Reflecting on the past 2 weeks, I have a general question. This question in no way has to do with assumptions on the cause of the accidents. The question is can judgment of ones abilities and common sense be taught. I ask this in a constructive way to try to find better ways to learn and teach in the flying community.

I think that the thinking process, how to prepare for a flight, can be taught.

The sources of information to use prior to and during a flight can be taught.

The procedures, preflight, checklists… can be taught. The discipline to use them
can be taught.

I think examples of good and bad decisions can be reviewed and taught.

I think a pilot knowing all of these things would stop a lot of flights that should
clearly not be started (e.g. departing without looking into the fuel tanks and
checking how much actual fuel you have vs. assuming that the fuel truck filled
your plane when it actualy filled the plane next to yours).

I think teaching thru use of procedures and discussion of examples that
common sense can be taught. I think that many accidents happen because of
lack of procedures and discipline, but afterwards may seem like cases of bad
common sense (e.g. VFR pilot didn’t check the weather and flew into IMC). So
teaching those procedures and discipline is teaching common sense.



I am glad you asked the question. Reminds me of when I was in “ground school.” I was working on my first license. Actually, it wasn’t my pilot’s certificate, it was my driver’s license. At the beginning of the first class, my instructor told the class that he could teach us everything he knows about driving, except one thing…attitude. He could teach me the laws of the road, but he couldn’t teach me whether or not to follow the laws of the road. That was up to me.

Granted, he could “influence” me on my attitude and encourage me not to speed or encourage me to come to a complete stop. But the ultimate decision was mine. I can ultimately “cheat” and get away with convincing myself that driving 10 mph over the speed limit is still safe (even though it is illegal). It is not until I try to stop on a wet road at night when I’m a little tired that I realize that the extra speed was dangerous.

As Michael stated, we can teach skills and show pilots tools and procedures to be safe, but we can’t always influence them enough to apply their knowledge. And even when they are careful, there are times where we can be overwhelmed in the air or on the ground and make mistakes.

It is as if we need to hold our right hand up and say,

I swear to always check to see if my fuel tanks are at the proper level. To check to see if the controls are free and correct. To never takeoff with frost on the wings. To never fly into known or forecasted icing conditions. To always get a preflight briefing including NOTAMs. To always…

Ultimately flying can be safe, however, is not the same as risk free. But I do agree that we can teach pilots to be safe pilots and to use safe practices. We can attempt to influence others through training and through forums such as these.

It is very likely that every pilot has faced the situation where we have departed knowing that we have not done everything we’ve been taught. Will it matter on this flight? Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe we need a little Lasik surgery done our our attitudes.

Ed, I think your question is extremely important. I don’t pretend to know the answer but my impression is that the ability to realistically assess one’s abilities and use good “judgment” is something that one either has or doesn’t. I suspect that ability derives from early experiences in decision making. I do think that whatever ability one does have can be fine tuned and improved. I believe that flight instructors should, from early on, present students with realistic scenarios and ask them to decide what the proper course of action would be. For example, on a yucky day instead of telling a student that there will be no flying, have the student make the decision and explain why. After all it it’s 1100 and 3 and all you want to do is traffic pattern work, why should or shouldn’t you? If the winds are 20 gusting to 30 is it reasonable to fly? Why? Enroute tell them their destination is closed and make them figure out a safe alternative. I think doing that sort of thing from day one might help but I honestly don’t know of any data to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Judgement cannot be taught, but it can be learned.


I believe it can be taught, though it can be very difficult to teach it to some people. Almost everyone can learn it, if they wish. That is, there is some subset of pilots who are not receptive to the introspection and humility necessary to develop good decision making. Those people won’t learn it on their own, and it is quite difficult to force it on them.

I highly recommend reading “Redefining Airmanship” by Tony Kern. He discusses this issue extensively.

A corollary of this is that good decision making is not something you get just by wanting it. You have to want to learn it, then learn it, which takes time and life-long introspection to hone it and keep it up to date.

