Just recently, Editor Jeb Burnside published an article in the August 2016 issue Aviation Safety magazine that set me thinking. Here’s how it started:

If you know a better way to teach and explain critical analysis of the dangers a proposed flight might pose, we’re all ears.

Well, okay, seeing as you asked… But first, a little of the backstory.


The article was prompted by an encounter at a flight training facility, where a student pilot was railing against the need to memorise a couple of flight safety mnemonics and recite them in order to pass his check ride.

Unlike me (and the student) Burnside’s beef wasn’t with the mnemonics themselves, but with the way threat and error management is taught. As he says, ‘We’re trying to apply a rigid, well-defined framework to what usually is a fluid, dynamic set of circumstances.’

Right on! And here’s how:

© Steirus | Dreamstime.com
© Steirus | Dreamstime.com

At the moment, the method is led by two key mnemonics – PAVE and I’M SAFE. Both were developed to help pilots identify and mitigate the potential threats to their flight. PAVE outlines the major threat areas that could influence a flight for the worse:

P = Pilot

A = Aircraft

• enV = Environment

E = External pressures

Meanwhile, I’M SAFE sets out the personal/human factors that should help shape a pilot’s go / no-go decision before and during a flight. These ‘influencers’ have all caused deaths in the past, and should be weighed as heavily as adverse weather conditions or issues with the aircraft:

I = Illness (Any symptoms?)

M = Medication (OTC or prescribed?)

S = Stress (Job, financial, health, family?)

A = Alcohol (8 hours? 24 hours?)

F = Fatigue (Adequately rested?)

E = Eating (Adequately nourished)

To cover more with less

But every one of these items only heads up deeper and deeper layers of threat and risk. For example, the ‘Stress’ in I’M SAFE infers (as a bare minimum) environmental stressors like extreme heat, cold, rain etc, excessive noise or vibration, sun strike, lack of oxygen and myriad others; plus physiological stressors like poor physical fitness, an injury, pain or headache, etc; plus psychological factors such as career concerns, family or relationship worries, and even task saturation while flying the aircraft.

Phew! And there are many more stressors than that handful. The same goes for every ‘headline’ in the I’M SAFE list; and goes double for PAVE which, by the very nature of its brevity and broad scope, aims to cover more with less.

DA42 Twin Star
© Alvera | Dreamstime.com

 Stick and rudder

You can probably already see how the method fails, and why the student in Burnside’s story was frustrated. Aside from having to put energy into learning something that isn’t a basic stick-and-rudder skill, he likely couldn’t see the point of memorising and reciting a couple of list items that lacked meaning or depth.

On top of all that, I have an issue with bad mnemonics anyway.

For my money, they just add a step that gets in the way of your memory. First you have to recall the mnemonic and any of its anomalies (like ‘V for Environment’), then start remembering what each letter actually stands for.

I’m the kind of guy who takes a combination lock when I go out on my bike, because it saves me having to carry, keep safe and take out a key every time I tie up. You know, ‘simplicate and add lightness’.

PAVE and I’M SAFE are designed as mental keys to help unlock a pilot’s threat awareness. But what if they’re just getting in the way of the security they try to deliver?

Approach to land
© Dragunov1981 | Dreamstime.com

Is there a better approach?

Though it pains me to say it, there may  be such a thing as a good mnemonic… I gave my kids ‘My Very Excited Monkey Just Sicked Up Nut Pie’ to help them remember the names of the planets. (Or just  ‘…Sicked Up Nuts’ if you’re a Plutophobe.) They remember it because it makes them laugh, and it works because each letter clues in just one name for one planet.

At the other end of the scale, each letter of PAVE and I’M SAFE is trying to trigger a whole list of memory items and all the nuanced information that lies beneath each. Ouch! And let’s not forget the Five Ps, Three Ps, CARE, TEAM, and DECIDE either.

No wonder memorising them all feels like a chore. None is inherently simple or ‘sticky’ – they’re not particularly informative, or even entertaining. So when a student says learning those mnemonics is frustrating, that’s because it is.

Is there a better approach? Of course.

(This seems like the appropriate place to remind you I’m neither a CFI nor an educator, just an aviator with an overactive imagination and a blog. What follows is only my opinion; and even if you agree with it wholeheartedly, there’ll still be an even better way.)

Mind over MAATA

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that mnemonics are not the answer to every learning challenge. Say it with me now, people: MAATA – Mnemonics Aren’t Always The Answer.  They work okay on a simple list of ‘one dimensional’ information, and they work better when they’re entertaining – call it memorable – by cleverly making sense on their own, or by being funny.

WindsockBut even the best mnemonic will only work when the underlying knowledge has already been put in place.

My Very Excited Monkey may have charmed its way into my kids’ memories; but first they had to have a fairly good idea of how the solar system works, what the planets are, and what they’re all called. The mnemonic only helps get the names in the right order.

So if risk assessment training begins with students learning some questionable, complex mnemonics, we’re definitely doing it backwards. The training should build on a long briefing tailored to the subtle layers of the subject, then move through an ongoing review and assessment process.

What kind of review and assessment process, exactly? Well, how about the whole of flight training. Let’s only give pilots PAVE and I’M SAFE as a sort of graduation present: ‘Congratulations on your new Certificate. You’ll find some handy mnemonics on the back.’

Meantime, we could reinforce the given knowledge with a more appropriate recall mechanism.

Why are we trying to memorise it all?

It’s not as if risk assessment is a time critical memory item like, say, an engine failure on takeoff. So why are we trying to memorise it all?

