Crew Resource Management Training from Classroom to Cockpit. Are we missing a link?

When preparing for a trip to the simulator most of us start by reaching for the emergency and abnormal checklist to refresh ourselves on the inevitable bevvy of aircraft malfunctions that we know will be coming our way in due course. Who hasn’t come across that sim instructor who feels it would be a dereliction of duty if they failed to cram every malfunction off this list into a 2 hour session? The conscientious victim will of course have sat down and brushed up on their technical knowledge of the aircraft, they will have re-committed to memory the key numbers and figures, and run the critical flight profiles through their heads in an effort to cognitively prime their coming performance in the box. They almost certainly won’t have shown the same commitment to preparing their non-technical skills however.

The imbalance of technical and non-technical skills in practical flight training

We have plenty of statistical evidence from accident and incident reports that Human Factors failings are ever present and lessons are there to be drawn in almost every case. In contrast, the kind of serious technical malfunctions that we focus on during most simulator training are not only every more rare, but they are usually only a part of the picture in any accident or serious incident. And as we well know from our modules on Threat and Error Management, these accidents and incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.

So why is so much of our valuable simulator training time given over to the tip of as many metaphorical icebergs as our instructor can place in our path during our voyage through the simulator? The bits of the iceberg above the waterline represents known knowns. These are the emergencies listed in our checklists. We prepare for them because we know they are there, and in the case of the simulator, we know they are coming too. They have immediate and subsequent actions, they have warnings, and cautions, and notes. They are therefore the easiest bits of the icebergs to avoid.

But Threat and Error Management teaches us that we should be focusing on the great hidden mass below the waterline. That is where the real danger lies. These are the Human Factors. Unlike the critical technical failure that might raise its ugly head for the unfortunate amongst us once or twice during a whole career, we all make HF related mistakes every time we fly. There is always some aspect of our non-technical skills that could be improved or worked on. There will often be lessons to be learned from. And yes, sometimes, our HF mistakes can even end in tragedy. The chances of this are infinitely higher than the single engine failure that we practice multiple times each time we visit the simulator, and many times higher than almost any other aircraft malfunction that we dedicate time to.

When it comes to Non-Technical Skills and CRM there is a sense that it has never been fully integrated into many training and checking regimes and can remain out on a limb in some training departments and ATOs.  On instructor competencies and assessment EASA clearly states that training should be both theoretical and practical and that the practical elements should include the development of specific instructor skills, particularly in the areas of teaching and assessing threat and error management and CRM. (EASA AMC.FCL.920 (a)) However, it is not difficult to provide evidence that there is still an imbalance between the technical and non-technical sides of training, and we have some way to go yet to redress it.

The role of the Line and Simulator Instructor in CRM 

CRM training was first introduced as a ground training course, and the regulatory (and therefore operational) focus of CRM on classroom theory that has emerged and developed as a result has meant that teaching the practical application of CRM in the air has perhaps not received as much attention as it warrants. This integration has long been a problem. Even the UK Civil Aviation Authority acknowledge, while discussing the introduction of CRM, that training received “mixed reviews from pilots, one problem being a lack of direct application and integration of CRM to the flight deck (pilots themselves were left to work out how to integrate it into their job roles).” (CAP 737, p.11)

A lack of direct application and the integration of CRM to the flight deck has long been perceived to be a problem.

The practical application of CRM classroom theory is really the realm of the flight instructor cadre. The Flight Crew Human Factors Handbook makes this critical point, stressing that, “Good use of CRM skills relies on effective training and assessment by practitioners (flying instructors, examiners, etc.)” 

The practical application of CRM classroom theory is really the realm of the flight instructor cadre.

Instructors are endowed with CRM Trainer privileges as part of their initial qualification and are expected to put these to use from the outset. The UK Civil Aviation Authority states that, “the role of the instructor is to develop the crew in their ability to both fly and operate the aircraft safely…from a human factors perspective the crew will need instruction in developing dealing strategies for threats and errors during both normal operations and emergency handling.” (CAP 737, p.170) The knowledge on which this privilege is based is supposedly imparted during their training as flight instructors, and then revalidated alongside their TRI/TRE/SFI qualification. The reality is that the breadth and depth in which the teaching of non-technical flying skills are touched upon during a process that inevitably focuses on technical knowledge and procedures is questionable.

