flags up a high perceived level of cognitive demand on you or other members of the crew. It is expected to be met with an immediate response based on a known procedure and understood rationale. 

Medicalised and SAR helicopter scenarios give a perfect example of how the function of a sterile aircraft can be just as important when requested from back to front as from front to back. A crew working on a medical emergency in the helicopter cabin can be under higher workloads and pressures at different times to the pilots in the front, but the human factors at play remain the same.

In his book Peak Performance Under Pressure: Lessons from a Helicopter Rescue Doctor, Stephen Hearns describes how the relevance of a concept which he first learned from his contact with SAR and HEMS helicopters can be transferred into other high pressure environments. He has been applying it to emergency medical response scenarios, which is where it comes full circle back to SAR and HEMS aircraft. The sterile cockpit concept has a place in any high pressure, high workload environment because it is about the limits of human cognitive capacity and distraction, so why not allow it to be called for by any member of the crew that recognises when they – or anyone else – are being stretched or distracted? Investing the authority to do so in any member of the crew has the added bonus of teaching all of us to be responsible for the business of anticipating risk and empathising with the cognitive load of others.


How does the Sterile Cockpit rule appear in your Operations Manual? Unfortunately, some helicopter operators have latched on to the fixed wing application of sterile cockpit in flight phases below 10,000 feet in height, and transposed it, choosing to demand the same conditions in a helicopter below 1000 feet above ground level, and prohibiting a list of cockpit and cabin activities below that height.  This exposes the danger of an over prescriptive SOP which does not correspond to the realities of how we operate the aircraft. The result is non-compliance with a rule that effectively demands a constantly sterile environment for aircraft that rarely climb above that height. The rule quickly becomes worthless. 

When it comes to applying the concept, more than knowing what the rule says, we need to understand what it is trying to achieve. Now we can apply judgement. This is especially true in helicopter operations where the sterile cockpit requires a more subjective judgement of workload, rather than simply applying a rule about communication. Be sensitive to changing conditions of workload. Understand that anyone can demand a sterile aircraft in response to a perceived risk or distraction. And don’t be afraid to use it.

The checklist in the rotary wing cockpit: Understanding what, why, and how.

Do helicopter crews have as good an understanding of the proper use of checklists and checklist philosophy as their airline pilot brethren? Like everyone else, I have worked with checklists since I first set foot in the world of aviation. They are omni-present. But my in own experience – as far as I can recollect – I was never taught anything specific about the ‘correct’ way to interact with them.

Many of those who populate the rotary world are not brought up in a multi-crew environment from the beginning of their aviation careers like most airline crews are. On the contrary, the likelihood is that they served apprenticeships in the single pilot cockpit, where interaction with a checklist is necessarily very different. Even many military pilots come from a single pilot background for much of their careers. Those that don’t will still recognise that there is a less rigid application of the multi-crew SOPs in military flying than what they might have encountered subsequently in the civilian world. All of this leads to a different upbringing in our relationship with the checklist, and perhaps not as complete an appreciation as to how to use it and why they are so important.

The role of the checklist in how we interact with and operate aircraft is integral to the liveware-hardware interface between human and machine, and as such deserves more attention than we often give it.

The role of the checklist in how we interact with and operate aircraft is integral to the liveware-hardware interface between human and machine, and as such deserves more attention than we often give it. A checklist’s exact use, benefits, weaknesses, contradictions, and even failings are often a source of opinion and comment. Nevertheless, understanding its design philosophy – and when it is being used ‘correctly’ or incorrectly’ with respect to this – is central to our being able to make informed judgements about how we choose to use it in a practical context. If the operation requires us to adapt the use of the checklist or use it in a non-standard manner, then we should at least understand that we are doing so, and why. 

Understanding the value of your checklist

It may be a relatively humble piece of on-board equipment, but having a proper understanding of what your checklist brings to your performance, and what it offers you, should help you give the respect it deserves!

Here are ten things your checklist does for you:

Recall and memory functions

1. Helps your recall in the process of configuring the aircraft.

2. Provides sequences for motor movements and eye fixations around the cockpit panels. 

3. Provides a standard foundation for verifying aircraft configuration that will protect against any reduction in your psychological and physical condition.

4. Provide a sequential framework to meet internal and external cockpit operational requirements.

Crew co-ordination and Communication

5. Facilitates mutual supervision (cross checking) among crew members.

6. Enhances team situation awareness in configuring the aircraft by keeping all crew members “in the loop.”

7. Distributes crew workload by dictating the duties of each member thereby helping to achieve optimum crew coordination.

Supervision, Standards & Standardisation

8. Allows for standardisation of crews across operations and fleets, promoting an improved baseline standard.

9. Serves as a tool for supervision, quality control management and regulatory oversight over the crew in the process of configuring the plane for the flight.

10. Helps to overcome problems associated with high or low crew gradient when called upon as a well established SOP.

There is also an eleventh function that depends upon you having a sound understanding of the above. It turns out, that research has shown that when crews have a true understanding of the importance of the checklist, then the checklist itself promotes a positive attitude to the procedures that they contain, meaning greater compliance and adherence to SOP.

When crews have a true understanding of the importance of the checklist, then the checklist itself promotes a positive attitude.

Proper checklist philosophy and usage

There are two different methods that can be used to conduct a checklist correctly. Some operators will combine the two depending upon the nature of the tasks, but which philosophy is in use should be clear, and how they are to be used set down as a standard procedure.


Under this philosophy, the crew use their memory and other techniques to configure the aircraft.

Then, once the initial configuration is complete, the checklist is used to verify that several critical items have been correctly accomplished. 

