Friday, August 7, 2009

More on Faking It

Thank you, everyone, for your online and in-person comments on the last post. Obviously there is more to say.

Two stories leap to mind. The first isn't about flying per se, but it's still relevant. (Sorry, but I cannot remember where I read it.) It was about a high school football coach, who remarked that this generation's players were smarter than those he had worked with previously. They were experts in football strategy, could understand complex plays, and had a good sense of where they were in the game and what was appropriate (in aviation, we call this situational awareness). They learned all this from the fabulous video games now available. There was only one problem: they had never been hit. Real football players get hit, a lot.

Ironically, that reminds me of a pilot my company hired when I was a check airman. He and I got along great, personally, until I flew with him. That was a nightmare.

The company's worst accident had been a ground collision, and we were extra careful about clearing all turns. (I don't fly for them anymore, but by the time I left this culture had disappeared, alas.) Anyway, I flew the first leg. The tower offered a 180 to the ramp, and as I turned I reflexively asked "Clear left?" He lit up, using a lot of language that would be inappropriate here, but basically calling me an idiot because why would you clear a turn on the runway? I listed unauthorized vehicles, animals, and debris to begin with.

As we waited for the passengers he continued his rant, now directed at a copilot who wouldn't tune the localizer. This is a standard practice in in flying turbines, because of 14CFR91.129(e)(2), which requires turbine aircraft to stay above any electronic glideslope, but it's a good idea for everyone. It's one of those "just to be sure" things, like clearing all of your turns. One hand brags about thinking this way while the other hand slaps you for thinking this way.

But the best was yet to come. He described some Second-In-Command training in a simulator, and how the instructor had praised his situational awareness. And that's the problem: there's no such thing as 'situational awareness' in a simulator. There is no traffic. There are no mistakes by controllers. Often, there is no terrain. There are no thunderstorms.

My simulator sessions generally consisted of a takeoff, a departure procedure, a hold, an approach, and a missed approach. Many included engine failures, equipment failures, and the like, which was the value of the training. But never once did I have to think "Hey, ATC just put that Lear at our altitude, and they're behind us and faster." We never turned on the weather radar. We never had the boss yell at us for no reason just before takeoff (someday I'll write something about this kind of thing and its negative effect on flying). We never did a real circling approach. We never settled into cruise to find that the headwind was too strong. We never did more than tip our glasses at the word 'icing.' We never had unknown, elderly passengers, just out of surgery, who insisted on flying without a caretaker. (There is absolutely nothing that a lone pilot can do to help an ailing passenger.) There was never the shock of discovering that the laptop you've been carrying around in the baggage area had one of the batteries that were prone to spontaneous explosion. The list is nearly infinite.

The video games seem to teach young football players something about situational awareness, but the more sophisticated video games called 'simulators' do not do that for pilots. The First Officer in last winter's Colgan Air accident in Buffalo basically admitted "I've never been hit" when it came to icing: the airline's simulator training did not provide the visceral experience. I'm sure that all Colgan pilots knew the amperage draw from propeller deice (the kind of thing you learn in at the big simulator schools), but the sim didn't include the eerie sound of handfuls of gravel hitting the side of the airplane as a sound confirming that the prop deice was working. You can see the effect on the left.

The thing is, realistic simulator training depends a lot on the instructor. For example, I try to use standard phraseology and intonations when playing ATC for my students. It must be good because every now and then one of them keys the mic and reads the clearance back! But I recently realized that my final clearance when vectoring someone onto the ILS was missing an element. The instructor needs to stay sharp, too.

An instructor can tell the "there I was..." stories in training: an inch of ice and the windshield heat failed! it stalled at 95 knots! It just wouldn't climb! I asked to stay at my present altitude because I was between layers! I descended at 1500fpm to get through the icing layer! (That assumes that the instructor has some "there I was..." stories, although many do not.)

But even with a great simulator, you cannot actually hit the student, and in flying being hit is what helps you develop siutational awareness. In football, the sim teaches situational awareness, but in flying it cannot.

Flying is the opposite of football. Good thing, too; at my age, I don't think it would be good for me to get hit.

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