One thing that bugs me is when people, like someone at Cirrus sending a letter to everyone after an accident, say “now you really need to be careful!”. Yes, of course, who wants to die? Everyone is trying to be safe. Unlike some other activities, like riding motorcycles, in flying, dangerous habits often don’t feel scary, so you don’t get the normal feedback about unsafe habits. Instead, you have to get that feedback by higher mental activities.

My answer to this question is based on my 14 years as a firefighter instructor. I’ve been teaching people to be firefighters since 1989 and in teaching this set of dangerous and stressful skills, I’ve found that yes – you absolutely can teach good judgement and decision making. However, it’s more complicated than just saying yes. For one: I’ve found repeatedly that certain personalities don’t do well as firefighters. One of these are the “bad attitude” types. You cannot adequately change the behavior of some of these individuals. They just plain have bad attitudes about the process, or safety, or the team, or any number of things. Most of these people pass the course, but I wouldn’t want them with me in a fire. Usually though, these bad attitudes don’t make it to being an officer so they can be tempered. GA piloting of course is all about you and you alone. If you have a bad attitude there isn’t anyone to temper it. Those that don’t read magazines, take additional training, practice, or have the safety oriented attitude that is obvious to anyone who reads this forum, usually are not the problem. But, that’s the nature of the beast. In the fire department, I can almost always train someone to do the job if they have the proper attitude.

I have had limited success in correcting the bad attitude of some, but this doesn’t always work. In the fire department it is easier to do this than in pilot training because of the way the systems work. Firefighting is completely about the team. Piloting is about the individual.

I recently did a speech for a local high school’s National Honor Society induction ceremony. In that speech, I closed with two thoughts. “Attitude is everything” and “Character matters 24/7”

Derek Rowan

I have a question related to your question: Has anybody produced a simple summary of the accidents and their causes? How many have there been and what was the supposed cause of each? This is the best way to begin to learn from them.

For instance, it seems like a good many have been loss of control in VMC. I truly believe that things like the new three dimensional situational displays from Chelton will dramatically reduce these types of accidents.

David T.
SR20 Position 773


Good response to Ed Boland’s question on judgment and common sense.

You are correct in your belief that these issues can be
taught and learned.

I get the impression you have the “right” attitude in your
flight bag of tricks. Good for you…

Bill Klett

Bill Klett

In reply to:

my instructor told the class that he could teach us everything he knows about driving, except one thing…attitude.

You have hit the proverbial nail on the head and driven it home with one blow.
Attitude is the innate factor that is both a necessary and sufficient precursor to good judgment. The lens of a “poor” attitude will always distort the situational conditions that judgment uses to render its opinion.


I think you are on the money with your comments…

I agree with you…

Teaching decision does work… check out AC 60-22 of
12/13/91which indicates that 12 years of ADM
(aeronautical decision making) research development
and testing culminated in 1987 proves that it works.


Bill Klett

In reply to:

The lens of a “poor” attitude will always distort the situational conditions that judgment uses to render its opinion.

Sweeeeeeet! I like that one! Can I use it in my ground school, Michael?

That “lens” will also be distorted inversely proportional to the amount of experience one has flying. Looking back, I think that my “lens” was pretty distorted when I transitioned from a c150 directly to a T210 as a low time pilot. I don’t think that I was a total slouch as a pilot and had the usual sign offs to fly that plane, but I know NOW how unwise it was for me to be flying that “get me in trouble quickly” plane. I am just plain lucky that nothing happened in that plane that required real experience. Inspite of “sign offs” and recurrency training, how much don’t we know about each of our own abilities/judgment?

But of course…especially since you inspired it!

Sorry to disagree…but,

on the contrary, not only can judgment be taught, but
“GOOD” judgment can be taught.

See AC 60-22 of 12/13/91 for more info.


Bill Klett

Good question, and thanks Jim for the excellent summary of SRxx incidents.
As an SR 20 pilot with a total of 325 hours in the type, and IFR rated, I have twice found myself in IMC conditions while on a VFR flight. On both occasions I had the autopilot (2 axis)on in heading mode, and made the decision to execute a 180 by turning the heading bug. Anxious to exit the IMC conditions I attempted to increase the rate of turn manually with the autopilot still engaged, and found myself in a moderate decent of several hundred feet per minute almost instantly. Disconnecting the autopilot rectified the situation immediately, but I have to wonder if the manner in which the autopilot functions by actuating the trim motors, might change the control pressure the pilot senses in normal level flight.
Is this a characteristic of the Cirrus only, or is it a common feature of all autopilot equiped aircraft.
My question is, could manually overpowering the autopilot in an incident where a pilot unexpectedly enters IMC conditions cause the aircraft to behave in an unexpected way.