The process of conducting this checklist method is as follows: 

  • Pilot Flying calls for the checklist.
  • Pilot Monitoring calls the checklist item from the list.
  • Both PF & PM together verify that the item is set properly.
  • PF then calls the verified status of the item, and so on. 

Note that under “challenge-verification-response,” the checklist is a backup for the initial configuration of the plane, providing redundancy, as a ‘second check’.

The Do-List. 

This method can be better termed “call-do-response.” In this method, the checklist is used to direct the pilot in configuring the aircraft by following the list through step-by-step. 

The process of conducting this method is as follows: 

  • Pilot Flying calls for the checklist.
  • Pilot Monitoring calls for an item. 
  • Pilot Flying positions or sets the item to the correct position, and then announces the new status of the item.
  • Once the item is accomplished, the next item is read and so on.

Therefore, the configuration redundancy employed in the challenge-response method is lost with this method as the aircraft is configured only once as part of the check. It is worth emphasising that in both methods the task of verifying the status of each item is the responsibility of both pilots (also conceived that way for reasons of redundancy). 

Common Errors in Checklist Usage

Verification and redundancy

Probably the most common deviation in following this checklist philosophy properly is the failure to fully involve both pilots in the verification process. In both challenge-verify-response and Do-list formats, the verification of the status of each item on the list should be confirmed visually by more than one crew member to ensure redundancy.

Another common deviation which can occur is the Pilot Monitoring carrying out both the challenge and the response part of the list. This tends to happen in situations of high workload for the Pilot Flying, or when workload – particularly communication – on the part of the whole crew, gets in the way of a suitable time window for the running of the list before reaching the point the aircraft needs to be configured. 

There might be times when this situation cannot be avoided, but it is important to understand the effect of running the checklist without the interaction of the rest of the crew. The mutual redundancy that is built into the procedure is lost. Furthermore, the process becomes vulnerable to all the elements that the checklist is designed to prevent:

  1. With no one monitoring the process, the rigour and quality execution declines.
  2. The person running the list is more susceptible to skipping through items or skimming down the list depending on time pressure after the quick initial configuration of the aircraft.
  3. As it is no longer a formal crew event, it becomes more vulnerable to distractions such as ATC communications, outside scan, starting an engine during etc.
  4. Running the list against a previous check of configuration means that it is once again based on memory, and not on a step-by-step challenge-and-response.
  5. The situation awareness of the configuration of the aircraft is lost for the rest of the crew.
  6. The rest of the crew are unable to verify that the list has been run and completed properly.

‘Chunking’ the list

Chunking is a ‘short-cut’ to proper usage of the checklist that can develop overtime and become normalised. This is when several challenge items are called together in one “chunk,” by the person running the list, and the other crew member replies in turn a series of chunked responses. 

This short-cut undermines the concept behind the step-by-step challenge-and-response procedure and once again introduces a reliance on the pilot’s short-term and long-term memory as to the order and completion of the checklist, which, in fact, is exactly what the checklist is supposed to prevent.

Not calling completion

The completion call is a redundant action. In most cases crew members know that the checklist is completed. However, this is the only reliable feedback available to indicate this. Some operators write the completion call as the last item in each task-checklist, making the call itself the final checklist item. Some choose not to list this call in the checklist, but still require the pilots to make the completion call. 

Distraction is a common cause of poor aircraft configuration and checklist discipline. In a high workload or time-pressured flight as can be the case in many helicopter tasks, this becomes a high risk area for error. Calling completion of the list introduces an opportunity for the person running the list to confirm that all items actually have been completed. It also flags to the rest of the crew that aircraft has been configured for that phase of flight, and that discrete task of running the checklist is now over, allowing attention to be moved on to other things.

Ambiguous responses

Many checklists have variable responses on the list to allow for different aircraft configurations. For example, the words “set,” “check,” “completed,” etc. indicate that an item is accomplished. However, these words should ideally not be used to respond to the challenge. Instead, the response should always portray the actual status, position, or the value of the item (switches, levers, lights, fuel quantities, etc.).

The checklist in the rotary wing cockpit.

Like so many other aspects of rotary wing aviation, the design and philosophy of checklist use is inherited from airline operations. This is all very well, but it is useful to acknowledge that some important differences exist in the way many helicopter operations are crewed and function, compared with line flying in the commercial air traffic sector.

Rotary wing flying can present challenges to the proper use of the checklist. Acknowledging these pressures is a good start in mitigating their potential misuse.

For example:

Crew configuration

  • Single pilot ops are more prevalent
  • Single pilot ops can include non-pilot crew members
  • These can include non-pilot front seat crew members 
  • Multiple aeronautically trained crew allow for the option of non-pilot checklist reading/checking/monitoring

If helicopter crew is made up of more than just two pilots, or one pilot supported by other crew members a wider range of options is available as to how we can, could, or should interact with checklists. In my past military flying it was not uncommon to make use of non-front seat crew to assist with the reading of emergency and even normal checklists. Back in the days when airliners flew with Flight Engineers, things also worked this way. In a high workload situation it was seen to be a logical use of all available (human) resources in the aircraft. Or just good CRM. Obviously this depends on a well trained and drilled crew-member to be able to understand and read the checklist effectively.

Flight profiles

  • In rotary wing flying typical flight sectors are shorter, less uniform, and often interrupted by other, non-routine or unexpected tasks.
  • Traffic patterns, landing and approach briefs and recces can be more time constrained.
  • A typical flight can often contain many high workload periods compressed together or unevenly distributed in an unpredictable pattern. 
  • The urgency of the mission can sometimes prevent proactive workload management distributing tasks more evenly, or allowing extra time.

