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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Make Decisions Before You Fly

T.H.urdsays with Tom Hill

As instructors, we probably don't spend enough effort to make sure our students clearly know the circumstances under which they would take actions in the event of time critical emergencies. I'm talking about situations where every second makes the difference on survival. I'm not talking about every emergency. I'm talking about precious few emergencies where every second counts. For example, we all know in a single engine aircraft, you can't return to the field with an engine failure until you've gained enough altitude and airspeed.

Prior to that point your only solution is continue ahead and find the best landing field possible. Past that point and only past that point, you can turn around and make the field. Unfortunately, there are those who will try to return even if they haven't reached those minimum conditions, and suffer disastrous results. I believe these young pilots didn’t decide before they took of what those minimum conditions would be.

The same thing applies to aircraft with ejection seats. You may never think of that ejection seat until the day you need it. Unfortunately, waiting for the dangerous situation to decide to eject will likely put you into harm's way.

The confusion, the analysis, the delay, could be the difference between making the right decision and surviving, or making a bad decision. The best technique to avoid that delay is to make your decision to eject - i.e., know the circumstances under which you will eject - before you ever get into the aircraft. I know this technique works because I've talked to people who survived only because the ejection seat worked as advertised and they had decided when to eject before they ever got into the jet.

This last came home for me just this last week. I was at my new job back at the Test Pilot School talking to one of the old head instructor pilots there. We talked about the school and how we both wanted our students to do the best they could in all they did. Our talk drifted to a major mishap the school suffered a few years back.

They lost an aircraft and one of its students due to a flight control malfunction. The other crewmember, the backseater, survived the unbelievably high speed ejection. Even though he was severely injured by the circumstances of the ejection, he survived to be with his family for the rest of his life. I found out the instructor talked to (more like berated) this backseater to make his decision to eject before he ever took off. 

Not a month and half before the mishap this instructor insisted the backseater decide under what circumstances he would eject. I attest this contributed directly to him surviving. If this backseater hadn't made it clear to himself under what circumstances he would eject before he flew that day, he might've delayed his ejection and therefore not survived.

Making sure our students know what they're supposed to do is not new stuff. If you're an instructor you probably teach the same lessons that were taught to you when you were brand new. If you require your students to know what they'll do in given situations, it's likely because someone back in your history required the same of you. That was the case in this ejection decision. 

It's a common technique among instructors to say to students, "Decide before you get into the jet when you'll eject." Unfortunately, it’s likely done only because it was precisely the message that was taught to them back in the day and without first hand experience. It's only a "good idea" without the real-world lessons from first hand experience and not likely to ring true to students.

I hadn't known that, before the mishap at TPS, this backseater was berated by this senior instructor. Somehow, the instructor ferreted out the lack of pre-decision by this student and insisted he improve and that's what he did. When you read about the high speed conditions of the ejection and the associated circumstances, you think how miraculous it was that this backseater survived. 


You think he did everything perfectly because he had good training and he took it upon himself to take to heart what his instructors told him. Low and behold, that wasn't the whole story. This backseater had an instructor who cared enough about this particular issue to make sure this student knew this technique in his sleep, even though the likelihood of needing it was very low. Turns out not a month and a half later it helped save his life.

We teach students a dizzying array of things. Sometimes it's hard to be passionate about techniques unless you have first hand experience to relate why they are being taught. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) most of us do not have first hand experience of an engine failure soon after take-off, or an out-of-control situation which causes you to have to eject.

Even if you have never had to exercise those pre-decisions, that does not mean you can't transmit to your students why those pre-decisions are important, why they have to make those decisions before they fly. Without you being insistent, they may not learn the way they should and will be that much less prepared when the chips are down.



  1. It is comforting to know that students at today's TPS can benefit from the wisdom and vast experience of instructors like Tom during his many tours there. No doubt that he has saved more than one life. -C.

    1. Craig, this is so true. Tom's posts are amazing as his lessons. Each post he writes, I carry in my tool bag. Thank you so much for your comment!

  2. I wish Karlene and Tom were my instructors...

    1. Thank you so much Alex...and remember..the students sometimes are the best instructors in life.

    2. That's because there's nothing better than having a master teaching you.

  3. Tom I love this post. It's about being ready for anything. Somewhat like an engine failure at altitude... the bus has a sequence of events. We learn it in initial... then can fly for many years before we ever experience. When we do... could be 10 years removes, but this time in the plane.

    I review the important things before I fly... engine failure on takeoff and enroute and a missed approach. Being ready is the key! Thank you!


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