I am often asked what it takes to become a pilot. What are the airlines looking for when they hire pilots? What are the skills required to be great at your job? In an attempt to answer these questions I will cover the eight core competencies a Professional Pilot is expected to master.
This time we are looking into the core competency of workload management. You will hear many pilots claim that "the most important thing for a pilot to prepare for are the next two things". Obviously this is a simplification of the considerations required to operate a commercial airliner, but akin to many simplifications, this statement also has some truth to it.
The most important thing for a pilot to prepare for are the next two things.
Since the environment in which a pilot operates is dynamic and has the potential of changing rapidly, the pilot must always stay mentally "ahead" of the aircraft.
A pilot might have certain expectations about what could happen during a flight, such as which approach they can expect at their destination and what the weather will look like when they get there. However, a pilot can never expect that a flight will turn out precisely as expected.
Changes to the expected sequence of events ranges from minor details to substantial diversions. Here are a few examples to give you a better idea:
- The crew is given a different departure/route than filed or expected.
- Last minute change of the approach/runway at the destination.
- A medical emergency on board that dictates a diversion to an alternate airport.
- Severe failures and/or malfunctions, such as a fire or a hydraulic systems failure.
- Explosive/rapid decompression.
Workload management is important even if everything goes according to plan. It might become increasingly difficult however, when unexpected situations occur. To prepare for the unexpected, pilots constantly evaluate the best course of action if something should happen.
Being proactive is the key
An example of proactive behavior is that pilots always stay updated on their best option(s) for an alternate destination when flying from point A to B. Which airports have a long enough runway? What kind of approaches are available into those airports? Which airport currently has the best weather? Are we familiar with any of these airports? Will flying there present unique challenges that we must prepare for?
Doing this mental exercises gives the crew an advantage if the unexpected should occur. They have efficiently managed their workload by having several alternatives readily evaluated and thus will have excess capacity to deal with an abnormal or emergency situation.
Managing workload during initial training
During initial flight training, shorter flights are done to focus on different elements of what a pilot needs to master. We then consecutively add more complexity and as students develop their skills, they are expected to put all the pieces together. Flight training differs from operating an aircraft "on the line", in the sense that we move from the known to the unknown consistently. New elements are introduced to the student consecutively once they have demonstrated proficiency in the different areas. Which means that pilots are conditioned to manage their workload from the very first training flight.
Even after graduating from their pilot academies, pilots encounter situations that puts their skills and managerial propensity to the test. Most of the time, flying on the line is uneventful. Thanks to the fantastic work of aircraft engineers, manufacturers, regulators and technical personnel - the machines we fly is held to an incredibly high standard. We don't have do deal with real-world emergencies that often. But that doesn't mean we get to rest on our laurels for long...
Que the proficiency check!
Proficiency checks are packed with events that usually put the pilot under a high workload and force them to divide their attention, recover from interruptions and distractions and deal with failures.
When our students have graduated and start working for an airline, they will have to do what is known as a License Proficiency Check (annually) and an Operator Proficiency Check (every 6 months). During these sessions the pilots are exposed to a series of normal, abnormal and emergency situations. For pilots who are instructors, there are even more checks involved throughout the course of a year. If you want to dive deeper into the details I would recommend checking out this blog post by Mentour Pilot.
I hope those of you who are reading this are pleased to learn that pilots are under such a strict evaluation system. For passengers it means that you can always be sure that the crew are held to a high standard and are able to get you safely to your destination. For pilots it means that we can never allow our performance to deteriorate or our knowledge to wither.
A subject that pilots often discuss, study and practice is Crew Resource Management (CRM), for single-pilot operations we have the similar term Single-Pilot Resource Management (SRM). Both terms aim to encompass the resources available to pilots and how we can manage them, here are a few examples of resources available to us:
- The crew - Both co-pilot(s) and cabin crew
- Air Traffic Control (ATC)
- Ground personnel (handling)
- Maintenance personnel
- Pilots in other aircraft
- On-board systems and automation
Pilots can draw from all of the above-mentioned resources to ensure that flights are operated as safely and efficiently as possible, while minimizing errors and managing the workload.
CRM/SRM is a vast subject that deserves its own series of blog posts, so I've listed a few great resources for those of you who are eager to dive deeper into this exciting area of knowledge:
How do pilots manage their workload?
This is the type of behavior we want to see from a pilot in training (and when they fly you to warm sandy beaches of course):
[We want to see that the pilot]
1. Maintains self-control in all situations.
2. Plans, prioritizes and schedules tasks effectively.
3. Manages time efficiently when carrying out tasks.
4. Offers and accepts assistance, delegates when necessary and asks for help early.
5. Reviews, monitors and cross-checks actions conscientiously.
6. Verifies that tasks are completed to the expected outcome.
7. Manages and recovers from interruptions, distractions, variations and failures effectively.
Workload management is something that takes time to master and requires dedication to uphold. We do have a few tricks up our sleeves however, so I'll share one of the simpler methodologies we use in flight training to give the students a framework to help them during instrument training flights.
The majority of commercial flights aim to move passengers and/or cargo from one destination to another. With training flights however, this is not always the case.
Flying into different airports by the use of different navigational aids (ILS, NDB, GNSS etc.) is something we practice quite a lot. As students start practicing instrument approaches, we typically start out flying to the airports in the vicinity of the training base. This enables us to fly several approaches without "wasting" time on the en route segment. Thus providing students with the repetition required to set the initial foundation, before we start flying further away from home.
Since it is not a typical situation to end an approach by doing a "touch-and-go" (landing and immediately taking off again) or missed approach (aborting the approach due to not having visual contact with the runway or other reason) and immediately initiating a departure to another nearby airport, students need a framework to help them ensure that they have completed everything before the next approach. This is where the acronym WARNBEC comes in handy:
W - eather
A - ltimeters (set to local QNH)
R - adio frequencies (set)
N - av frequencies (set)
B - riefing (given)
E - ntry (procedure turn, racetrack, vectors etc.)
C - hecklist (completed)
As you can imagine, there is no time to waste when "jumping" between nearby airports from one approach to another. Memorizing this simple acronym will make it easier for pilots to be efficient when the workload is high. It also makes it easier to pick up where you left of if there are interruptions (which I can guarantee you that there will be).
I hope you enjoyed my perspective on workload management, be sure to check out the other blog posts in this series to learn more. There is much to be said on this subject, so if you have any experiences or tips to share with the pilot community, please leave a comment below.
If you dream about a career in the skies and want to learn more about how to become a pilot, swing by on one of our Pilot Open Day's. Hope to see you there!
Blue skies and safe landings my friends.
Stein H. Mjåtveit