One hard working helicopter I have flown had logged 20,000 flying hours, but amassed over 60,000 landings. That amounts to more than three landings for every flight hour, instead of the more likely figure for an airline jet of three flight hours for every landing. Those statistics suggest a some helicopter crews might have up to 9x less time to interact with the same set of checklists that an airline crew has during a flight.

I know that the above example is overly simplistic, however, it is illustrative of a problem inherent to helicopter operations. I have listened to complaints from one operation that I have worked with that the (original, un-tailored) normal checklists that had accompanied the entry into service of their new helicopter was so extensive that they physically didn’t have time between each phase of flight to run the required lists and configure the aircraft, often arriving on scene for training or an incident before having worked through all the preceding lists. This kind of workload management problem is not uncommon in the sort of short hops often encountered in HEMS or SAR type operations, and can create the conditions for non-compliance with SOPs, under the category of “violation for organisational gain,” or not following the checklist because it doesn’t work “in the real world.”

Tailoring checklists to rotary wing tasks

Do these differences require us to interact differently with checklists to an airline crew? Fundamentally, the answer is no. However, we do have to account for the human desire to find the fastest, quickest, or most efficient way to work. In a questionnaire studying the reasons why we don’t always follow standard operating procedures, over 40% of people agreed that practicality – “they are unworkable in practice”; “they make it more difficult to do the work”; “they are too time consuming”; “they are unnecessarily restrictive” -was a key factor. A similar number identified optimisation as the main reason: “people usually find a better way of doing the job” or “it does not describe the best way to carry out the work.” A checklist design and a checklist philosophy that does meet the challenges of the way we are operating our aircraft will soon become a source of violation of SOP, and normalisation of deviance by crews.

Should then we be considering the different nuances to checklist design in the rotary wing world in more depth? Probably. 

It is the Operators’ responsibility to create and adapt type specific checklists to the nature of their operations. However, this is not always a straight-forward job. The versatility of the helicopter and its role flexibility can create the problem of how to integrate a variety of roles or tasks into a single checklist or set of lists. Or how to maintain a concise selection of checklists. A rotary wing operation that includes a variety of roles from load-lifting and winching to fire-fighting and HEMS, onshore and offshore, might have to balance the risk of proliferating ever more tailored lists, against the dangers of paring down to an overly generic one. Whether sufficient time and thought is put into the design and content of these is dependent upon the motivation, responsiveness, and the culture of individual companies.  

Whatever the challenges that using a checklist might present to us, we should still think of it as a trusted friend. The volume and complexity of what we know, and how we are expected to perform, has exceeded our ability as individuals to do so correctly, safely, and reliably. Using a checklist is like a cognitive net which catches our built-in mental flaws and shares the responsibility for errors. Furthermore, its use has been shown to establish a higher standard of baseline performance in all of us, so they will also make you a better aviator!


What Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman can teach us about why taking the hardest decisions of them all is so hard.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow Nobel Prize winning economist and thinker Daniel Kahneman introduces us to many fascinating insights into the human decision-making process. Loss Aversion is one of these. He begins by explaining how a simple experiment provides evidence of how strongly this cognitive bias affects how we take decisions:

Loss Aversion Theory

[Extracted from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman p.283-4.

Many of the options we face in life are “mixed”: there is a risk of loss and an opportunity for gain, and we must decide whether to accept the gamble or reject it. Investors who evaluate a start-up, lawyers who wonder whether to file a lawsuit, wartime generals who consider an offensive, and politicians who must decide whether to run for office, all face the possibilities of victory or defeat. 

As an example of this decision-making in practice, examine your reaction to the next question:

You are offered a gamble on the toss of a coin. 

If the coin shows tails, you lose $100.

If the coin shows heads, you win $150.

Is this gamble attractive? Would you accept it?

To make this choice you must balance the psychological benefit of getting $150 against the psychological cost of losing $100. How do you feel about it? Although the expected value of the gamble is obviously positive, because you stand to gain more than you can lose, you probably dislike it – most people do. 

For most people the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150. We concluded from many such observations that “losses loom larger than gains” and that people are loss averse.

You can measure your aversion to losses by asking yourself a question: What is the smallest gain that I need to balance an equal chance to lose $100? For many people, the answer is about $200, twice as much as the loss. The “loss aversion ratio” has been estimated in several experiments  and is usually in the range of 1.5 to 2.5.

Loss Aversion in Operational Decision-Making

This is an astonishing ratio when you think about it, particularly when we translate the implications of a simple financial transaction or bet into the realm of operational decision-making.

Let’s take the example of a rescue scenario in which a helicopter crew find themselves faced with a situation in which they must winch four survivors from a stormy sea. They estimate they only have the performance and endurance to winch up two of the four survivors if they are to carry out the task safely, and within the limitations of the aircraft and established fuel minima. Despite this, they calculate that it might be possible that the extra two survivors could be brought on board at the expense of ‘stretching’ their established power, weight, and endurance limits, and they mull over this possibility.

They are faced with a decision. Let’s superimpose the scenario of this decision-making process onto the example of Kahneman’s experiment above. There will of course be many other factors to this decision, but we won’t introduce them here so as not to complicate the equation.

The stakes in Kahneman’s example above are no longer represented in financial terms ($100). Instead, the risk associated with the $100 stake is represented by the risk of damage to aircraft, equipment, crew, property, or third parties every time we fly. At worst, this stake could even represent the cost of life. You might think this stake to be a high one – and you would be correct – but (unlike Kahneman’s example which offers 50/50 odds) in risk terms it is offset by the fact that we generally consider the likelihood of a poor outcome to be low.