Neil Paton SR20 N231CD

My point is mainly that you can not teach somebody who is not ready and willing to learn. Often people with bad judgement also have bad attitudes that preclude them from learning the good judgement.

David, I really have to disagree. the way to stop VMC into IMC accidents is not with new display technology. It is by somehow getting pilots to understand the risks in flying marginal VFR or into progressively worsening conditions. I’m not sure that can be done, but I fear the latest high tech display will only encourage self destructive behavior by making it seem OK to fly when one shouldn’t.
Personally I think flight instruction needs to move from simply teaching flying skills to vigorously teaching decision making and, hopefully, the judgment that goes along with it.

In reply to:

For instance, it seems like a good many have been loss of control in VMC.

Actually, I think it’s the opposite. To go through the tragic roll, at least as I understand it:

  • April 2001, first fatal crash, in Arizona: VFR pilot hitting side of mountain in IMC conditions.
  • April 2002, NY crash: Manuevering accident in VMC. Outstanding question, as I understand it, is just what kind of maneuvers the pilots were undertaking.
  • May 2002, New Mexico: Takeoff accident at very high airport on very hot day, not able to outclimb surrounding mountains. POH shows no authorized value for “rate of climb” under these conditions.
  • Nov 2002, New Mexico: VFR-only pilot (I think), IMC conditions with ground fog at crash site.
  • Jan 2003, Minnesota, VFR pilot (though preparing for IFR check ride) apparently going underneath a low-overcast layer on dark night, with setting moon, over unlighted forest terrain. Apparent CFIT during virtual-IMC.
  • Jan 2003, Calif: apparent CFIT during GPS approach in (apparent) IMC conditions. Pilot turned 90 degrees from final approach course, for unknown reasons, and flew into a mountainside.
    Only one, the crash in New York, would seem to fit the condition you described. Another was the takeoff accident, the other four were in actual or “virtual” IMC. This doesn’t answer any of the “why” and “what can we learn” questions, but I think the starting point is different from what you were assuming.
    Edited to change approach in final episode to GPS, rather than ILS, in keeping with Gordon F’s note below.

In reply to:

For instance, it seems like a good many have been loss of control in VMC. I truly believe that things like the new three dimensional situational displays from Chelton will dramatically reduce these types of accidents.

I’m going to stay away from guessing at what the causes of the Cirrus accidents have been. But, hypothetically speaking, would a display like the Chelton “dramatically reduce these types of accidents”?
I’ll ask some questions, and you’ll immediately infer another question:

    • With cars, does everyone enjoy fewer skidding accidents because of ABS braking, or do some actually drive more aggressively?
  • Does CAPS in our airplanes act only to make them safer? Do some pilots take them on missions they wouldn’t go on with “ordinary” airplanes?

  • Might someone conceivably fly closer to thunderstorms because they have a Stormscope?

  • Might someone slacken their traffic scan if they have TCAD? Fly into known ice because they have TKS? Shoot an approach to minimums because they can couple the autopilot - even though they’re not current?*
    You see where I’m headed… back to an assertion I’ve made before: All the stuff on our airplanes will help pilots who use good judgement to fly safer; and all the stuff can make the airplanes MORE dangerous for those who view the stuff as a crutch to prop up any deficiencies they may have in proficiency, training, skill, knowledge, etc.
    Would something like the Chelton system help? Yes, I believe it would help many among us. My concern is that it would attract some to flying, who would be better off with a different hobby; ultimately, the technology will hurt them.
    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t continue to pursue better airplanes that use the latest and greatest that technology can offer – I believe we should. But I worry about the effect that all of this stuff will have on the demographics of General Aviation - I fear it won’t be good unless we somehow raise our standards so that our training and judgment better suit the equipment we fly.

  • Mike.