Knowledge is power for pilots

Stein Mjåtveit

I am pretty sure you have heard the phrase "knowledge is power" before. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you might even argue that "power is power" (check out this clip if you can't relate to my reference).




I'm not sure what our destination will be on this flight, but I would like to take you on a journey to discover why knowledge is not only power, but a vital element in the recipe that makes up a professional and safety minded pilot.

Knowledge is safety

In the aviation world, I find that "knowledge is safety" rings more true than the headline of this article. A wise and experienced Captain once told me "you need to know all the rules, so you know when to break them". If you find this statement to be somewhat confusing I totally understand, please allow me to explain...

You need to know all the rules, so you know when to break them.

When pilots operate the advanced and expensive aircraft that keeps us connected in today's global environment, we do so according to Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). The SOP's are clearly defined routines and workflows which are utilized by all crew at a flight school or an airline and application of these procedures is one of the core competencies of a professional pilot. Knowing these procedures and when to apply them is of the utmost importance, but so is knowing when to deviate from them.

Why deviate from the standard?

If a flight crew determines that following the SOP will present a higher safety risk than an alternative course of action, the crew has the mandate to deviate from the SOP. In other words, pilots can deviate from the standard if it will keep our passengers and cargo safer in any given situation.

Obtaining the knowledge and experience required to be able to make decisions like these is where the hard work comes in.

The Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) theory subjects

During an integrated flight training program in Europe a student will study 13 subjects and will be required to pass progress checks, schools tests and finally the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) exams. Here is a list of the subjects that you will study when becoming a pilot, along with a short description of what the contents are and why it is relevant.

Meteorology (MET)

Meteorology is one of the larger subjects during initial training and focuses on the atmosphere, weather systems and their behavior. Pilots also learn to interpret specially designed aviation meteorological reports and determine how the weather will affect them during flight. Climatology is also a part of this subject, which describes weather conditions over a period of time in different parts of the world.

Principles of Flight (POF)

This is the subject that fosters the understanding of "the magic of flight". As you can imagine, this subject contains physics as it relates to the behavior of aircraft, wings and control surfaces when flying through the air.

The lift formula OSM Aviation Academy-1

One example of what pilots learn in this subject is how the Angle of Attack (AoA) is defined and what will happen if an airfoil (for example a wing or a stabilizer) exceeds what is known as the critical AoA. Exceeding the critical AoA will lead to a stall, since the laminar airflow over the airfoil will separate from the wing and become turbulent. I think you can figure out yourself why this is important knowledge to a pilot...

(Yes, you're right - we want to prevent stalls. During flight training we practice them a lot. This is done so we know how they "feel" and learn how to prevent them and safely recover should we get into a stall).

Communications (COM)

In aviation there is a highly standardized way of communicating between pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC). If you want to learn more about this I suggest that you check out my series of articles below:

· Learn to talk like a pilot: Alpha to Zulu

· Learn to talk like a pilot: Phraseology

· Learn to talk like a pilot: Clearances

Human Performance and Limitations (HPL)

Human performance and limitations is a subject that has seen tremendous progress in the body of knowledge we possess as human beings. It includes human psychology and physiology in relation to flying. Pilots need to know how the human body reacts to stress, the importance of sleep and conditions that might arise during flight such as for example hypoxia.

Radio Navigation (RNAV)

Radio navigation is what pilots use to navigate along the "invisible roads in the skies". In reality these routes are of course highly visible to the trained eyes of professional pilots, using the instrumentation we have on board the aircraft combined with our knowledge of how these systems work.

On a typical commercial flight the routes that pilots follow are divided into segments following the different phases of flight. A flight usually starts with a Standard Instrument Departure (SID) procedure, continues onto the en route segment, transitions onto a Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR) and ends with an approach into the destination airport and a landing.

In the RNAV subject the students will learn about the different navigation aids that are available for pilots to use, which restrictions apply to these navigation aids and how pilots use them to navigate safely and efficiently through the air.

General Navigation (GNAV)

General navigation covers the "old-school" traditional way of navigating, using maps, visual references and calculations to get from A to B. The students will also learn about how maps are made, how the World Geodetic System (WGS 84) is constructed and techniques for planning flights and keeping track along the way.

ATPL books OSM Aviation Academy-1

Air Law (ALW)

The rules of the air, the Open Skies agreement, the Chicago Convention, EASA Part-FCL, Part CAT, Part NCO and so on and so forth. This subject includes the historical background of aviation legislation as well as current rules and regulations that pilots must adhere to.

There are rules for commercial operators, individual pilots and anyone affiliated with aviation contained in this subject.