The ‘gain’ for this stake, or our return on this investment is represented by our professional status, fulfilment, pride in our role, sense of self-worth, and (especially in the case of risk-to-life missions) a feeling of making a contribution to society, or saving the life or limb of another human being. Taken together these are no small gains for the human psyche.

On the other hand, failure to carry out the rescue successfully would represent the ‘loss’ that is described by this scenario within the context of loss aversion theory.

If the gains are high, Kahneman’s evidence of our loss aversion tells us that at a ratio of around 2:1 we are going to be even more reluctant to surrender them.

It is approximately twice as hard for us to take a decision to abort a mission, turn-around, or land, as it is for us to keep going with the task or the plan for which we had cognitively primed ourselves.

The Cognitive Bias Responsible for Press-on-itis

This theory explains a lot about the power of that well-known ailment suffered by the unsuspecting aviator; “Press-on-itis”. It is approximately twice as hard for us to take a decision to abort a mission, turn-around, or land, as it is for us to keep going with the task or the plan for which we had cognitively primed ourselves. This will continue to be the case even if we have recognised a changing risk profile during the course of a flight.

The effect of this phenomenon is compounded by a further finding of Kahneman’s work on Loss Aversion. He also provides evidence for the case that humans are guided by the immediate emotional impact of gains and losses, rather than the long-term prospects of whatever the outcome may bring. This further increases the odds of us failing to take that difficult decision. The emotional impact of a perceived ‘failure’ to achieve a task (the loss) is immediate and weighs heavily on your mind, whereas the possibility of a bad outcome still seems remote, and improbable. 

From this we are able to make a couple of simple observations:

Firstly, any decision that involves a perceived failure to achieve a task, a loss of face, a hit to professional credibility or, self-respect will very likely be affected by this powerful bias. Secondly, it is probably fair to say that if a decision of this nature hangs in the balance, then the chances are that the correct decision is the option that makes you feel least comfortable.

Crew Resource Management Training from Classroom to Cockpit. Are we missing a link?

When preparing for a trip to the simulator most of us start by reaching for the emergency and abnormal checklist to refresh ourselves on the inevitable bevvy of aircraft malfunctions that we know will be coming our way in due course. Who hasn’t come across that sim instructor who feels it would be a dereliction of duty if they failed to cram every malfunction off this list into a 2 hour session? The conscientious victim will of course have sat down and brushed up on their technical knowledge of the aircraft, they will have re-committed to memory the key numbers and figures, and run the critical flight profiles through their heads in an effort to cognitively prime their coming performance in the box. They almost certainly won’t have shown the same commitment to preparing their non-technical skills however.

The imbalance of technical and non-technical skills in practical flight training

We have plenty of statistical evidence from accident and incident reports that Human Factors failings are ever present and lessons are there to be drawn in almost every case. In contrast, the kind of serious technical malfunctions that we focus on during most simulator training are not only every more rare, but they are usually only a part of the picture in any accident or serious incident. And as we well know from our modules on Threat and Error Management, these accidents and incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.

So why is so much of our valuable simulator training time given over to the tip of as many metaphorical icebergs as our instructor can place in our path during our voyage through the simulator? The bits of the iceberg above the waterline represents known knowns. These are the emergencies listed in our checklists. We prepare for them because we know they are there, and in the case of the simulator, we know they are coming too. They have immediate and subsequent actions, they have warnings, and cautions, and notes. They are therefore the easiest bits of the icebergs to avoid.

But Threat and Error Management teaches us that we should be focusing on the great hidden mass below the waterline. That is where the real danger lies. These are the Human Factors. Unlike the critical technical failure that might raise its ugly head for the unfortunate amongst us once or twice during a whole career, we all make HF related mistakes every time we fly. There is always some aspect of our non-technical skills that could be improved or worked on. There will often be lessons to be learned from. And yes, sometimes, our HF mistakes can even end in tragedy. The chances of this are infinitely higher than the single engine failure that we practice multiple times each time we visit the simulator, and many times higher than almost any other aircraft malfunction that we dedicate time to.

When it comes to Non-Technical Skills and CRM there is a sense that it has never been fully integrated into many training and checking regimes and can remain out on a limb in some training departments and ATOs.  On instructor competencies and assessment EASA clearly states that training should be both theoretical and practical and that the practical elements should include the development of specific instructor skills, particularly in the areas of teaching and assessing threat and error management and CRM. (EASA AMC.FCL.920 (a)) However, it is not difficult to provide evidence that there is still an imbalance between the technical and non-technical sides of training, and we have some way to go yet to redress it.

The role of the Line and Simulator Instructor in CRM 

CRM training was first introduced as a ground training course, and the regulatory (and therefore operational) focus of CRM on classroom theory that has emerged and developed as a result has meant that teaching the practical application of CRM in the air has perhaps not received as much attention as it warrants. This integration has long been a problem. Even the UK Civil Aviation Authority acknowledge, while discussing the introduction of CRM, that training received “mixed reviews from pilots, one problem being a lack of direct application and integration of CRM to the flight deck (pilots themselves were left to work out how to integrate it into their job roles).” (CAP 737, p.11)

A lack of direct application and the integration of CRM to the flight deck has long been perceived to be a problem.

The practical application of CRM classroom theory is really the realm of the flight instructor cadre. The Flight Crew Human Factors Handbook makes this critical point, stressing that, “Good use of CRM skills relies on effective training and assessment by practitioners (flying instructors, examiners, etc.)” 

The practical application of CRM classroom theory is really the realm of the flight instructor cadre.

