The Value of Training

Today’s newspaper brings us a story about a helicopter that landed safely after suffering from complete engine failure. Neither the pilot, nor the passengers were injured. More remarkably, the helicopter was at 200 feet of altitude when the engine quit. The pilot, without thinking much about it, executed something called “auto-rotation” which means that the main propeller is purposefully disconnected from the gearing which cause the main rotor to spin freely  and the helicopter floats down, much like a maple tree seed.

At 200 feet, this pilot didn’t have much time to think. Hesitation would have meant death and not just for him,  and not just for his passengers, but also for anyone on the ground. It’s not as though helicopters can glide for a while and decisions can be thought through. It has to be instinctive and to make something instinctive, takes forethought and planning.

Twenty years ago, rather than having a happy ending with a busted tail rotor, this story would have ended very differently. The change in the last 20 years is because of improved training. Now, pilots don’t just receive chalk talks and flight time, but by using computer aided flight simulators, dangers can be simulated and training can reduce or eliminate a potential catastrophe.

Helicopters and automobiles share something in common: they both crash — a lot. Yet, while helicopter and aircraft training has improved dramatically in the last 20 years, automobile training has declined to the point that a Georgia legislator has suggested that licensing is no longer necessary. Drivers no longer have to take any classes and the driving test has been made easier. No more parallel parking.

In fact, drivers have so little experience and training that they no longer know what to do when their Ford suffers a rear wheel blowout of a Firestone tire.

Yet, a Google search about Motorist Education turns up numerous links going to cycling websites, but few to cites that talk about motorist concerns. Seems that cyclists are the only ones concerned about it. Motorists think they are doing a fine job.

14 replies
    • Eric
      Eric says:

      Sorry. I posted prematurely. I meant to save it and hit the wrong button. Guess I need more WordPress training.

  1. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    Actually, autorotation and how to use it to land safely has been a fundamental precept of helicopter operation since at least the 1940s. However, the gap HAS widened over the last 20 years in pilot training as simulators have gotten better while the same capabilities have been neglected in ground transport. Well, other than by Nintendo and its competitors.

  2. Keri
    Keri says:

    Funny you should post this. Today I was thinking about aviation safety in terms of the medical certificate. Here’s a lit of conditions for which a pilot medical will be revoked.

    That asshat in Vail claimed sleep apnea as an excuse for running over a cyclist riding on the shoulder. But his driver’s license won’t be revoked for it.

    If we placed a fraction of the responsibility on motorists that we do on private pilots we’d have fewer crashes, and a lot less congestion!

    • Kevin Love
      Kevin Love says:

      That’s just insane!

      I note that in Ontario, uncontrolled sleep apnea is considered by the Ministry of Transportation to be a “high risk” medical condition that requires immediate drivers’ licence suspension.

      Medical doctors and optometrists are required, by law, to report to the Ministry anyone who may be suffering from a medical condition that may impair driving ability. This includes people who do not have a drivers’ licence, as they may subsequently apply for one.

      If someone does crash his car due to a medical problem, guess who is first in line to be sued? Yes, his doctor. The lawyers love to say “The doctor was negligent because he should have detected the medical problem and reported it to the Ministry.”

      Guess how doctors respond to this reality? That’s right – they make darn sure that anyone who may have a problem is promptly reported to the Ministry.

      Just one more reason why Ontario’s roads are the safest in North America.

      I’ve got a strong suspicion that things are different in Florida.


      “Under the Highway Traffic Act (s. 203 and 204) both physicians and optometrists are required to report to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles any patient age 16 or over who may be suffering from a medical/visual condition that may impair driving ability.”

  3. Tim
    Tim says:

    Chapter Two of Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic” ( ) is titled “Why You’re Not As Good a Driver as You Think You Are”

    This state senator has it wrong. We need it make it harder to own and drive a car. And we need to start periodic recertification for licensed drivers. Not renewal but evaluation on skill and knowledge just like pilots get.

  4. JAT in Seattle
    JAT in Seattle says:

    While I think the post makes some inaccurate assumptions about the historical state of pilot training, I think the basic premise is correct: pilots are much better trained on how to avoid crashing when something goes unexpectedly wrong than are road users. (and I’m not discriminating here between motorists and cyclists,… not yet anyway)

    Every time a pilot straps into an aircraft he or she has a plan in mind as to what they’re going to do and run over in their mind (often from printed cards in the cockpit) proceedures for the safe operation of their vehicle.

    In contrast most road users are pretty blithely indifferent to planning for operation and potential problems. Hop in your car and go – that’s freedom! Heck, I’m a safety nerd, but when was the last time I checked the quick release skewer on my disc brake equipped commuter bike? (I don’t remember)

    I often say that driving is the most dangerous thing that most of us do on a regular basis and I’m invariably met by blank stares. Some time ago there was a post here asking the rhetorical question are bikes vehicles or toys – given the way a lot of people drive the same question should be asked about cars – are you operating a vehicle or are you just playing in the street?

    • Keri
      Keri says:

      I’m wondering which force is more powerful for a pilot.

      The realization that if something goes wrong, you can’t just pull over. The saying goes: “better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here.”

      Or the knowledge that the FAA will yank your ticket if your irresponsibility results in an incident.

      For me it was the former, but though I have a number of endorsements and an instrument rating, I never got to where flying was second nature. I know quite a few pilots for whom it is as second nature (automatic) as driving a car is for most people.

      • JAT in Seattle
        JAT in Seattle says:

        Very good point on the FAA – and ripe for comparison with how road rules are enforced – and as we’ve said before it is far too easy to get a drivers license and far too hard to lose one in this country.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      “about the historical state of pilot training,”

      Not an assumption at all. I saw a helicopter go down about 20-25 years ago while the pilot was attempting to execute an auto-rotation. He started at ~400 feet, but by the time he executed it, he had fallen too far to pull it off.

      I read many newspaper articles that spoke of the same thing, particularly when piston engines were more common as were engine failures.

      Theory is one thing. Execution in a practical manner is another. In theory, airplanes can land on water without nose-diving by coming in shallow, but “Sully” was unusual in that he pulled it off.

  5. Tom Armstrong
    Tom Armstrong says:

    My favorite aviation quote is sometimes credited to Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930’s. and goes thusly:

    “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

    Motor vehicle operators crash enough to kill more Americans per month than were killed in the WTC debacle, yet we are somehow inured to the CARnage because it doesn’t happen to us–often.

    Yes, I’ve long held that recertification (involving retesting) is a good idea for motorists. But what do I know?

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