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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Compound Emergencies

Ok. Finally, a completed post! Hopefully, I'll be able to stay on schedule and have at least one a week from now on! In the meantime, visit www.SkyWriters.aero.

I've read some comments recently on a couple of other forums about the practice of compound (i.e – multiple, unrelated) emergencies in flight training. It seems they aren't very popular, with some posters being adamantly opposed to their practice. There seems to be a widely held belief that they are of no value. So I thought I'd take some time to look at this belief to see if it's a valid one.

In Canada, compound emergencies are not tested. It is official Transport Canada policy (yes, policy, not regulation) that multiple unrelated emergencies not be presented to flight test candidates. The rationale, presumably, is that compound emergencies are very rare, and our finite testing and training resources are better spent preparing for realistic scenarios. Pretty solid reasoning, as far as it goes.

For clarity, we should note that multiple related emergencies are allowed. For example, consider being on a Group 1 (multi-engine) IFR flight test. After the left engine is "failed", a subsequent vacuum failure/partial panel scenario is fair game if the left engine is the only one with a vacuum pump. On the other hand, if your aircraft has redundant vacuum pumps, with a backup on the right engine, the compound engine-out/partial-panel is not allowed.

So now the real question, if compound emergencies are not tested, does this mean we should not teach them? At first glance, similar reasoning can certainly apply. We have finite training resources, and we should maximize the benefit of these resources. This means focusing on realistic scenarios. But if you've read my previous post on Teaching to the Test, you might guess that I would support training for compound emergencies. And you'd be right. With some very careful qualifications, I would indeed support training for compound emergencies. Let's look at the "How?" and the "Why?".

First for the "Why?". There are at least 2 arguments in favor of training for compound emergencies. The first is that, although they are rare, they do in fact happen. Never training for them gives trainees the false impression that they simply don't happen. This can result in a pretty rude awakening when suddenly our 500-hour-still-wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilot is faced with a thrown rod in his left engine which punches through his alternator, producing a power surge that kills his entire electrical system. At night.

Is this a likely scenario? Nope. Could it happen? Yup. Has it happened in the past? Probably, but I can't say for certain. Should we train for it?

It's impossible to train for every possible combination of compound emergency. Even if we wanted to, there are just too many combinations and permutations to allow for this level of training. But exposure to several different possibilities builds familiarity and problem-solving skills. It exposes us to scenarios where we have to think and prioritize rather than just running a pre-determined drill. So this training has some direct value, even if the specific scenarios are unlikely in the real world.

The second argument is that we need to train to some "margin of proficiency". What does this mean? Half way through a 1.5 hour training flight, when we've been training steadily for the past 6 weeks, we are likely to perform very well. But when we've been out of training for 6 months and we're at the end of a 14 hour duty day, our proficiency will suffer dramatically. We need to be good enough in training to allow for that degradation in proficiency and still survive a real emergency. In other words, the emergencies we train for should not necessarily be realistic. They should be much worse.

This idea of margin of proficiency reminds me of doing kick, punch, and block drills back in my martial arts days. We would spend portions (often LARGE portions) of many classes perfecting one particular technique. One of our instructors often reminded us that such a degree of perfection wasn't called for in a real fight. But we needed to be good enough to allow our technique to degrade due to fatigue, stress, fear, or injury while still being able to stay alive in a confrontation.

This is a valid point in any skill set where failure has dire consequences (like crashing an airplane full of passengers!). Our performance in a real world crisis is often lower than our performance in a training environment. Our training standards need to reflect this.

So the bottom line? Multiple unrelated emergencies are an appropriate training tool. However, using compound emergencies exclusively, or from the very beginning of training can indeed be counterproductive. Which brings us to the "How?" of compound emergencies.

The vast majority of real emergencies are "simple" (read "single") emergencies. This should be reflected in training, as training should be preparation for the real world.

Further, as learning normally occurs in a simple-to-complex order (instructors refer to this as the Law of Relationship, from Thorndike's Laws of Learning—this despite the fact Relationship is not one of the laws of learning! But I digress), we need to start out training for the more likely simple emergencies in order to build foundation skills to work from (not to mention developing necessary skills for the more likely real-world scenarios). When students reach the advanced (or at least intermediate) stage of training, introducing some easy-to-handle compound emergencies can be productive. this should occur in parallel with demanding better performance during "simple" emergencies.

With practice and progress, these easy-to-handle compound emergencies can be advanced to more challenging scenarios. But throughout this progression, we need to keep the goal in mind: training for the real world, with a useful margin-of-proficiency.

Happy Flying!

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