Instructors are endowed with CRM Trainer privileges as part of their initial qualification and are expected to put these to use from the outset. The UK Civil Aviation Authority states that, “the role of the instructor is to develop the crew in their ability to both fly and operate the aircraft safely…from a human factors perspective the crew will need instruction in developing dealing strategies for threats and errors during both normal operations and emergency handling.” (CAP 737, p.170) The knowledge on which this privilege is based is supposedly imparted during their training as flight instructors, and then revalidated alongside their TRI/TRE/SFI qualification. The reality is that the breadth and depth in which the teaching of non-technical flying skills are touched upon during a process that inevitably focuses on technical knowledge and procedures is questionable.

Training in the teaching and assessing of CRM skills for TRI/TREs, particularly continuation training, is an area of weakness. A lack of detail in regulation allows operators to interpret the requirement to update and revise this knowledge as loosely as they wish. This results in an assumption in many cases that CRM understanding is practiced and maintained by default in the simple act of running a simulator session or carrying out line training. In CAP 737, hidden within the pages of its 25 chapters, its authors make passing reference to an important truth: They note that, “In terms of operational flight safety, instructors hold one of the most influential positions in the industry.” (p.169) This is surely so, which highlights the point that if non-technical skills are at least as critical to operational flight safety as their technical brethren, then our failure to raise the bar in this area is a clear area where safety could be improved.

In terms of operational flight safety, instructors hold one of the most influential positions in the industry.

It is easier for the flight instructors to concentrate on the technical side of training. It’s definable, it’s measurable, and it is more easily assessed and critiqued. On the other hand, the creation of effective CRM practical scenarios to train in the simulator takes a lot of thought, effort, and preparation. Unlike the training of technical malfunctions, they can’t be used again and again without losing their impact and value. They must be continually updated, refreshed and adapted to remain valid. Creating and directing effective CRM scenarios is often more complex than working through a series of handling exercises or malfunctions, and extends into being able to understand a philosophy and transmit a set of values and behaviours. It requires effective training of the instructors in turn. In this area, CAP 737 notes, “the instructor has the opportunity to reduce accident and incident numbers caused by human factors, if trained in the use of the appropriate tools.” However, it is often the case that the level of training that would provide those tools is either not required and not sufficient. The CAP goes on to admit the fact that, “the regulation is clear on the expectation and abilities required of the instructor, but it offers little in the way of guidance.” 

The Regulation

When it comes to CRM, there is some detail in regulation on what should be taught, but not much on how it should be taught. Training of Non-technical skills and human factors throughout a company is the responsibility of the operator alone. There is no accreditation of instructors by the Authority in this area, little guidance as to what constitutes appropriate training and checking, and often little capacity for oversight. The most in depth requirements in this field are laid down for CRM Ground Trainers for whom the Acceptable Means of Compliance are explicit in what they must achieve to maintain their knowledge, competency and currency in the discipline. But when it comes to the guardians and teachers of the practical application of CRM, and one of the most influential groups in the industry in contributing to safe flight practices, the only requirements demanded by EASA are that “All Instructors and Examiners shall be suitably qualified to integrate elements of CRM,” and “All instructors are suitably trained/checked in CRM and receive on-going development.” (CAP 1607, CRM Standards Guide) With no further guidance on what that should mean, anything more specific is left to the judgement and conscientiousness of the operator.

The instructor cadre shouldn’t be to blame for the emphasis that the system places on the technical over the non-technical side of flying. Type-rating courses; ground school; technical knowledge examinations; standards checks; compliance checks; standardisation; the requirements of recurrent training: all are set up to prescribe exactly what and how the technical stuff is taught, recorded, checked and audited. The fact is, that when it comes to the non-technical side of teaching flying, there is almost nothing specified as to the content and standards that might be expected of instructors, and little included in any training manuals that they could turn to for guidance should they be so inclined. The body of information in CAP 737, is perhaps a notable exception to this. In its introduction on Non-Technical Skills appears the admission that, “It is clear that to be most effective, such skills must be integrated into the job role, and this integration is something that CRM has traditionally struggled with.” (p.11)

Despite all this, the level of interest in operator CRM taken by aviation authorities is growing and it is likely that the crucial role played by flight instructors in integrating the practical elements into crew training will come into greater focus as they do so. Raising the standard of teaching non-technical skills as part of flight instruction will have a trickle down effect across flight operations. Improve the level of knowledge and commitment to the philosophy and principles of multi-crew co-operation and CRM amongst the trainers, and above all give them the tools to share practical techniques and advice, and the benefits will be much more widespread. Students don’t just remember what you teach, they remember what you are.

Don’t neglect your CRM: The value of telling stories

Last week was a CRM week. I was immersed in a Crew Resource Management course for aspiring facilitators with three full days dedicated to talking, listening, and learning about flying, human factors, and facilitation. Learning from the experiences of others is a lot of what human factors training is about. You don’t do that without a forum to talk and listen. But as I found out last week, it doesn’t have to be a classroom.

As is so often the case, it was beyond the course that the most enlightening, goose-bump inducing, and sometimes sheer terrifying stories were shared. Over lunch, or after hours with a beer in hand gathered around the table for dinner we picked up on themes from the classroom with personal tales. We don’t often have time to share these moments anymore. When they do come up, the opportunities are invaluable, sometimes priceless. 

I have just tucked away two or three anecdotes from colleagues which will go with me for the rest of my career. For as long as I fly. These stories held the room. You could hear a pin drop. Every single listener was perched on the edge of his seat straining not to miss a single detail. Stories of miraculous escapes in the air from almost certain disaster – usually at the hands of somebody else – and almost always ending in an unreasonably large serving of outstanding good luck. “I’ll never forget that day”, said one. “It is now my birthday,” he said, quoting the date from memory. “I was born again that day. I was given a second chance to live”. Strong stuff.

