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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, 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. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


 T.H.ursdays with Tom Hill
Just last week I realized something important in the flight test business. We do not teach good judgment directly. Sure, we have situational exercises in which judgment must be used, and during which we hope the student exercises good judgment. Despite those exercises, Test Pilot School does not have a class on this subject. I don't think anyone has one, certainly not at any of the other schools teaching flight test. This reality is particularly troubling when you consider how important good judgment is when conducting a test flight. With this realization, I got to wondering what would I talk about if I gave a class on good judgment. 

The Wikipedia definition of judgment is "the evaluation of evidence in the making of a decision." GOOD judgment must be the evaluation of evidence in the making of GOOD decisions. Now the keyword is "good". What's that? Well, defining out what “good” is is a great discussion that can take you on a very wild goose chase. Let’s leave that to the side for now and only talk about good judgment as if we knew what “good” was.

Let's go a little off topic, consider art. Everyone has an opinion on art. Of course, we cannot always agree on all art. But, we generally agree with the fantastic masterpieces. Most folks are amazed by the Mona Lisa, the frescos in the Sistine Chapel, and so on. The list is amazing. Somehow, there seems to be agreement on the "goodness" of great works of art. Yet, as detailed and descriptive as we could be about an acknowledged masterpiece, words are irrelevant to the assessment/feeling we have for a piece being good versus bad. Somehow, we connect to something that helps us be universally consistent in identifying good art.

I assert that the same applies to judgment. As much as we might detail or describe the reason why a choice or decision is a good one, the words are irrelevant. We knew the decision was good before the words were written. We probably knew it when the decision was made, well before any after-the-fact describing went on.

Why is this important? It's important because as much as we might try to write rules and regulations for every situation, we can't. Flying is too variable and dynamic to allow that. For those times when there are no published rules, you need good judgment. How do you connect to the source of good judgment? I think we all possess a common ability, a connection to a common source of what's good, just like we do when it comes to art. While we won't agree 100% of the time on all things, we will agree on most things, the best things, just like we do with the great works of art. Really, it's simply a matter of exercising the connection to that common source. 
Last week I was at Edwards AFB conducting a flight test with students at the Test Pilot School. The test had its bumps as all tests do. We were sitting on the ground with two airplanes running. A network radio connection between the aircraft wasn't working more than a few feet from each aircraft. We weren't sure what the problem was, which prompted a little discussion over what to do. An idea considered, then rejected, was to establish a connection with the aircraft close to each other then taxi around the base to see if distance was a variable in the equation. Because we didn't brief it--see discussion from last week's article--the idea was rejected. No big deal.

Afterward, this little incident got me thinking: there was nothing "wrong" with taxiing around. It was simply a "better" decision not to do it until we talked about it face-to-face. Then I thought about it some more. There were no rules on this issue. We simply didn't talk about it before we got into the aircraft. We probably could've done just fine doing the impromptu test. While impromptu should always raise the hackles on any flight tester, I thought there was more to consider, since after the fact I thought it was better to do that ground test while the airplanes were running instead of the next day, thus saving us a whole day. I eventually came up with this thought: "what is written is not always right"—keyword: "always.” Now, what's the key to making this statement viable? It's "good judgment.”

After last week's discussion about the discipline of flight test, I might seem like I'm moving backwards on those words. Oh no - far from it. In fact, anyone who uses any kind of good judgment has to depend on a very deep connection to discipline. The most valuable crews who have ever worked for me have always exhibited the highest levels of judgment and discipline. You can’t blindly follow what you think the rules might be any more than you can fly in flight test with only judgment. You need both.

As important as good judgment is, it is a subject we don't teach directly. As difficult as the subject may be to teach, I think it is entirely possible. What do you think?


Tom Hill


  1. Another great post from Mr. Hill and with plenty of food for thought. Thanks Tom - and Karlene! -C.

    1. This is great food for thought. I love his posts and experiences. Thank you so much for your comment!

  2. Yet another great post. And yes, only we are able to make the best judgement! Have a great weekend!

    1. Yes... but can you teach good judgement? You're the one we really need to ask. But then... I think I know your answer.

