Scenario-Based Training


When I was in high school, I did a project which involved interviewing military veterans. There were four veterans I interviewed – two who were in the Vietnam War and two in Korea (one was my grandfather). The main focus was to interview them about their personal experiences, and about combat. To do this I had to do research and create tactful, sensitive questions.

My project was successful and I learned a lot, mainly to honor our veterans for what they did. Each veteran was interviewed separately and they did not know each other. However, they all had one experience in common. They told me that their rigorous boot camp training was a major reason why they survived combat. During a firefight, their training with various weapons and scenarios was key to overcoming the potentially crippling fear of combat. When their adrenaline was rushing, hearts pounded, and overworked lungs were burning, their training took over almost like they were on autopilot.

As pilots, there are lessons to be learned from this description. Unless we are flying low over moonshine country, we have no one shooting at us, but these veterans also said their time in service involved very long periods of extreme boredom, followed by short periods of extreme chaos and fear. As pilots, we experience long periods with little to do but monitor instruments and equipment and take in the views (cruise flight), and short periods of high workloads (takeoff and landing). We shouldn’t experience fear unless something goes wrong, or something breaks. We should expect that our training  will take over and guide us through a particular event. If you were to experience a real emergency, do you feel confident your training has prepared you to handle it?

The PTS (practical test standards) book for every license spells out what’s expected from the student. It also spells out what’s expected of the examiner. The examiner is expected to, whenever possible, ask scenario based questions. They ask these during the oral, or give scenarios in flight for the student to work through. This shows the examiner that the student knows this task to the highest level of learning — correlation.

We all learn at different levels. The first level is rote learning. Examples of this level of learning would include memorizing aircraft V-speeds or limitations. Knowing why we use Vx to clear an obstacle or Vbg (best glide) in an engine-out emergency is the next level of learning — understanding.

The third level, application, is putting any knowledge to use in the airplane. The highest level of learning is when you realize how all the different areas of aviation (systems, limitations, weather, performance, regulations, etc.) relate to each other. You take everything into consideration when making decisions. This is called correlation. Scenario-based training encourages this highest level of learning to help you make safer decisions.

Scenario-based training should be a major part of your lessons, whether you’re a student or an instructor. For example, instead of reading and understanding the electric fire/failure checklist, practice it in the air. Once you secure the simulated fire, turn off the master switch (when in a non-congested area and not under a mode C veil), take off your headsets and work the problem to the ground (have a radio and speaker on for collision avoidance). Does your airplane require electric for flaps or gear when landing? Were you talking to ATC at the time? Now do this scenario at night, what changes? How does the workload increase? What about engine failure/fire to a forced landing?

Instead of taking the plane to 500 feet about the ground, try doing this by a runway or suitable grass strip and take the plane all the way to the ground. Talk about differences coping with abnormal or emergency procedures at night, over mountainous terrain or over an overcast layer. What about something slightly less dramatic like high oil temperature, a stuck throttle, a door opening in flight (if not a limitation)? Do this and watch you or your student’s confidence grow.

There are many different scenarios that can be created, mostly based around the aircraft’s emergency section in the operating handbook. There are also many scenarios that can occur that the manufacturer does not provide a checklist for.  It’s valuable to work through the less likely scenarios as well, but always with an instructor and never compromise safety.  This type of training should be done prior to the checkride. Not only to pass the examiner’s scenario-based questions and tasks, but for your personal growth and safety. Moreover, scenario-based training is the best preparation for after you receive your license. It keeps you current and safe and ensures you’re always learning.

If something goes wrong while flying and your adrenaline is rushing and your heart starts pounding, scenario-based training will be crucial to help get you over your fear, and work the problem to continue flying safely and to the nearest airport. Keep your instructor’s number close by to enlist his help and experience.