At the heart of all of these stories were not technical but human failings. In each case, the tellers were fully aware of the extreme danger into which they were being led, but did not have the tools at the time to do anything to prevent it. 

The telling of stories is such a fundamental part of learning about our failings. We all have stories. Many of us have lots. Most of us are able to identify with the stories of others. They all serve as a reminder that – as so many accident investigations demonstrate – it is unlikely to be your hands-and-feet technical ability that will keep you out of trouble, or save the day when things start to go badly wrong in the air. What will keep you safe, and in some cases even keep you alive, is your understanding of the human element. Don’t neglect your CRM. Your CRM skills and knowledge of human factors deserves as much or more attention that the rest of your flying training put together. It’s not just another currency item. Statistically, it is what is most likely to keep you out of trouble. It might, one day, just be the thing that keeps you alive.

Flying SAR in the sunshine: What’s not to like?!

From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean: The Weather. Learning to adjust. And just learning.

On moving to Valencia last year to try my hand at flying a Search and Rescue helicopter in Spain, the predominantly anti-cyclonic picture of Spain’s Mediterranean-facing east coast presented an entirely new meteorological situation to me. “SAR in the sunshine, what’s not to like,” was one of the tongue in cheek comments that sent me on my way from the UK. And it’s true; the days where CAVOK doesn’t make up most of the TAF seem few and far between. 

But, for a pilot who associated all the ‘gotchas’ of meteorology with the ‘bad’ weather conditions of the UK – changeable weather, low cloud, heavy precipitation, strong winds, and high seas – I have had to accept a change of mindset. I have come to learn that ready sunshine and slack pressure gradients can still present their own challenges to an unsuspecting aviator who might be more accustomed – and even comfortable – with Instrument Meteorological Conditions. 

One of the near constants of my flying career – the wind -has become less dependable and more fickle. The Atlantic-facing shoreline of the UK is rarely short of a pressure gradient and if you ask most people what the prevailing wind direction is in Britain they will surely tell you ‘south-west’. If you discount topographic effects as it crosses the country from west to east this is certainly the case. The dominance of our prevailing south-westerly is evident from the fact that even as aviators we don’t give our different winds names to distinguish them from each other. 

On Spain’s eastern coast, along what is known as the Costa Blanca and the Costa Brava the prevailing winds are more changeable. Each has a name, and even the general public are familiar with these and the kind of weather and temperature changes that each brings. They are known as the Mistral and the Tramontana from the north, the Levante from the East and the Poniente from the West. Strangely enough however for a part of the world that is seemingly so wind-conscious, one of the things that struck me almost as soon as I started to fly here was how little of it there seems to be.

Winds of the Mediterranean

Of course there is wind but, not only does it change sporadically with the pressure patterns, it changes direction and comes and goes throughout the day. With strong solar heating and a steep mountainous coastline which faces the sun, from the Costa Blanca northwards, and unaffected by Africa, the sea breeze is often by far the most significant factor. On parts of this coast, almost regardless of the morning wind, the sea breeze often sets in around early to mid-afternoon from a south-easterly direction. Sometimes it lasts for a few hours and reaches 20-25 knots, extending to some 15-20 miles offshore. At other times it dies out fairly quickly and will scarcely get to 10 knots. In terms of local time it seems to come in fairly late in the day between 1600 or 1700 hours but this is due to the fact that in reality it is only 1400 or 1500 in solar time, so still only 2 hours or so after solar noon. 

Valencia sits in a relatively sheltered position well to the south of the strongest effects of the Mistral and Tramontana that flow down from the south of France, and well north of the funnelling effects of the Straits of Gibraltar which gives the wind its strength on the Costa del Sol and places like Tarifa, the famous kite-surfing Mecca. By shortly after dark it is not unusual for the wind to disappear almost altogether, and for operational reasons, this is when SAR training usually takes place.

One of the more challenging elements of adjusting to these conditions for a pilot brought up on the Atlantic coast is the problem of wind finding, where you require a greater flexibility and a more questioning mindset in the set of up your approach, particularly in the later stages where the influence of the wind in low wind conditions starts to become more evident. It is not unusual at wind speeds below 5 knots for the wind direction to change significantly within a short space of time and over relatively short distances.

The skill lies in finding an into wind position by looking for all available cues at the bottom of an approach over the sea, including the position of the downwash, judging whether the aircraft has come to the hover in a slightly left or right wing low position, and the resulting need to introduce left or right pedal to correct until it settles comfortably. Once established in the hover slack wind conditions present the twin evils of higher hover torque and a few tonnes of rotor wash hitting the sea directly below the aircraft, which could easily drown a person in the water, and complicates the task of hoisting to small and even medium sized vessels.

Hoisting in safe single engine conditions even for training is unusual until the later stages of a flight, even in the abundantly powered AW139, and expectations as to what constitutes a flyaway condition in the event of engine failure are tweaked to figures up to 10% higher than those being used by colleagues enjoying the colder and windier conditions on the North Sea. Acceptable risk in this area has to be adjusted to take account for the art of the possible.

Rotor downwash effect on a flat sea.

Rescue techniques have also been developed to take into account the fierce downwash that can hamper hoisting operations in still wind conditions. Hover heights are stepped up, and a hi-line is almost always used to guide persons and equipment on the cable to a deck or a cliff situation, allowing the helicopter to remain in a position stood-off from the overhead to alleviate the worst effects of the punishing downdraft. Even so, the position of the ‘donut’ of air pushing down and out from the helicopter has the effect of turning and drifting smaller vessels in unpredictable ways, which can complicate the job of the pilot in keeping station and maintaining effective visual references. In situations where it would be too difficult or risky to con the aircraft directly overhead the target it is the job of the rescue swimmer to do the hard work of fighting their way through the wind and waves to reach the victim or the target vessel under their own power. They have my utmost respect for what they do to earn their keep.

