Threats: can they keep us safe?

As pilots, we complete all kinds of training. Depending on what we fly or which company we fly for, we all receive, and are required to complete, a certain amount of training. Most of this training is related to operating the aircraft, aircraft systems and all the other technical areas required for safe flight. Additionally we receive at least some level of training in the human element of flight. The human factors as they are often called. This human element of our training has evolved throughout the years and is most commonly known as: Cockpit/Crew Resource Management (CRM) and/or Threat and Error Management (TEM). These are names for management “systems” that train us to make the best use of all available resources in order to make the best choices and to ensure situational awareness.

It can be said, with relative certainty, that any pilot reading this article (regardless of his/her background) has at least heard these terms, if not had formal training in one of the iterations of this type of training. As a pilot for a major airline, I have had training in these programs for many years. The latest version of this training, and what we use today at my airline, is Threat and Error management (TEM). The training is extensive and is woven into our entire training and evaluation process; it is inherent in all we do. The reason for this is simple – it works!

Threat and Error Management
Formal training in Threat and Error Management (TEM) isn’t required to understand the concepts.

When I say it works, I mean it helps keep us safe. What is safe? Entire volumes have been written, and continue to be written, about exactly what safe means. I think we can agree that safe means operating our aircraft without accident or incident.

Since I do not have the time or space, in this article, for a detailed explanation of TEM, I will have to resort to a quite oversimplified, but hopefully accurate, explanation.

Humans make mistakes. We always have and always will. We have to use our training and skills to recognize the fact that we will make errors, recognize those errors, use techniques to minimize errors and mitigate any negative outcomes caused by those errors. There are many methods and tools to accomplish this, but let’s focus on the management of the “threats.”

What is a threat?

A simple definition of a threat is: a person or thing likely to cause damage or danger. When you think about it, flying has many inherent threats: weather, the aircraft, the aircraft systems, the airport environment, and several others. Many specific threats could be covered in weather alone. The important part is not in listing or labeling the threats, but recognizing that they exist and mitigating the risks associated with those threats. In other words, what are you going to do to prevent that threat from causing an accident or incident?

Most of us think of the threats and how to avoid (mitigate) them all the time. We call it flight planning. Threats and their mitigation is the very basis for flight planning. We ask ourselves during flight planning: What is the weather? What is the terrain I am flying over? What is the runway length at destination? What we may not think about, however, are the threats and mitigations as we are actually flying the aircraft – which is just as important as the questions we ask ourselves while flight planning.

As pilots, we spend a great deal of time planning flights. We verify airworthiness, check the weather, and ensure aircraft performance will be adequate, but how much time do we spend thinking about the actual flight itself as we are flying? Are we thinking about the threats just before takeoff or just before beginning an approach? What we would do in the event of a non-normal situation? When is the last time you were mentally prepared for, or even thought about, a go around while on final approach on a beautiful day?

Awareness of threats and mitigation do not have to be a complicated or a time-consuming effort. It actually takes very little time and can really help mentally prepare you, and your copilot or passengers, for whatever maneuver you are about to accomplish.

For example:

Before beginning your approach to a short field, just think about the threats and mitigations, if you have a co-pilot or even an interested passenger (I wouldn’t do this with a fearful flyer), discuss it and ask if they have any questions.

“This is a relatively short runway so I will make sure I am on speed and properly configured by xxx feet, and I will have touched down by the fixed distance markings (or other reference point) or I will execute a go around. On the go around, I will fly straight ahead till xxx feet. – any questions?”

grass runway airport
Landing at a small grass strip? It might be time to consider the threats.

You can add as much or little detail as you feel necessary. In fact, many times we discuss the go around procedure as we don’t normally perform that maneuver other than in training. On the other hand, if you have done several lately then just say we will go around.

It is a beautiful Saturday morning and we are flying to one of our favorite local airports for a pancake breakfast. What are our threats and mitigations?

“It will be very busy today at xxx airport due to the fly in breakfast so I will listen to CTAF early, keep my ADS-B traffic displayed, fly a standard pattern entry and ask everyone onboard to keep their eyes out for traffic. Should we be in conflict with any traffic, I will just follow standard procedures and re-enter the pattern or go around and fly a standard pattern – any questions?”

There are no rules. The idea is for you to think about what you have to do, what may be different this specific time (the threats), and what you are going to do (the mitigation) if something does not go as planned.

The addition of “Any questions?” allows our fellow “crewmembers” to feel free to speak up and ask questions. It is also a question we should be asking ourselves, especially if we are solo and have no one else to question us.

So when is a good time to be thinking about the threats and mitigations?

In airline operations, we have a procedure. We discuss the threats, at a minimum, during our takeoff brief and during our approach brief but can be discussed at any time. Other appropriate times may include in cruise flight while approaching a line of weather or while taxiing at an unfamiliar airport.

The important part of this technique is to be aware of and recognize the threats to your specific phase of flight and be aware of the mitigations that are available to you. There are no strict rules.

General aviation may not have opportunities or resources to provide extensive TEM training to all pilots but perhaps we can learn from the TEM model and apply, even a small part, of it in all of our flying.

I hope by thinking about “threats” they will help keep us safe.

What are your “Threats” today?

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