Airframes, Powerplants and Systems (ASP)

In this subject students will learn all there is to know about the different methods used for building an airframe. Thereafter the focus will shift towards learning what propels an airframe through the air (jet engines, turboprop engines and piston engines) and finally, which systems are used in our aircraft.

For instance, the landing gear is an important system for pilots to understand. The extension and retraction is usually done hydraulically, which means that a thorough understandings of hydraulics is also important to fully understand how the landing gear works.

Instrumentation (INS)

The instruments on board our aircraft are vital to our safety and efficiency. Our technology has developed in an impressive manner in recent years and the instrumentation used in aircraft is no exception. With that said, some aircraft also have older systems, so this subject truly provides a wide range of technical knowledge.

Pilots study the instruments we are going to rely on at a detailed level. How they are built, how they function and how they can potentially malfunction are all important pieces of knowledge for any pilot to have.

Instruments range from older and robust designs such as vacuum driven gyro instruments to more sophisticated laser gyro instruments. Pilots also study pitot-static systems that are connected to analog instruments through aneroid wafers and linkages, as well as air data computers providing the same information in a digital manner.

Flight Planning and Monitoring (FPM)

There is an expression that goes "proper planning prevents poor performance" (the 5 P's) and this expression is widely used in aviation. Preparation is vital to conduct a safe flight and monitoring is equally important to ensure that everything is moving along as planned.

Proper planning prevents poor performance (the 5 P's)

When planning a flight from A to B, the fuel calculations are critical. We always bring reserves for unforeseen events, but at the same time pilots are expected to avoid bringing more than necessary. Extra fuel adds extra weight, which in turn leads to a higher fuel consumption. Using more fuel than necessary is not good for the environment, which is why we always strive to minimize our fuel consumption. It also has the added benefit of contributing to a better economy for the operator and owner of the aircraft.

Operational Procedures (OPP)

Operational Procedures is a subject that contains the kind of knowledge you would expect from its name. This is where pilots learn about what procedures they can expect to follow when operating aircraft in commercial aviation on a general level. Each airline will have their own Standard Operating Procedures that needs to be learned and followed before a pilot can start flying for the respective airline.

Mass and Balance (M&B)

The way that an aircraft is balanced in terms of weight (mass) will affect its performance. Pilots need to ensure that their aircraft is within operating limits, which means that they must ensure that they are below the Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) before they take off and below the Maximum Landing Weight (MLW) before they land.

In addition to ensuring that the aircraft is not overweight, pilots also need to ensure that the way that weight is distributed will place the center of gravity within the limits provided by the aircraft manufacturer.

Performance (PER)

Wind, temperature, air density, weight and several other factors affect how the aircraft performs. Climb performance for example, will be substantially better at an airport located at sea level with a high air density on a cold day - compared to a high-elevation airport with lower air density on a warm day. Being able to calculate how these factors will affect the performance of the aircraft we are flying on any given day is critical to maintaining the highest level of safety.

Is that it?

In addition to the subjects listed above, student pilots must also study the Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) for each aircraft that they are going to fly during their training. The POH holds detailed information about the systems of the aircraft, its limitations and checklists for normal, abnormal and emergency procedures.

Crew Resource Management (CRM)

Crew Resource Management is the main focus of the Multi Crew Cooperation course which is mandatory for any commercial pilot to pass if they plan to work in a multi-crew environment. This part of the pilot education focuses on how we can contribute to maximum synergy in the cockpit.

If pilots work together as a team, 1 + 1 = >2 in the cockpit, I know this doesn't add up mathematically, but hopefully you understand the point I am trying to make. Two well trained pilots are always going to be safer, stronger and more efficient together.

After completing a Multi Crew Cooperation course it can also be a great idea to do an Airline Preparation Course (APC) if you plan to start working as a First Officer for an airline. The Airline Preparation Course also focuses on CRM, but puts a lot of emphasis on Line Oriented Flight Training - learning how to operate a commercial aircraft from gate-to-gate.

After pilots graduate from flight school

Once a student graduates from flight school and lands their first job, they will have to complete a type rating, followed by line training. This is a course which includes classroom training, simulator training and operational experience together with instructors from the airline where the pilot has been hired.

The objective of the type rating and line training is to make the pilot an expert on everything there is to know about the aircraft they are going to fly. In addition, the line training will give them the experience required for the day-to-day operations.

This article could go on forever, but I am going to cut it short here. If you want to share your knowledge about aviation and flying, please share your best tips and experiences in the comments below. Pilots need to be lifelong learners, and sharing our knowledge and experiences with each other plays an instrumental role in our collective improvement. 

I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it! Until next time, blue skies and safe landings my friends!


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