Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Training to Avoid the Fatal CFIT Disaster

Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) still remains high on the list of types of accidents.   CFIT by definition occurs when an airworthy aircraft is flown, under the control of a qualified pilot, into terrain (water or obstacles) with inadequate awareness on the part of the pilot of the impending collision.

There are many ways to prevent CFIT accidents especially with new advancements in technology, but instructing to prevent these occurrences has often been overlooked.   In order to teach about CFIT, we need to review the basic factors that lead to a CFIT situation.  The first key factor is that the pilot had inadequate awareness of the impending doom.   Reviewing the events that lead to this lack of awareness and a risk mitigation strategy can be incorporated into most training programs at both the student and commercial levels.

More than half of the CFIT accidents occur in reduced visibility or IMC conditions.  Most training programs at all levels include discussion on avoiding IMC conditions.  Training should always include review and practice on the procedures after encountering IMC.  The focus must be on the maintaining a discipline to follow procedures.  In all levels of training, the discipline comes from repeated practice using actual scenarios.  The scenarios can be developed from actual accident reports or from normal flights that suddenly encounter reduced visibility.  Many CFIT accident reports have shown that pilots continued to fly into unsafe conditions while trying to get below the weather rather than follow procedures.    Whatever scenarios are used, they should be repeated until the student or pilot in training reacts automatically with standard procedures.  Scenarios should be briefed, flown and then debriefed to confirm the recognition of the risk and mitigation. 

Another major contributor to the loss of awareness in flight is distraction.  Distraction can have many sources and is often unrecognized by the pilot until it is a crisis.  A clear method to avoid distraction is to identify possible distracters.  One issue that has proven to be a problem is the unfamiliarity with technology in the aircraft.   Optional equipment for radar, terrain awareness and ADS-B can be very helpful in avoiding unsafe situations; however the pilot must be comfortable using the equipment.  There have been many accidents where the technology was installed but either not used or used incorrectly.  Distraction resulted from the pilot trying to identify what he/she was seeing on the screens and trying to relate it to the circumstances outside of the aircraft.  In order to mitigate this risk, the focus should be on training in the use of the equipment utilizing scenarios that build confidence in its use.  This is the same basic principle as learning to trust your instruments when flying IFR.  Training in the advanced technology using actual scenarios builds a comfort level that allows the pilot to recognize, understand and trust what the equipment is saying.   Recognition of the situation allows the pilot to make the conscious decision to maintain disciplined procedures.

Distraction can also come from mechanical failures.  In primary training we teach the basic skills for recovering from loss of power or malfunctions of components.  We normally train these events over and over until the student is “programmed” to react appropriately to the situation.  Sometimes in advanced training when flying more complex aircraft, the training lacks the “programming” of the pilot.  Complex aircraft  don’t always offer the ability to safely practice malfunction scenarios without significant risk to the airframe.  In complex aircraft, touchdown autorotations or tail rotor failures are not demonstrated in a training scenario.  Without practice in abnormal and emergency procedures, pilots may hesitate when faced with an actual emergency.  Confusion and distraction often occurs from the pilot trying to remember and respond with the correct actions.   So once again, training should include actual scenarios with aircraft specific procedures.

Human Factors can play a major role in distraction leading to CFIT.  Personal distractions such as stress, fatigue, illness or boredom can have serious consequences.  Then there is distraction from personal devices like cell phones and tablets.  Personal technology devices have been proven to be fatal distractions in all types of transportation accidents.  Training to prevent human factor and personal distractions can be as simple as building a foundation for professional discipline.   Training sessions can focus on the ability to recognize a loss of situational awareness and reinforce checklists and procedures.

Simulators are very effective tools for presenting scenarios that cover many distractions in actual environments with little risk to persons or aircraft.  The key is to build scenarios that fit the situations and practice until the pilot is skilled and confident.   Simulators are being used to train the hard skills needed to perfect flying technique and the soft skills necessary to avoid distractions.  Scenarios designed for simulator training are often a bit more complex than those in aircraft training because the physical risk factor has been removed.

Training to reduce distractions increases the overall awareness of pilot to situations that could result in a CFIT event.  In some regions, regulatory agencies require annual training in CFIT prevention.  There are a number of reference documents available for review by instructors and pilots.  The FAA has an Advisory Circular (AC 61-134) that outlines Controlled Flight into terrain Awareness.  The Flight Safety Foundation has a CFIT Checklist risk assessment tool.  HAI has incorporated a “Land and Live” campaign that encourages pilots to simply land if conditions are not safe to continue the flight. 

Controlled Flight into Terrain can be avoided with regular training activities that build the foundation and remind us of the requirement to stay vigilant.   If we practice, CFIT can become extinct.