© airscape photo
© airscape photo

When we fly, we go out to the aircraft with a bookful of checklists to keep mistakes out of the walk-around, pre-start, start, post-start, run-up, pre-takeoff, post-takeoff, in-flight emergencies, top of climb, top of descent, downwind, pre-landing, after landing and shut down procedures.

At the higher end of the safety and professionalism spectrum, airline pilots do everything by the checklist and have a checklist for everything – except, I suspect, all those vital details buried within PAVE and I’M SAFE. Weird, huh?

Why wouldn’t we using written checklists for the most critical, complex and fallible part of the whole system – the pilot? And who said they could only be used on the airplane anyway? Running a checklist on yourself would emphasise that you, the pilot, are a fundamental component of every safe flight – just like your airframe, engine and fuel.

As a matter of fact, the FAA already talks about I’M SAFE as if it’s a checklist, and the published version of PAVE really is one. (See pages 16 and 17 of the FAA/Industry Training Standards Personal and Weather Risk Assessment Guide.)

It’s all freely available in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge too.

It seems we’ve just fallen back on treating those mnemonics as a reservoir of risk avoidance, when they’re really only the lid.

Knowledge in a barn

Of course, reading checklists won’t address the basic problem of applying a fixed framework to a fluid subject. Nor will it deflect the broader thrust of Jeb Burnside’s original article, which was that rote-learning of lists costs us the ‘wisdom of the elders’ – those pragmatic self-safety techniques an earlier generation developed from time-honoured experience (and terrifying themselves once or twice).

That kind of loss is hard to reverse. You have to ask the right people the right questions, right now. So a concerted effort to survey, sort and share all the ‘knowledge in a barn’ that’s still out there certainly couldn’t hurt. Nor could subscribing to NASA’s free monthly Callback safety newsletter. (Click the link and do it now.)

The mistakes of others

What a full checklist will do, and far better than reciting a mnemonic, is open a conversation, cue a mention of those old-time tips and tricks, or trigger a discussion about the lessons offered by the latest edition of Callback.

In the same way that every pilot’s walk-around is shaped by their experience and the mistakes of others, a pilot safety checklist can be dynamic. Simply add notes all over it, print out your bespoke update, then repeat. And in the training environment, run the checklists as an educational dialogue between instructor and student, rather than a recitation. Just like a good walk-around.

Good airmanship

In short: Ditch the mnemonics in favour of a full checklist, then take time to explore the salient points before every training flight, check-ride and BFR. Make it a program, not a lesson.

© Steirus | Dreamstime.com

As pilots, what we want to do most is fly the plane like an expert. If safety gets in the way of that, it’s more likely to get glossed over. Like it or not, the carrot of being a respected pilot is more powerful than the stick of ‘you could wind up dead’. That stuff happens to the other guy, remember.

Unfortunately teaching airmanship is even more elusive than teaching safety. But by approaching personal fitness and threat assessment on the same level as the aircraft’s physical systems, maybe we’d also reinforce the fact that good airmanship is good flying.

When being a better pilot is the outcome on offer, finding ways to be more professional (i.e. safe) should help turn obstructive safety into constructive routine.

IMHO, it’s worth thinking about. But I’m happy to leave the last word to an expert:.

If you know a better way to teach and explain critical analysis of the dangers a proposed flight might pose, we’re all ears.



4 thoughts on “I’M SAFE

  1. Well said! I feel like this is a post I could have written myself. The flight training industry’s focus these days is heavy on acronyms, scenarios, and technology (autopilots! glass! AOA probes!). Meanwhile, basic flying skills and the escalating cost of flying sit in the corner with their face to the wall. It’s a problem. A big problem. I mean, I’m employed at the highest levels of the business aviation sector, and there are people up here who just. can’t. fly. On the other end of the spectrum, the cost of a private certificate has escalated by factor of 3 over the past two decades, and everyone looks around, mystified at why flight schools are failing, the student drop-out rate is so high, and schemes like ab-initio are taking hold.

    Hey, is that a simple, cheap tailwheel airplane I see in the corner of that dusty hangar? I wonder if that might help….

    1. I know what you mean. I just watched a couple of YouTube clips on leaning (and because you still fly pistons, I know you know what that is) where CFIs (CFIs!!) admitted not wanting to touch the Mixture lever because ‘that’s for shutting down the engine’. Eep!

      I often blame the world’s problems on a lack of imagination, and I think aviation’s no exception. ‘Customers’ want to fly shiny white airplanes because that’s what advertisers push on them. Perhaps flight training needs to reset its image to Piper Cubs and that simpler ‘golden age’ freedom of flight. (Plus spin recovery, unusual attitudes, advanced stalls, engine-out landings… but that’s whole other post.)

      1. A CFI who doesn’t know how to lean doesn’t know how to operate the powerplant of the airplane they’re training other people to fly. “Eep!” is right!

        A friend of mine is of the opinion that eventually all “professional” flying will be done by computers, totally automated. Human-operated aircraft will be the exclusive realm of those who do it for enjoyment. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. I dunno. But the marketing question is a good one. You can’t think of a shiny white airplane without thinking of Cirrus. But those airplanes were built for a very specific mission: traveling long distances on autopilot. It does that very well. But it doesn’t teach ya how to fly, that’s for sure. 🙂

      2. I was more thinking shiny white Cessnas, Diamond Katanas, Jabirus, etc, but your original point stands – even ‘training’ planes won’t teach you to fly like a tailwheeler will.
        As for computer flying, it’s hard to say exactly how far down that road we already are. But as events like Colgan 2407 showed, when automated systems can no longer cope with the flight loads, you’d better have someone there who can fly a plane.

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