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Operational Decision Making: Life after Flight Training

Posted 9 years 96 days ago ago by Randy Rowles


Within the flight training industry, a key component to mitigating risk is standardization. Providing the student and instructor with repeatable tools to aid in the decision-making process provides a predictable environment in which flight training can occur safely. However, this may be a double-edged sword. On one side you have a highly standardized method of operating that is repeatable, predictable, and offers very little in the form of operational risk. On the other side, the student pilot is offered very little opportunity to make operational decisions. The key to becoming a safe, competent helicopter pilot is the ability to make good decisions.

An example of the gap that exists between the flight school environment and operational flying is weather minimums. During a commercial checkride a few weeks ago in Florida, the weather was above VFR with light rain. The applicant decided not to fly because he had “never flown in the rain.” In many flight schools, the weather to dispatch an aircraft for cross-country flights is often in the range of 5SM visibility and 3,000 – 5,000’AGL ceilings along the flight route. A pilot that trains from student to CFI, and then becomes a line CFI at a school with these minimums, may never operate a helicopter in basic VFR conditions. Additionally, the first time they incur a situation where Special VFR is required, they may not have the operational experience to request this level of service, much less safely operate in the conditions appropriate for its use.

When taking a FAA practical test, the applicant is permitted to conduct all of the cross-country flight planning prior to the exam. Additionally, the applicant will arrive with a school-supplied weight and balance sheet. All of the aircraft empty weight information is provided on a summary sheet of school aircraft. Additionally, all numbers are preprinted on the form, such as seat location (arm), baggage compartment, etc. In this scenario, the applicant was provided all of the required pieces to complete a weight and balance calculation. However, what if they arrive at their destination and the weight and loading of the aircraft has changed? If they don’t have a blank copy of the school supplied form, do they know how to complete a weight and balance using only the rotorcraft flight manual and a blank piece of paper?

Off-site landing areas may also be very limited to include confined areas, pinnacles, etc. In some cases, a pilot student pilot may only land at a single off-site location throughout their entire training program. This is often due to limitations of permitted landing locations, however the student may not gain the experience dealing with variables encountered outside of the training environment.

As an instructor, it is our job to make sure each student pilot experiences during their training program as many operational scenarios as they may encounter in the real world. We must consistently engage our students with varying challenges during their training to ensure they have a comprehensive ability to make good operational decisions. The alternative is an accident waiting to happen!  

About Randy: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award.  Randy is currently  Director of Training at Epic Helicopters in Ft. Worth, Texas.