Most Aviation Training Isn’t Training – Lessons From A Dog

You can’t train your dog to do the same trick twice. Nope. Once the dog has learned how to do the trick, his training is complete. If he sits when you say “Sit!”, he’s trained. You can PRACTICE giving him the command and amaze your friends with his devoted obedience, but you can’t TRAIN him to do something he already knows how to do. That would be a waste of time.

Similarly, you can’t train a pilot to do something he/she already knows how to do. Much of what we call “training” in aviation is actually just practice. No new skill is being taught, practiced, memorized, role-played, and solidified in the long term memory. Instead, professionals are being asked to repeatedly demonstrate a skill that was trained and mastered years ago. And yet, we still call these practice sessions “training”.

When “Training” is really just Practice

Take, for instance, simulator training. At Initial Training, a pilot is inundated with new information and then given several days or weeks to practice before demonstrating competency. Once the pilot successfully completes the maneuvers listed in the 61.58, a type rating is issued which verifies that the pilot does indeed have the skill needed to fly the aircraft. More practice may be warranted, but the basic skills needed have been demonstrated. This is indeed training.

Now examine recurrent “training”. The same pilot returns to the simulator. The same list of required maneuvers is presented. Once again, the pilot is asked to demonstrate proficiency on the 61.58 check while being lead to believe that training is occurring. But isn’t that misleading? The pilot already knows how to do V1 cuts and steep turns. Those maneuvers were demonstrated during Initial Training. The check ride was passed and proficiency verified. The pilot has already been trained. Some further PRACTICE of those skills in the simulator may be desired, but to retrain a pilot on skills that have already been demonstrated is similar to training a dog to sit when he already knows how. It is a waste of time.

How much better to require the pilot to try a V1 cut in a 25 knott crosswind or another challenging scenario where his/her skill is yet untried. This exercise would be considered training because the pilot is taking a skill already acquired (V1 cut) and using it in a new context (25 knott crosswind).

A lot of time and money is spent on Recurrent Simulator Training. For the most part, it is really just an expensive practice session of skills already demonstrated many times over. If training is truly the intent, then pilots need to be challenged with new skills.

Recurrent Simulator Training is not the only misguided element in aviation training. The many courses and workshops pilots attend throughout the year are also lacking.

Telling isn’t Training

Think, once again, about dog obedience training. Suppose you want to train your dog to shake hands. You have him sit at your feet. You give a detailed history of man and canine friendship and even intersperse some statistics on the success of other dogs in learning to shake hands. Now you bring out a flip chart. You show him a nice picture of a paw and another of a hand. You explain how he needs to shake your hand when commanded.  You ask if he has any questions. Since he has none and he was attentive the entire time, his training is now complete. Sound ridiculous? That’s precisely the response we should have when the same technique is used in aviation training.

Every year pilots sit in on conferences, presentations, e learning courses, and workshops which are labeled as “training” events. During these events, pilots view charts, statistics, and a few photos for added interest. They hear the historical background of the chosen topic and receive loads of information, more information than they care to know, from a Subject Matter Expert. Pilots are evaluated on their ability to regurgitate certain bits of information back to the instructor via a written test or perhaps just their name on a piece of paper to mark attendance. Either of these will suffice because the objective will have been met. The objective is not to train pilots to DO something but to KNOW or at least BE EXPOSED to information. This is not training.

Consider a common requirement; Emergency Procedures Training. The name implies that pilots will train on a certain procedure that is needed in an emergency situation. Yet, this is rarely the case. E learning courses present enough general information to meet standards but offer no procedures on which to train. Some workshops or courses offer more specific information but they rarely require pilots to apply that information using a departmental procedure and their own aircraft.

One IS-BAO (International Standards for Business Aircraft Operations) standard for EPT asks pilots to be trained on inflation of a life raft. This has some training merit because at least pilots are being asked to DO not just know something. Yet, if the training does not give pilots a specific procedure to use on the specific life raft carried on the aircraft unique to each pilot’s operation, it is not truly training. Furthermore, it is not enough to just watch others inflate the life raft. Remember, telling isn’t training. To be training, it needs to be practiced or at least simulated by each pilot.

IS-BAO also states that use of a fire extinguisher should be a part of EPT.  This is a good training goal for the FIRST exposure to EPT. It is not a good training goal every two years. Operation of a fire extinguisher is a pretty simple skill. Once demonstrated, that skill is trained. It may need to be practiced from time to time, but put it in a new context. Have the pilot use it to extinguish a simulated cabin fire. Without a new context, it’s not EPT training the second time around. It’s just practicing.