Not everybody thinks of mountains when they think of Spain but it is in fact one of the most mountainous countries in Europe. Neither would most foreigners identify the Mediterranean coast as a part of Spain which is particularly mountainous. I thought I knew better than that, well acquainted as I was with the trip up and down the coast between the cities of Alicante and Valencia. But it wasn’t until I started flying here that I realised the highest obstacle between the two cities reaches a surprising 5304ft above mean sea level, requiring a safety altitude of 7500+ feet. This is a figure which seems very high up for a maritime helicopter pilot and is not far off the ceiling of the aircraft in some conditions. Skafell Pike, England’s highest peak, comes up over 2000 feet short. In summer, when temperatures often climb in to the high thirties, the density altitude climbs too and can become a factor if operating at high all up mass.

Terrain rises steeply from the sea on Spain’s eastern coast

Even close to the coast there are significant local wind effects; many of them orographic, as well as the anabatic and katabatic flows associated with mountainous terrain. Flying along the coast on a strong wind day with prevailing westerlies, a well-extended line of fierce-looking ‘cats’ paws’ can be seen marking the water downwind of the steeply rising coastline. These can easily reach a mile offshore. 

Downdrafts and the severe turbulence present in standing waves are a feature which occur on a scale that you would unlikely encounter in all but the most severe areas of Britain’s more gently undulating topography. In 2019 a six and a half tonne AW139 SAR helicopter was turned on its side in flight here in Spain and the windows knocked out by what is likely to be judged a severe turbulence event and illustrates just how powerful some of these forces can be. The aircraft and crew survived an emergency landing and the accident is still under investigation.

On the occasions that the prevailing CAVOK in the TAF makes way for a cloud group, it is no longer the low level stratiform cloud that I was used to in West Cornwall. Instead, towering cumuli and cumulonimbus tend to be the things to look out for. With strong heating, vigorous convection is always possible, and the warm water of the Mediterranean will ensure that there is always plenty of latent heat. Thunderstorms are the result. These can be massive and dangerous, and if they pop up in the wrong place at the wrong time could even result in a no-go decision for a SAR mission. My previous belief that the weather radar – in anything other than ground-mapping mode below 500 feet – was for airline pilots has given way to a realisation I have a new tool in the cockpit that it is well worth paying some attention to.

I have been a helicopter pilot long enough now to know that when it comes to flying there is always more to learn. I’m also far enough through life to understand the infinite value of new experiences. Moving to fly in Spain has illustrated this as never before, and has already taught me many new things in the cockpit and beyond. Truth be told, when I first looked ahead at the challenges it might bring I think I was unable to project beyond the struggles I might have with language, communication, and culture. I knew it would take me well beyond my comfort zone, and that it did. Sometimes it still does. And looking ahead it certainly will still. But knowing that after such a short time I can look back in the knowledge that I have grown as an aviator, and thinking about everything that I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t taken the leap, already makes it all worthwhile. SAR in the sunshine: what’s not to like?!

*The content and the views expressed in this article are all my own and do not represent those of my employer or any related parties.

Is Human Factors in aviation at a crossroads?

Now seems like a good time to look beyond the dark prism of the current COVID-induced crisis in aviation to consider a future beyond the mire.

The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) recently published a White Paper called “The Human Dimension in Tomorrow’s Aviation System”. It’s made up of a series of accessible short articles written by Human Factors experts from across aviation and related fields, and provides some fascinating insights into how the aviation sector might develop and change through the 2020s and beyond. It’s also available to listen to as a webinar.

Most of these were penned before the seismic impact of COVID19 knocked the industry sideways. And despite acknowledging current difficulties as, “perhaps the biggest challenge in the history of aviation,” the long term view of this paper envisages a gradual return to pre-pandemic levels of demand and progress.  It is entirely possible that the fallout from whatever social, economic, and commercial changes the pandemic might provoke will actually accelerate many of the structural, technological, and systemic developments that these articles predict.

The White Paper explores a really broad range of themes, but two of its key arguments caught my attention:

The first is the idea that aviation is currently on an ‘uncharted and unprecedented journey’ set to change dramatically during the next two to three decades. This change is already happening all around us. What marks this change out from what has gone before is that up until recently change within aviation has been driven from within the industry itself, with technological and other innovations coming from aircraft manufacturers and operators. As a consequence, the industry set its own rhythm and enjoyed a measured pace of change. This is no longer the case, and many of the catalysts for change in the industry are now coming from outside the world of traditional aviation giants, driven by new business entrants with independently produced innovations. This is rapidly accelerating the pace of change and leaving the regulators struggling to keep up.

The second idea is that the role of Human Factors in aviation is also at a crossroads. It too must accelerate its development and capability to support the coming changes in aviation. The authors argue that the traditional approach to Human Factors has been a piecemeal focus on responding to single issue questions in safety or ergonomics, often in response to manufacturer demand or safety reviews. Acknowledging that aviation is now developing into becoming a ‘system of systems’ requires a deeper partnership, where the human and the technology are considered hand in hand, as interdependent. HF input will have to broaden from the micro to the macro, to itself become a more encompassing ‘systems’ approach. And it will need to be integrated strategically to allow it to meet the unseen and unplanned challenges that arise from all the technological, social, and regulatory change that we are now experiencing.

Aviation is on an uncharted an unprecedented journey.

Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors

The CIEHF concludes that “in both civil and military aviation there is a need for a more concerted effort to harness human factors … so that it can support the raft of innovations and their interactions – intended and otherwise – that will become aviation’s ‘new normal’ in this decade.”

