Human Factors

To Brief, or not to Brief, There is no Question!

After working for two and a half years on my private, instrument, and commercial ratings, I knew I was stepping into a whole new world when I was ready to start my multi-engine training, I just didn’t know HOW different it would be.  I just assumed that the maneuvers would be a little faster, I’d have to learn to use the rudder a little better, and the checklists would be a little longer.  I was correct on all counts, but there was far more to it than that.  I was familiar with the startle response (or startle reflex) but the concept didn’t really hit home until my second training flight in the Seneca II.  There’s plenty of information available on the startle response so I won’t go into it here other than to say that it’s exactly what it sounds like. When a person receives an unexpected or threatening stimulus, they can freeze up, or just start acting erratically.  That can be bad news in an airplane

What struck me the most about the multi world wasn’t the difference in speed, maneuvers, or performance; it’s how important briefings are.  And not just the takeoff briefing; I’m talking about all the briefings.

What I quickly realized, through a couple of hard-learned lessons, is that the speeds in light twins are fairly similar to some piston singles, but when something goes wrong in a light twin, things can get really bad really quickly.  Mention “Vmc roll” to anyone with a multi-engine ticket in their pocket and you’ll get the same eye-squeezing, head-shaking, tsk-tsking reaction from all of them.

The whole point of briefing the takeoff roll, in particular, is that you’re mentally and verbally rehearsing what you’re going to do when you lose an engine, then be pleasantly surprised when both engines continue working and bring you safely home at the end of the day.

On my second multi lesson, I got a great lesson on why simply repeating a briefing from memory is nearly as useless as not using a briefing at all.

I still smack my forehead every time I watch that, but we all have to learn somehow. 

Of course, my mistake is clear to me now: I spouted that briefing out like a high school gym teacher reading announcements the morning after St. Patrick’s Day.  The words came out of my mouth, but there was no physical connection there.  I showed this video to a high-time friend (GD).  He smiled and nodded as he watched it and said, “When you said the briefing,” dramatic pause, “did you mean it?”  I thought about it for a bit.  “No, I guess I didn’t.”  Not at all, as a matter of fact. 

A quick note here. I didn’t put the takeoff briefing in the second segment of the video because Owen asked for it back at the ramp after I did the run-up and I didn’t think it was important to hear me stammer through it again, but I did brief the takeoff again. I meant the hell out if it that time!

I’ve talked about what the startle response is, and I shared an embarrassing video where it bit me squarely in the seat of my pants, but, since my aim is to hopefully share some knowledge, what’s the antidote to the startle response?  Is there one?  Of course there is!

I think the antidote is evident in the second segment of the video.  I was ready for the mixture cut because I was trained to expect it, and I was anticipating it.  I was anticipating it because Owen hid the mixtures with the checklist so I knew something was about to happen.  What I’ve come to realize is that the briefings that we do should serve the same purpose as Owen hiding the mixtures; they should make us anticipate failures without reacting prematurely.

There were quite a few more takeoffs where Owen hid the mixtures with the checklist, put his hand up to the throttle quadrant, and… did absolutely nothing.  I truly appreciated that because he was testing whether I would put myself into a bad situation because I thought something was going to go wrong when everything was working perfectly.  It was a fantastic exercise in concentrating on what was actually going on versus what I expected to go on. 

Training is one thing, but what happens in the real world when the engines work perfectly for the next 162 takeoffs?  It’d be odd to expect anything other than two strong engines for that 163rd takeoff, but that may be the one where the left engine seizes in the climb at 90 knots on an IMC morning at 0515 with your family onboard. I agree that that’s one of those heavy-handed once-in-a-blue-moon scenarios that people come up with, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

Case in point.  GD and I were in recurrent training together recently, and I was taking my Falcon 900LX PIC checkride at the end.  Our sim instructor ran me through a mock checkride and she saw that one of the areas where I was struggling was losing an engine on the takeoff roll.  I was having a tough time maintaining directional control because I wasn’t aggressive enough on the rudder. She worked me through the same scenario over and over: I’d lose an engine just before rotation, work to keep it on the centerline, then climb out on two engines (The Falcon 900 has three.) On the downwind, I’d lose the center engine and I’d have to make a two-engine-inop approach and landing.  We ran this scenario at least six or seven times, and after that sim session my head was smoked!  Because we ran that scenario so many times and worked through what needed to be done, those items on my checkride went really smoothly.  As a matter of fact, the two-engine-inop landing was the best landing of the whole checkride. 

Cut to a week later and I’m in the left seat for the takeoff home.  There was a pretty strong front coming through south Florida that day, and tower gave us a runway that had gusts nearing the demonstrated crosswind component of the airplane.  On the takeoff roll, I had the left rudder to the stop to keep us tracking straight down the runway, which doesn’t happen that often in this airplane.  If I wouldn’t have had all that training where I learned to be more aggressive on the rudder, I don’t know that I would’ve been comfortable putting the rudder to the stop on the takeoff roll, but I was comfortable, and it worked out just fine.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to use briefings more as plans of action and less as rote, throwaway items which check a box.  That Seneca swerve was about a year and a half and 130 multi-engine hours ago.  I think I’ve made progress, but there’s plenty of room to improve, and I plan to.

Categories: Human Factors, Training, Video

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