Pilots feel the pressure to keep all of the boxes checked. Because so much of their valuable time is spent practicing competency on the use of a fire extinguisher and retaking a life raft course, they have little time to train for a new skill such as an active shooter on the plane or in the hangar. While the IS-BAO standards have a good intent, their requirements are keeping flight departments from truly training on risks and hazards unique to their operation.

So What Exactly Is “Training”?

Training is a process for acquiring a new set of skills that can be DEMONSTRATED. The steps involved in training usually encompass:

  • modeling  (the trainer shows you how to do it)
  • practice (you give it a try)
  • critique and revision (the trainer corrects any errors and you try again)
  • mastery (continued practice until the skill is acquired)

For example, imagine that your department develops a procedure for handling a laser assault. Since it is a new procedure, everyone must train on its implementation. Using the steps listed above, a training session is organized. It might look something like this:

  • People are broken into pairs and asked to read and talk through the procedure (Modeling it to one another).
  • Now each pair enters the cockpit and simulates a laser assault. The Pilot Flying and the Pilot Not Flying run through the procedure (Practice).
  • A third colleague sits behind them making sure that the pilots follow each step correctly (Critique and Revision).
  • If they miss a step or if they come across a flaw in the procedure, they try again or make revisions. Once they can complete the procedure without error, they take a few minutes over the next two weeks while in the cockpit to review until it becomes second nature. The department also agrees to review the procedure once a year to make sure it is still viable and memorized (Mastery).

The Laser Assault Training is now complete. The skill has been demonstrated and mastered. It may need to be practiced from time to time to keep it mastered, but the training is complete.

Why Semantics Matter

“Well isn’t this just semantics?”, you may be wondering. “What is the difference if we intermingle the terms training, practice, and presentation?”

It makes all the difference when we examine how much time and money is being spent on something labeled as “training” when it is not really that at all. One corporate pilot recently calculated his “training” sessions and estimated nearly 60 per year! Is it any wonder that when a colleague mentions there is no procedure for a laser assault or a quick descent due to an emergency, everyone roles their eyes in disgust? When would they have time to devise a plan of action for something that is not required but yet a rising risk? When we ask pilots to continually practice skills they already have or fill their heads to the brim with information and call it “training”, there is little energy or desire left to learn a new skill that is sorely needed.

In fact, misleading people to believe that exposure to information or successfully demonstrating a skill already acquired is actually training is one reason for the rise in apathy and Procedural Intentional Non-Compliance (PINC). You can read more on that topic in “PINC: 3 Reasons Why Aviation May Have Created Its Own Monster”.

Training is important. It’s important for dogs and it’s important for people. Making sure that the money and time invested in training is well spent is vitally important.

Solutions To Make “Training” Really Training?

Here are some solutions for making your aviation training more relevant.

  • When designing or participating in a training, ask yourself “What will people be able to DO when finished?”. This will help you to recognize if technical or hard skills are actually being trained or if it is just an information dump or an expensive practice session.
  • In order for training to be applicable to the flight department, most often an action plan or procedure should be one of the deliverables. Request that the training provider incorporate a time for procedure creation or review as it relates to the topic being presented. If no procedure from the department is incorporated, it is probably not a true training session.
  • Request that the requirements of your 61.58 be incorporated into specific scenarios which are relevant to your operation and present a true challenge.
  • Examine carefully your training requirements, especially IS-BAO standards. Many people assume that certain packaged courses are a must. If examined, many of the requirements and standards can be met in-house with some effort.
  • Examine your hazard reports and SMS data. Are there any themes which would point to a need for training? Try to devise your own based on the data.
  • Practice “What If” situations while in flight. It’s a great way to keep your mind active and to keep the crew on the same page. If you come across some situations for which you don’t know the procedure or in which you are unsure of a response, it’s probably a good sign that training is in order.

In order to rid our industry of box checking and to pave a new path that is centered on acquiring new and needed skills, it’s important to understand what the term “training” real means. Please join the conversation. Do you think pilots have been mislead into thinking expensive practice sessions are actually training? Do you feel the pressure to check the box and find little time to address real training needs? Are you fed up with fancy presentations and longing for some good hands-on activities that will help you get better at what you do? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

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