  3. Tom, this is one of my favorite posts because I have often asked this question. Can you teach good judgement? It's kind of like the question... can you teach common sense?

    The problem with common sense is it's not common. And some people exhibit better judgement than others. If you have good sense, the good judgement is easy. It's about a mind that can see beyond the immediate, and forecast the consequences of said actions.

    I have been blessed with the ability that I can see if I do A, and B, I will be faced with consequences C. Does that mean I always exercise good judgement? Heck no. Sometimes I deduce the risk is worth the consequence. My guiding rules... Never risk safety. Never risk consequences that will fall on someone else.

    So back to the question... can you teach good judgement? I say, "Yes." You can teach this by experience. That... "We have never" thought... will be squelched by the person who has good J and can forecast the end result. Or by the person who has experienced the end result, or the process. OR.... by someone who listened to another who had experienced said thing... or told them about the consequences.

    I say, you either have good judgement, or you better be listening and learning from the experiences of others. If you have it, and can learn more from others too... then you're at the head of the game.

    Thanks for a great post!

  4. I personally believe all of us have access to Good J. The issue is the layer of "stuff" that prevents access. Or, the complete disregard of that access. The first is the layer of normal life that prevents us from connecting effectively to that source of Good J. I call this a "rational" problem. The other problem is a complete disconnect from that Good J source. It's a disconnect caused by a "feeling" problem. You're simply not connected to the judgement you already have screaming at you.

    I had a great discussion with a very talented student when I was at the USAF Test Pilot School this last couple of weeks. He brought up a great concept of teaching judgement. The idea was to expose the "student" to impossible to solve situations. From that, judgement would have to be exercised. Of course, well designed exercises would have better answers than others thus allowing good feedback. Even if the student completely failed at the exercise, if they tried to succeed, they were trying to connect to that source of good judgement which is the whole point of the exercise.

    Having an exercise, a task such as this, is what I'm seeing as a tool to teach good judgement.



    1. I like that. And... based on exposing those difficult situations... you can teach logic. One of my daughters had a teacher that presented a question each morning to see if they could solve the problem. But...they could ask yes and no questions. So.. can you teach it? Or train the brain to think differently? Or by exposing them through a series of "impossible to solve tasks" aren't you just giving them experience? Interesting thoughts... all of it. Thank you!!

  5. Karlene,
    Excellent question to ponder, one which I've long pondered myself.

    Ultimately, the answer I believe is that "Good Judgement" comes from "quality" general experience in a given field, the more the better. By quality experience, I mean, we can fly 10,000 hours in a plane, reading the paper and not really paying attention...and we don't learn much about "judgement." That said, many little things we encounter in the cockpit over the years add up to "better judgement" as we gain flight hours.

    On the other side of the coin, we can help to teach "good judgement" INDIRECTLY by giving a person thought exercises, ones that don't always present a perfect or obvious solution.

    A silly game my boy downloaded on his iPhone comes to mind, called "Rag Doll Blaster." It's a fun and goofy game, where you must shoot rag dolls out of a cannon and hit a target. But, with each level, the challenge to hit the target gets harder and more complex. Sometimes, you must shoot several rag dolls at different objects, some moving or mechanical, to clear the way to the target. Many times, the solution is not obvious, and you are forced to think outside the box. This really impressed me!

    I believe games like this, forcing people to think outside the box to come up with (a) solution(s), could be a GREAT way to get people to learn judgement at an accelerated rate. So, perhaps a class could be taught with different games/puzzles like this. Applied to aviation, simulators and the like could be thrown in for good measure.

    Great stuff!

    1. I too wish they could teach courses with games. The thought process of thinking how to "solve" the puzzle creates a different way of thinking... which carries forward to other problems. Thinking creatively and outside the box can be learned by exercising the brain in a different way... thus can aid in problem solving. But... does that manifest in good judgement? The real question is to define "good." I'm reading a book on the power of the subconscious... amazing what the mind can do.
      Which goes back to the initial comment... does reading the paper the entire trip exercise good judgement in itself? Depends. Is the FAA sitting there? Are you over the ocean with CPDLC? Are switching frequencies every ten minutes. I suspect it varies. We need classes for the kids!


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