CJP 2021: Pre-Convention Session Addresses Human Elements Behind Proper Aeronautical Decision-Making

by CJP Chairman Emeritus and Director Tom Abood

CJP - Erik Eliel - Headshot - 1121aOn October 20, 2021 at the Citation Jet Pilots Owner Pilot Association annual convention in Indian Wells, CA, CJP members had the opportunity to sign up for a special pilot proficiency and safety session sponsored by the CJP Safety and Education Foundation the day before the official start of the convention.

Erik Eliel, founder and president of Radar Training International, a familiar face to many CJP members and presenter at the last CJP in-person convention at Colorado Springs, gave attendees a memorable four-hour afternoon review of aeronautical decision making.

Those like me who have seen Erik present might’ve expected another very good but ‘radar- heavy’ syllabus. In fact, Erik only touched on radar use tangentially in the whole afternoon. Rather, what attendees received was an excellent walk-through of various aspects of the human dimension of flying jet aircraft.

Erik started by sharing some of his background. While I knew he is a high-time airline pilot and had military experience, I did not know he was a U-2 pilot and that he had spent time teaching at the Air Force Advanced Instrument School – where the best of the best Air Force pilots went to learn to improve their instrument skills.

Erik spoke about the tension between encouraging learning and washing out unqualified pilots before an accident happens. He was gratified that on more than one occasion a former student contacted him to say something learned in class saved that student’s life out in the field.

In drawing us to a thought process about breaking the accident chain before it happens, he relayed a tragic encounter he had as a ground spotter standby pilot for U-2 landings where his friend and fellow U-2 pilot got slow on an approach while addressing a mechanical issue. Erik saw the signs of distraction and slowing airspeed, and alerted the pilot to those conditions, but for some human factors reason, Erik didn’t call a go around in his role as spotter.

The stall and crash took the life of his friend. Erik – too hard on himself, in my opinion – was emotional in relaying that story today many years after the fact.

To help us think about the human elements of aeronautical decision making, Erik shared a number of concepts. We discussed task saturation, tunnel vision, expectation bias and other tendencies that take pilots away from the fundamental principle of aviate, navigate and communicate particularly when an abnormal or emergency situation occurs. Erik used a variety of tools to interactively demonstrate the subtle nature of these tendencies, such as a chart that had a table with colors and then the spelled-out word like “blue” in the color.

He asked members of the audience to read the chart column calling out the word contained in the color for each cell in the column. Easy when the word matched the color; tougher when the word did not match the color. When he came to me, I said I was color blind… The exercise drove home the checklist caution of comprehending the words, not just seeing the words.

Erik emphasized throughout the afternoon the need to pause, in nearly every abnormal and emergency situation, and think through the context of the situation before making intentional efforts to return the aircraft to a safe condition. This pause helps mitigate the task saturation, tunnel vision, expectation bias and other tendencies.

Once that pause is done, he urged us to act on that intention, to take command of the situation. He wishes he had done that that day in England when his fellow U-2 pilot got slow. He reminded us we have that opportunity every time we plan to put our airplane in the air.