Training in the teaching and assessing of CRM skills for TRI/TREs, particularly continuation training, is an area of weakness. A lack of detail in regulation allows operators to interpret the requirement to update and revise this knowledge as loosely as they wish. This results in an assumption in many cases that CRM understanding is practiced and maintained by default in the simple act of running a simulator session or carrying out line training. In CAP 737, hidden within the pages of its 25 chapters, its authors make passing reference to an important truth: They note that, “In terms of operational flight safety, instructors hold one of the most influential positions in the industry.” (p.169) This is surely so, which highlights the point that if non-technical skills are at least as critical to operational flight safety as their technical brethren, then our failure to raise the bar in this area is a clear area where safety could be improved.

In terms of operational flight safety, instructors hold one of the most influential positions in the industry.

It is easier for the flight instructors to concentrate on the technical side of training. It’s definable, it’s measurable, and it is more easily assessed and critiqued. On the other hand, the creation of effective CRM practical scenarios to train in the simulator takes a lot of thought, effort, and preparation. Unlike the training of technical malfunctions, they can’t be used again and again without losing their impact and value. They must be continually updated, refreshed and adapted to remain valid. Creating and directing effective CRM scenarios is often more complex than working through a series of handling exercises or malfunctions, and extends into being able to understand a philosophy and transmit a set of values and behaviours. It requires effective training of the instructors in turn. In this area, CAP 737 notes, “the instructor has the opportunity to reduce accident and incident numbers caused by human factors, if trained in the use of the appropriate tools.” However, it is often the case that the level of training that would provide those tools is either not required and not sufficient. The CAP goes on to admit the fact that, “the regulation is clear on the expectation and abilities required of the instructor, but it offers little in the way of guidance.” 

The Regulation

When it comes to CRM, there is some detail in regulation on what should be taught, but not much on how it should be taught. Training of Non-technical skills and human factors throughout a company is the responsibility of the operator alone. There is no accreditation of instructors by the Authority in this area, little guidance as to what constitutes appropriate training and checking, and often little capacity for oversight. The most in depth requirements in this field are laid down for CRM Ground Trainers for whom the Acceptable Means of Compliance are explicit in what they must achieve to maintain their knowledge, competency and currency in the discipline. But when it comes to the guardians and teachers of the practical application of CRM, and one of the most influential groups in the industry in contributing to safe flight practices, the only requirements demanded by EASA are that “All Instructors and Examiners shall be suitably qualified to integrate elements of CRM,” and “All instructors are suitably trained/checked in CRM and receive on-going development.” (CAP 1607, CRM Standards Guide) With no further guidance on what that should mean, anything more specific is left to the judgement and conscientiousness of the operator.

The instructor cadre shouldn’t be to blame for the emphasis that the system places on the technical over the non-technical side of flying. Type-rating courses; ground school; technical knowledge examinations; standards checks; compliance checks; standardisation; the requirements of recurrent training: all are set up to prescribe exactly what and how the technical stuff is taught, recorded, checked and audited. The fact is, that when it comes to the non-technical side of teaching flying, there is almost nothing specified as to the content and standards that might be expected of instructors, and little included in any training manuals that they could turn to for guidance should they be so inclined. The body of information in CAP 737, is perhaps a notable exception to this. In its introduction on Non-Technical Skills appears the admission that, “It is clear that to be most effective, such skills must be integrated into the job role, and this integration is something that CRM has traditionally struggled with.” (p.11)

Despite all this, the level of interest in operator CRM taken by aviation authorities is growing and it is likely that the crucial role played by flight instructors in integrating the practical elements into crew training will come into greater focus as they do so. Raising the standard of teaching non-technical skills as part of flight instruction will have a trickle down effect across flight operations. Improve the level of knowledge and commitment to the philosophy and principles of multi-crew co-operation and CRM amongst the trainers, and above all give them the tools to share practical techniques and advice, and the benefits will be much more widespread. Students don’t just remember what you teach, they remember what you are.

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