A number of years ago safety and training experts realized few, if any, crashes were being caused by the events pilots spend training time for.
The focus was on airline flying, but the concept really applied to all flying. In simulators, especially, pilots spend their training hours having engines quit at takeoff rotation, losing all hydraulic and electrical systems, and having every instrument in the cockpit quit at once. If everything is working in the simulated airplane for more than five minutes you know the sim instructor has fallen asleep.
Those sessions were difficult, and we sweated through them, but in reality accidents were happening because of much more mundane aircraft failures and pilot mistakes.
Thus the concept of Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) was born. The core of LOFT training is that a seemingly small, but not all that improbable, aircraft failure would be introduced in the simulator. If the crew failed to identify the problem, and then handle it correctly, issues would snowball and the pilots would face a true emergency largely of their own making.
In other words, the legendary accident chain would be started in the simulator training sessions and it was up to the pilots to identify the chain, and break the links before they led to a crash. We all know that’s how most serious accidents happen. And the LOFT session was designed to “set up” pilots to be done in by a more likely failure or pilot error than a flaming engine or failing generator.
Though the airlines initiated LOFT, it quickly filtered down to business flying training. For a period in the 1980s and 90s all of the major training companies featured LOFT sessions as part of their initial, but more importantly, recurrent pilot training courses.
I remember a LOFT session during Learjet recurrent training particularly well. The model 20 and 30 Learjets have rather complicated fuel systems made up of at least five tanks, but fuel feeds to the engines only from the wing tanks. With so much going on in the system, fuel was often out of balance. So it was common for Lear pilots to be moving fuel from one side to the other to keep the airplane in balance.
We all concocted some reminder to know that we had the fuel switch in transfer because it was easy to be distracted and end up with the formerly light wing now too heavy on fuel. Some pilots hung a hat on the switch, others propped a checklist or something near it. I would try to keep my hand on the switch if the transfer wasn’t going to take too long. These methods worked—most of the time.
In that LOFT session the flight was going normally, with nothing broken in the airplane. That’s normal in real flying and normal in a LOFT session. After a while I noticed a small fuel imbalance. Again, nothing odd. I started a fuel transfer, but sat there spring loaded to deal with a “real” failure that is always just seconds away in a simulator training session.
I don’t remember how long I had the transfer switch on before my copilot and I noticed the fuel in the light wing was not increasing. What’s up with that? A gauge problem? Did the fuel pump quit? All topics of discussion while the switch remained in transfer.
Too late we realized there was a fuel leak on the “light” side of the airplane. We had been pumping fuel from the good tanks overboard. We had legal reserve for the trip when we departed, but were now suddenly in need of a nearby alternate airport. We had to stop the transfer to have a chance to make it to a runway.
Soon the all the fuel leaked out on the leaking side. That engine flamed out. We lost power, a generator and a hydraulic pump. We also had a “heavy” wing that was beyond the certified maximum fuel imbalance.
The whole episode led to a single engine landing, with an out of lateral trim airplane, to an unplanned alternate airport with crappy weather at minimums. And all of those problems were of our own making. If I had recognized the fuel leak quickly I wouldn’t have pumped fuel overboard, we would have had more options on where to go for an alternate, and may have had enough fuel to land with both engines and systems operating.
The fact that a single simulator sessions can stay with you for more than 30 years when countless takeoff engine failures, electrical power losses, and black tube approaches have faded into a sameness tells me how effective it was. That session made me think, and recognize that I wasn’t as careful and thorough a pilot as I thought I was.
But over the years the FAA inspectors who approve each certified flight training company’s curriculum have squeezed LOFT out of the schedule. The reason is that the FAA has continuously added maneuvers that must be performed in every recurrent and initial training session.
I’m not saying we don’t need to practice handling engine failures, or system failures, emergency descents, steep turns, approach to stalls, and the other grist of simulator training. But those events are rare in real flying, and thus they are rare as accident causes. Seemingly small pilot errors, rushed checklists, inadequate flight planning or lack of complete aircraft systems knowledge are more prominent in the accident record, but take time to allow to develop naturally during a sim session.
The airline world has largely replaced LOFT pilot training with even more realistic training through Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA). On top of that is something called Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) training. The core of these programs is customized training targeted at exactly how an airline operates, and how closely its pilots adhere to standards.
To understand the risks and deviations of an airline, the fleet’s flight data recorder (FDR) data are examined regularly. The FDR data shows how precisely pilots are flying, and where there may be patterns of error or deviation from standards. The FOQA and AQP training target those areas of poor pilot performance and emphasizes them in training until the FDR data shows improvement.
We really can’t do FOQA or AQP training in general and business aviation because we are way too diverse in our operations. Even the same type of airplane can be used for widely different missions by different operators so the area of standards and pilot performance are not the same.
But the FAA can look at the most common pilot errors contributing to general and business aviation accidents and emphasize those areas in training. I think taking the time that LOFT—or whatever we want to call it now—requires to allow small but rather common pilot errors to run their course along a possible accident chain is worth the training time. Instead of the instructor throwing problems at you until you sink, I believe more valuable learning takes place when we compound our own mistakes in training, so we can avoid doing that in the real world.
It’s trite but true. We should train the way we fly, and fly the way we train. The problem is the way we train now is the way nobody flies.