Diversity: The Double-Edged Sword of General Aviation
Air Facts Journal

Diversity.  It’s what keeps species alive, and general aviation burning blue fuel. Without it, flying would have burnt out in the last millennium because it would never have been able to spread from two brothers to a passion felt around the world.

Fortunately, the curiosity of flight was in the hearts of those known and unknown to Wilbur and Orville, and fortunately for the rest of us, that passion is in the hearts of countless aviation innovators to this day.  But being an aviator innovator certainly has its challenges.

A Room with Many Views

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that I’ve been building on the instructor/student relationship.  We’ve talked about how to be a good student, and how to identify an instructor that speaks on your ‘frequency’ so you can learn fully, effectively, and most importantly, efficiently.

Most recently, we discussed your instructor’s DNA and how diversity changes the way your instructor teaches you, based on how they were taught themselves.  We used GUMPS as an example of the diversity of training techniques.  I’d invite you to take a few minutes to read that article.

Pause and think for a minute about what that article says to you personally.  What are your takeaways from it?

Now, the most interesting part, read down through the comments!  I tried to be helpful in clarification, but what you’ll see is that people interpreted what they read in wildly different ways, and some people missed key points in the text.  The spectrum went from agreement and addition to confusion, anger, and insult!  The comment section intentionally makes the entire case of the article for me.

But the conundrum of diversity isn’t limited to instruction.  Yes, young instructors come and go through schools on their way to airline or corporate jobs.  This forces you the student to find qualified instructors that you can learn from to finish your training.  The downside to this is that that hunt often drags out the amount of time it takes for you to finish a rating.  It also offers special challenges you may not expect.

It May be Legal…

Garmin autopilot

There is no legal requirement for the instructor to be familiar with the avionics being presented for the IPC.

I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have owned a couple of airplanes.  I have always gotten an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) either after purchasing an airplane, or if I have made major avionics alterations to an aircraft I already own.  I’ve felt that doing so elevated me to a critical proficiency level that helps keep me and my family safe.  Recent avionics upgrades put me on the hunt for a CFI who was familiar with Garmin’s latest and greatest panel options, which started me wondering about what the requirements were for such a CFI.

I needed a licensed CFI-I, an instrument instructor, to fly with me and sign me off.  However, it turns out that there is no legal requirement for the instructor to be familiar with the avionics being presented for the IPC.  Beyond flight time in the make and model of aircraft flown, it’s entirely up to you, the pilot, to be able to manipulate the panel to accomplish the tasks required to complete the flight(s).  Fair enough, the studying is on me.  I just can’t necessarily expect an instructor who flies predominantly rental fleet aircraft to be able to teach me much if I show up with a state-of-the-art panel.

Is that safe?  It is as long as I manage myself in the airplane by constantly learning and staying both current and proficient.  We will get into this later, but for now, let’s look at how the culture of corporate and commercial operations differs from General Aviation.

The Windshield Versus the Mirror

Gulfstream takeoff

Corporate and commercial aviation encompasses a comparatively limited number of airframes and configurations.

Revisiting driving for a minute, there is a reason why the windshield is so much larger than the rear-view mirror.  It’s because you are supposed to be concentrating most of your brain power on what is happening out in front of you.  That mirror is to help you look back for the unlikely speeder about to rear-end you.  This analogy is, in a small way, how commercial and corporate aviation works, but some key differences undoubtedly make their safety records stronger than those of us on the GA side of the fence.  Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Corporate and commercial aviation encompasses a comparatively limited number of airframes and configurations, where there are hundreds of different models of GA aircraft across a wide range of manufacturers over multiple decades.
  2. Training within this limited airframe set is also very limited. There are only a handful of facilities in the US that can type rate a pilot to fly one of the airplanes that fall in this category.  Because that training is so specialized, it isn’t very diverse.  What you will see for a syllabus is the same as the pilot before and after you.
  3. Larger airframes typically have expanded data collection capabilities like voice recorders and black boxes to help sort out the sequence of events that created an accident. This allows for a far more specific fact resolution than what we get on the GA side which comes down to ‘probable cause’.
  4. Because of all of this capability, the results of an incident investigation are published and forwarded to the handful of training facilities, and to all the flight departments that use and maintain the aircraft in question. Everybody gets the same piece of paper that says ‘Don’t push the red and yellow buttons at the same time’, and that paper is distributed to the flight crews.  The result?  They’re looking out the windshield and not the rearview mirror.

The statistical scope, the technology, and the culture of incident resolution on the commercial/corporate side end up coming together as the three legs of the stool that hold up a pretty strong safety record, while we GA pilots get to speculate on what was going through the pilot’s mind before a fatal incident. Does that mean that diversity is the killer in general aviation?  I don’t think so.

Trajectory is Key

Low approach

While there is debate, numbers show that automation may be improving the accident rate.

While there is great debate within the general aviation community about pilot reliance on automation, the numbers do suggest that the accident rate has improved over the years.  The components that make up that improvement are the subject of another discussion, but technology certainly has played no small part in that improvement.  To me, the GA pilot’s responsibility becomes maintaining a balance between currency, proficiency, and the continued advancement of knowledge.  If it’s on your panel, you need to know how to use it to its complete potential.  Anything less than that is one of those gaps in knowledge that we’ve talked about, and that isn’t safe.

Takeaways:

Diversity in hardware and in education is, undoubtedly, the key to a healthy future for general aviation, but it comes with a high level of responsibility.  What is legal isn’t always safe.

The future of general aviation rests on diversity as more and more avionics solutions are introduced to help pilots manage the challenges of an ever-changing aviation environment.

It’s your responsibility as the pilot in command to spare no expense in time, effort, and money to ensure that you are current yes, but to a greater degree, that you are proficient.  Burn the blue fuel it takes to have and maintain a complete understanding of the machine and the mission because you are your flight department.

Next time we will talk about the concept of being your own flight department, managed pilot safety, and the resources you can tap outside your flight school that will help you gain a better understanding of key concepts, make you more proficient, and ultimately help you be a better pilot.

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