If you’re interested in Human Factors in aviation, there’s something for everyone in this paper. It’s food for thought and I recommend at least dipping in to it.

Can you learn to deal with the unexpected & unpredictable?

Cognitive Readiness in Search and Rescue operations: What is it? Do you have it? How do you get it?

There’s a problem with training to learn to deal with the unexpected: we simply don’t know in advance what the objectives of any training or instruction should be.

If you haven’t come across it already, Cognitive Readiness as a concept in Search and Rescue is a term that you might be about to become more familiar with. It was born of military studies into how different individuals are mentally equipped to handle fast-moving and ever-changing scenarios, and it is just starting to be applied to the world of Search and Rescue.

It describes a form of mental readiness, or preparation in a set of non-technical skills that demonstrate a capacity or predisposition for high performance in complex and unpredictable environments.

Nothing is as predictable in military operations as unpredictability. So the question of how we should prepare people, teams, and organisations for the unexpected, (which is by definition something we cannot anticipate) seems a reasonable one for military academics and theorists to be asking. The leap in the application of this thinking from the military domain to the world of Search and Rescue in all its guises, is logical too, given the related dynamic in SAR of real-world challenges, reactive problem-solving, unanticipated events, and unforeseen consequences. 

The leap in the application of this thinking from the military domain to the world of SAR is logical

This leap has been driven by a study carried out by a team from the Applied Psychology and Human Factors Group of the University of Aberdeen. Their work on behalf of the Helicopter Industry is behind the development of a new Behavioural Marker System that helps to identify (and therefore develop) aircrews’ Non-Technical Skills. (For more information see HELINOTS

Part of this study is aimed specifically at identifying the skill-sets considered to be important to Search and Rescue. In a survey which made a direct comparison between the responses of offshore transport pilots and search and rescue pilots, subjects were asked to rate which Non- Technical Skills they perceived as the most important to their respective roles. Despite the fact that Cognitive Readiness was new to them as a concept, the group of SAR pilots all immediately recognised its importance in their role, collectively rating it as the most important skill of all from a list that also included Communication, Situational Awareness, Teamwork, Leadership, Task Management, and Decision-Making. 

The study went on to identify Cognitive Readiness as a key difference between the missions of search and rescue, and offshore transport flying, concluding that it is a vital skill within search and rescue operations.

What is Cognitive Readiness?

It has been defined as,

“The mental preparation (including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions) an individual needs to establish and sustain competent performance in complex and unpredictable environments.”

Fletcher, J.D. & Wind, A.P. (2014) Chapter 2: The Evolving Definition of Cognitive Readiness for Military Operations

More specifically, it could be said to be made up of:

  1. The ability to remove ambiguity and recognise patterns in uncertain, confusing, and chaotic situations.
  2. The ability to identify and prioritise problems and opportunities presented by these situations.
  3. The ability to devise effective responses to the problems or opportunities presented.
  4. The ability to go on to implement those responses.

In their 2020 study, Hamlet, Irving and McGregor (link) split the idea of Cognitive Readiness down into three categories:

Preparedness: the mental and physical preparation to enable pilots to respond to new tasks swiftly and effectively.

Problem-Solving: the assessment of a task from multiple perspectives in order to cope with taxing rescue conditions.

Adaptability: quick responses to a change in task focus, rescue conditions, and terrain.

Whether these skills are trainable is admittedly controversial. Certainly, they could include elements that are not trainable. However, the corollary of asserting that they are not elements that can be trained or taught is that all operators could hope for is that their recruiting/selection processes have been successful in choosing people with these innate qualities.

Do I have it? How do I get it?!

Whether or not you have these attributes, and what you can do to work on improving them, therefore seem like important questions for anyone who wants to be successful working in this domain. Academic studies on the topic have thrown up some disagreement as to exactly what components make up the idea of Cognitive Readiness. Suffice it to say, it is multi-faceted, and built upon many of the non-technical skills that will already be familiar to anybody working in aviation. These include, amongst others:

Situation Awareness

Problem Solving

Metacognition – the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.




Pattern Recognition – the basis for integrating the sensory information hitting the eyes, ears etc. in working memory with the contents and patterns stored in long-term memory.



Interpersonal Skills


Critical thinking

Independent studies show – and aeronautical experience itself suggests – that there are ways of training many of these individually or collectively with respect to specific tasks or activities. However, the additional challenge of isolating Cognitive Readiness as a ‘trainable’ skillset is that, by its very nature, it has to be context free. If it were not, then we would no longer be operating in the land of the unanticipated and unexpected. Making training context free is similar in effect to the idea of studying Latin to develop developing generic learning skills that will help us understand German, solve mathematical problems, or perform other more specific activities.  

A healthy scepticism of fresh industry buzzwords might provoke some to express a sense that there is a bit of reinventing the wheel here. What separates Cognitive Readiness from previous error management/Non-technical skills acronyms such as TEM (Threat and Error Management) or CRM (Crew Resource Management)? Whilst there is still work to be done to allow Cognitive Readiness to be integrated into the sphere of error management and resource management as a whole, it is important to draw attention to the fact that the vast majority of literature and research work done worldwide in the sphere of human factors and CRM for aviation has been derived from the imperatives of the fixed wing and airline industries. Here, for the first time, are studies that are considering the specific challenges and peculiarities of Non-Technical Skills for rotary wing and Search and Rescue professionals as well.

The fact that we readily recognise the description that Cognitive Readiness makes about the challenges of unpredictability and adaptability that are demanded by our roles in SAR suggests that there is value in having a word that describes it. After all, can you properly understand a concept without a word to express it?

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