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The Human Factor

by Alan Matson, CFII
Guest Columnist
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Alan Matson's Columns: The Human Factor | Stalls, Spins, Upset Recovery

When we read about aviation accidents we see the term “pilot error” used quite often.  This seems to infer that this special class of people (we are special aren’t we?) just shouldn’t make mistakes.  While that may be a lofty goal, it is also an unreachable goal.  We are human beings, and human beings will make mistakes on a regular basis (some more than others).  A more correct term to use would be “human error”.

It is in understanding the reasons that humans commit errors that we find ways to break the chain of errors that lead to the majority of accidents.  The study of human factors looks closely at the reasons errors are committed, and offers solutions that we can employ to improve safety.

This will be the first of many articles that explores ways to break the error chain.  In this article we will focus on the importance of a good pre-flight briefing for your passengers and crew.


As a CFII, much of my instruction given is for attainment of the commercial pilot rating.  This certificate demands a new level of professionalism out of the pilot applicant, because once the certificate is issued the pilot could end up flying paying customers.

We have all heard the safety briefings given prior to a flight on an airline, and it will be no surprise when I state that these are required briefings.  These briefings enhance the safety of the flight by providing passengers with training on how to use seat belts, flotation devices, egress procedures and more.

Having flown with many private pilots, I can tell you that I have seldom heard a passenger or crew briefing of any sort, much less a thorough briefing.  I spend a good deal of time and effort teaching these private pilots about the importance of a thorough passenger and crew briefing, to be conducted prior to takeoff.

A local flight school that I have worked with has a very effective pre-takeoff briefing that they insist every pilot use when flying their aircraft.  It was adopted after a training flight, with one student and a CFI aboard, that had an engine failure shortly after takeoff. 

With less than 500 feet of altitude, the CFI had to wrestle the controls from the student, and then attempted to return to the airport with the predictable result of crash landing short of the field (fortunately both survived).

If a thorough pre-takeoff briefing had occurred before this flight the student would have known to give up control to the more experienced pilot (the CFI), and the CFI would have had a fresh reminder to not attempt to turn back to the field at such a low altitude.

The briefing the school now uses covers use of seat belts, entry-exit procedures, egress in an emergency and location of emergency equipment.  It also briefs on who will fly in an emergency, traffic spotting, and discusses who is to do what as part of the crew.

The briefing continues with what to do in case of an engine failure during takeoff:

· Surface to 500 feet AGL, land within 30 degrees of the nose

· 500-1000 feet AGL, land within 90 arc ahead

· Above 1000 feet AGL, if returning to the field make a 45 degree bank turn into the wind.

By reviewing emergency procedures and crew expectations prior to takeoff, every flight becomes safer.  Whether or not you ever train for the commercial rating, get in the habit of conducting a pre-takeoff briefing with those aboard your aircraft.

All of the briefings mentioned above are imprinted on our Heads Up Flight Desk, which make them very convenient for use on every flight you make.  Get in the habit of conducting a thorough passenger and crew briefing prior to every flight.  Someday you may be very glad you did!

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