What Leads to Practical Exam Failures: Threat and Error Management

What Leads to Practical Exam Failures: Threat and Error Management

I am often asked what areas applicants struggle the most on, and where most failures occur. While the answer to this question ranges dramatically from the type of exam to the student, it usually begins with a threat that leads to an error, and eventually an undesired aircraft state and/or exceedance from the ACS or PTS standard. While the concept of Threat and Error Management is somewhat foreign to the new private pilot, it applies very well to our daily operations and I see it in action on a regular basis as a designated pilot examiner.

I will start by discussing the definitions:

Threats are events that occur beyond the influence of the pilot(s), increase operational complexity, and which must be managed to maintain the margins of safety.

Errors are defined actions or inactions by the flight crew that lead to deviations from pilot intentions or expectations. 

Undesired Aircraft States are pilot induced aircraft position or speed deviations, misapplication of flight controls, or incorrect systems configuration, associated with a reduction in margins of safety.

While the entire Threat and Error Management concept is lengthy, I will simplify it for this brief discussion. Threats exist everywhere in our operation. Weather, a busy controller, a busy airport, and heavy training traffic are just a few that we often encounter on practical exams. These are threats that can lead to errors if not caught. As part of my briefing to applicants, I often tell them that “perfection is not the standard.” Even as airline pilots we are not immune to making mistakes and errors. However, we are trained to use our toolbox which includes procedures, crew resource management, and aeronautical decision making to keep us from ending up in an Undesired Aircraft State (UAS). While the UAS definition can vary, most deviations from the ACS standard for the purposes of the practical exam are considered a UAS. The importance of this model is to realize that uncorrected errors lead to a UAS, and recovery is paramount to avoid exceeding the standards. An uncorrected UAS will likely lead to an accident, incident or violation; and for practical exam purposes, a notice of disapproval.

That being said, the reason I bring this up is because the areas I see applicants struggle the most on are threats that lead to errors. Sometimes this is because of a lack of training, nerves, fatigue, or a plethora of other factors. 

I will bring up an example to illustrate this point:

On a practical exam, an applicant failed to descend on the glideslope on an ILS approach. Realizing the mistake after trying to descend and recognizing the approach was unstable due to being so high, the applicant used good judgement and decided to execute a missed approach. However, the applicant had never practiced a missed approach from an altitude above the minimums on the plate, and was confused about when to turn and what altitude to fly. In this scenario, a busy controller and task saturation led to a late descent, which resulted in an error of being too high and unstablized, and the lack of knowledge and training led to an undesired aircraft state of flying past the missed approach point at an inappropriate altitude.

The ACS is meant to be scenario based, but in real life instrument procedures are rarely like we practice. I have rarely gone missed off an instrument approach due to weather. After all, we normally don’t attempt an approach when the real-life weather is below minimums. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally we would look at diverting when weather drops below minimums. I have been instructed to execute a missed approach by ATC more times than executing a missed approach due to weather.

If applicants apply the Threat and Error Management concepts to their single pilot operation and practical exam, they would see improvement in their performance. Understanding the threats they encounter and having tools to recognize and recover from errors is key to mitigating problems before they become tolerance exceedances or undesired aircraft states.

The key takeaway from this article is that real life (and even practical exams) are not always like the training environment. We try to do our best to put controls in place to make the evaluation as easy as possible; but we can’t control variables such as busy controllers, traffic, and other situations that lead less than desirable conditions. By recognizing these threats an applicant can work to increase their situational awareness and develop methods to reducing errors and recovering from a UAS. It’s usually threats that lead to errors and errors that lead to UAS that make a practical exam unsatisfactory. This applies to many of the practical exams I have given, and my hope is that applicants can prepare for real world flying in their training. After all, my job is the gatekeeper before the real world, and the ACS demands that the applicant is prepared to exercise those privileges at the end of the practical exam.

If you want more reading on Threat and Error Management, check out:

Free FAA Safety Presentation on Threat and Error Management (for WINGS Credit): https://www.faasafety.gov/gslac/ALC/course_content.aspx?cID=556&sID=983

https://skybrary.aero/articles/threat-and-error-management-tem

Sarah is currently a FAA Safety Team Lead Representative, NAFI Master Instructor, Gold Seal flight instructor, and 737pilot for a Major U.S. airline. Sarah holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI and has flown over 7300 hours. She holds a pilot license in 4 different countries (USA, Canada, Belize and Iceland – EASA) and has flown over 150 different types of airplanes in 25 different countries including oceanic crossings in small aircraft. Since aviation for work isn’t enough, she also lives in a hangar home on the west side of Houston! Although much of her flying is now professional in nature, she enjoys flying her Super Cub, Patches, on her days off. As a regular attendee of Oshkosh and local fly-ins, she enjoys the company and camaraderie that general aviation brings and is passionate about aviation safety and flight training.

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