I’m always amazed at how much I don’t know. I fly nearly every day, either professionally at 37,000′ or in a light airplane down at 3,700′. I teach many new instructors and pilots every week and even then, I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little. This point was driven home these past few weeks as I’ve been going through some training at my airline.
In the first session of training, we focused on reviewing systems and ground knowledge that we should have already had. The issue for all of us was that we never used a lot of the knowledge and therefore filed it in a vault, deep down in our memories. Alternates, Takeoff Minimums, OpSpecs, Weather Minimums, etc… After we worked at digging up all of those things we had long tried to forget, we were put into several emergency scenarios in the simulator. For the first couple days, it felt like whack-a-mole. Quick fix a problem, there’s a new one, fix that one, another new one; and the beat goes on. It was clear to all of us that we were working way too fast, trying to immediately tackle whatever problem the instructors threw at us in a feeble attempt to show off how awesome we were. Both my sim partner and I left those first couple sessions feeling like we were the moles being beat down. We felt like we knew absolutely nothing about what we were doing in this airplane that we have both been flying for over 3 years.
There’s a saying; “Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast.” I understand this is a Navy Seal saying that is meant to “correct” muscle memory that may have been ingrained about some situation. Think Law of Primacy.
In an emergency or abnormal situation, our first response may be to panic or, even worse, act without thinking. This is known as Startle/Response. The “Startle” is the sudden or threatening stimuli that triggers your unconscious (and usually negative) “Response.” There was a study conducted 13 years ago which identified this as being a causal or contributing factor in the studied accidents. How can we as pilots, overcome this unconscious response and better affect the outcome of the situation? Throughout your training, I’m sure you have seen the FAA model for decision making, called “DECIDE.”
D – Detect that the action necessary
E – Estimate the significance of the action
C – Choose a desirable outcome
I – Identify actions needed in order to achieve the chosen option
D – Do the necessary action to achieve change
E – Evaluate the effects of the action
As you can see, this is a very thoughtful and methodical way to handle a given situation. The problem with this acronym is that you may be at the crash site by the time you remember what all of the letters mean. Personally, I’m one for making things easier on ourselves. After all, we are pilots and in general, we want to do the least amount of work for the most amount of pay. I came up with something just a little easier. Just STEP through the problem:
S – Stop! When something starts to go south on your flight, your first reaction needs to be… nothing. When I first went through training at the airline, I remember an instructor talking about emergencies in terms of coffee. Is this a 1-sip or 2-sip emergency? Translated, do I have time to troubleshoot, take several courses of action and reassess, or do I really just need to get this airplane on the ground. Is this an off field landing? Is this an emergency that needs the nearest suitable airport or the nearest airport period? Either way, at least take 1 breath!
T – Think! After you have taken your 1 or 2 sips, now is the time to think. This is where systems knowledge is absolutely critical. If you have a failure of your attitude indicator in a glass airplane, should we be thinking about a vacuum pump? If your gear fails to extend, is the immediate action to pump it. If you skip this step and go directly to execution, you’ll likely screw something up. Like feathering the wrong engine!
E – Execute! After you think about what is going on, you need to prioritize the order of your actions, then execute. You should have already had a mental plan in place for what you would do in certain situations, right?! I’ve had a number of students that start executing a go-around by telling the tower. My question to them is always the same. Is the tower going to help point the airplane away from the ground? Enough said. Now to the emergency. Once you prioritize the set of actions, start working the problem.
P – Prepare! Prepare the airplane, prepare your passengers, prepare the airport. Do we need to run through some checklists to get doors open? Do you need to tell your passengers what to do prior to landing and just after (evac, brace, etc..). Do you need to tell the airport to have the trucks ready for your arrive (gear up landing, fire, etc..). Do you need your wife to have a stiff drink ready when you get home?
I like things simple. This is something that even I can get my head around. It’s a logical flow and seems to make sense for nearly every emergency I can think of, and even some that I can’t. Stop, Think, Execute and Prepare. I’ll bet you’re still trying to remember the “E” in the DECIDE model. Meanwhile, that engine isn’t going to restart itself.