In the unforgiving world of aviation failing a trainee can be the kindest cut of all.
The military pilot’s work environment conjures up some pretty harsh adjectives – competitive, combative, exhausting, complex and dangerous. It’s no surprise that the training process aims to produce pilots who are not just technically competent but who can also cope with tricky ‘grey’ areas in difficult and dynamic circumstances.
At the sharp end of a military aircraft you need both good judgement and flexible decision making. You also have to be able to ‘recover’ a situation when things turn pear-shaped.
There are some distinct and important differences between military pilots and their commercial counterparts. The highly regulated automation in an Airbus or Boeing cockpit doesn’t offer much assistance when you’re hovering above the pitching deck of a navy frigate on a dark night. Consequently, some essential elements need to be built in to the military aviation training regime.
They come at a price, but it’s a price worth paying.
Currently, the trainee pilot failure rate (‘attrition rate’) sits at around 30-40%. This may appear wasteful but it’s highly cost-effective compared with an aircraft accident caused by ‘human factors’. And we’ve learnt that lesson the hard way. Running in parallel with this ‘tough love’ is the rather less tangible aspect of ‘subjective assessment’. This is more nebulous, almost akin to an ‘art’.
Here’s a breakdown that may prove illuminating and have some useful applications within the world of medicine.
• Trust – military flying instructors take ‘time out’ from operational flying to train new pilots and the latter are well aware of this. This breeds ‘trust’ – the instructor/trainee relationship nourishes both that bond and the broader fellowship within professional aviation.
The trainee knows that their own welfare sits near the top of the pyramid. This makes things considerably simpler if a training exercise warrants a ‘fail’.
• Kinship – teaching another individual a complex set of skills generates a strong sense of kinship, an affinity within a professional fellowship. This is particularly so in the initial stages of training when both student and teacher need to exhibit courage and commitment.
It’s not easy putting your head on the chopping block, figuratively or literally. There wouldn’t be too many military pilots pinning on their brand new ‘wings’ who hadn’t had their confidence shaken or asked themselves, ‘is all this worth it?’
• Feedback Loop – when an accident occurs all members of the military aviation community feel it deeply and personally. The victim’s former instructors will search their souls for something they may have missed. Poor training can come back to bite, and hard! This makes it a little easier to fail a student who is just not making the grade.
Ideally, a reciprocal relationship based on respect and professionalism exists between instructor and student. If that’s the case, and the latter is consistently struggling, they are much more likely to come to a mature acceptance that this particular career may neither be in their best interests nor of those who place their trust in them.
ED: Flt Lt Ray Werndly is an experienced RAAF flying instructor. The opinions expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the views of the Royal Australian Air Force.