This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 edition of Business Aviation Insider, the 9th Annual Safety Issue. Copyright 2017 National Business Aviation Association, reprinted with permission.
Accidents involving business aircraft flown by a single pilot remain a significant concern, despite numerous advances in flight training practices and increasingly more capable technology on the flight deck designed to assist pilots in critical situations.
The NBAA Safety Committee recently identified the rate of single-pilot accidents as a Top Safety Focus Area for 2017. This is the second year in a row this topic has been called out.
Accident rates are consistently, demonstrably higher for single-pilot-operated aircraft, and this may be attributed to several distinct challenges facing owner/pilot operators. In addition to often having sole responsibility for the overall enterprise supported by that aircraft (increasing the potential for distractions and stress), single pilots are also more susceptible to task saturation, leading to operational errors.
One example of the potential consequences came in the December 2014 loss of a light business jet in Gaithersburg, MD, an accident that the NTSB attributed to the single pilot’s failure to engage the aircraft’s deicing systems while approaching to land at Montgomery County Airpark. Six persons died in that accident, including three on the ground.
How Can Training Be Improved to Create Safer Pilots?
While multiple factors may affect the performance of any flight crew, including single pilots, most discussions about improving performance begin with the subject of training, particularly recurrent training.
Tom Norton – president of Norton Aviation, a provider of in-aircraft training for light jet aircraft – noted that many pilots approach recurrent training intending to “check off” the mandated requirements as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.
“The most efficient method to accomplish this is to strictly adhere to the guidelines required by the FAA practical test,” Norton explained. “However, that approach doesn’t currently address factors that are particularly important for single pilot operators, such as proper aeronautical decision making and risk management.”
While those subjects are covered in the FAA’s new airman certification standards for private pilot and instrument training, which are expected to ultimately spread to other certifications, for the moment Norton must look for opportunities to work those discussions into the training process.
“I often ask pilots coming to me for training, ‘What have you done in the past year that’s scared you?’ That helps identify training priorities that may not otherwise be addressed.” Norton also encourages pilots to seek guidance from others in the aviation community, including a mentor able to identify possible areas for improvement in their skills and processes.
“We learn so much more from talking with other pilots than we ever do in the air,” asserted Norton. “Most think of a mentor pilot as someone you hire for a few flights after transitioning to a new aircraft. Often, though, the mentor becomes a lifelong aviation friend and consultant the pilot can call upon for important advice they wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking from a stranger.”
Another approach involves adopting safety practices from larger flight operations. “Most single pilots simply don’t have the supporting infrastructure available with two-person crews to foster a safety culture,” said Bob Wright, president of Wright Aviation Solutions. “They have their day job, for which they need to fly their plane, and there isn’t a lot of time left for anything that doesn’t seem to aid those objectives.”
To combat these tendencies, Wright pointed to work done by the NBAA Safety Committee’s Single-Pilot Safety Working Group (SPWG), including last November’s introduction of a Risk Management Guide for Single-Pilot Light Business Aircraft, which includes a flight risk assessment tool to aid operators in assessing potential risk factors prior to each flight.
“Going forward, the SPWG aims to introduce more tools and incentives in these areas,” added Wright. “If you aren’t trained to assess risk, you don’t know what you don’t know. The good news is that risk management is no longer an outlier issue, and it’s likely pilots will soon be tested on risk assessment proficiency.
“We need to make [the issue of single-pilot safety] personal,” Wright added. “We must accept, and then demonstrate, understanding of the responsibility we take on every time we prepare to fly. Even when we’re alone in the cockpit, pilots must consider how many people are affected by our decisions… especially when something goes wrong.”
Proficient… But Not ‘Good’
Industry stakeholders have also engaged their peers on possible solutions to address these concerns. The Citation Jet Pilots Owner/Pilots Association recently formed a dedicated Safety Committee, led by NASA astronaut Charlie Precourt (left) aimed at elevating these discussions within the Citation operator community.
Despite his more than 11,000 hours of experience piloting dozens of aircraft, Precourt was humbled by his recent experience earning his single-pilot certification in the CJ3 through a respected Part 142 simulator training provider. “I earned the rating, and I met the necessary standards for operating the aircraft and its systems,” he explained. “That said, ‘proficient’ is a long way from ‘good.'”
Precourt admitted to being unfamiliar with the nuances of the aircraft’s advanced avionics system. “It will take time for me to achieve the performance standards I’m accustomed to with other aircraft I’ve flown,” he said. “As a result, there’s plenty I won’t do with the rating yet, including flying single-pilot with passengers onboard to challenging destinations, or at night, or in bad weather.”
Precourt also suggested development of crew resource management (CRM) skills specifically for single pilots. “That doesn’t just mean knowing how to use cockpit automation,” he explained. “Single pilots should consider the variety of downline resources they have available in making safe and educated decisions, including the weather briefer, an FBO employee, and other pilots.
“Collectively, we have a huge opportunity to redefine what single-pilot CRM looks like, and how we can train for it,” Precourt concluded. “We can move the needle for our community as the airlines did with dual CRM. That’s how we establish a pathway to ‘good.'”
Gaithersburg Findings Note Failure to Engage Critical System
Task saturation is a common risk for all flight crews, and especially for single pilot operators. The NTSB’s findings in the Dec. 8, 2014 crash of a light jet while approaching Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, MD cited the pilot’s failure to engage his aircraft’s de-icing system at a critical time, despite multiple indications of likely icing conditions.
For example, weather conducive to icing was reported by the field’s automated weather observing system (AWOS). The pilot had also used the aircraft’s de-icing system previously during the accident flight, and – according to audio recovered from the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder – a passenger onboard commented that it was snowing outside.
“By not taking possible icing into consideration, the pilot set approach and landing speeds that were too slow for conditions, leading to an aerodynamic stall at an altitude at which a recovery was not possible,” the Board noted.
The NTSB issued three recommendations to industry groups driven by its findings, including a recommendation for NBAA to develop enhanced pilot training guidelines for flying in winter conditions, use of icing protection, and adherence to checklists. This process is currently under development.
The Board also recommended that the FAA and the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA) work together to develop a system to automatically alert pilots when to engage ice protection systems – another possible tool to assist single-pilot decision-making.
Review NBAA’s single-pilot resources page at www.nbaa.org/single-pilot.