Single Pilot Resource Management: the Need for Formal Training

air power asia, RH Karve, Crew Resource Management

There is no one right answer in aeronautical decision-making. Each pilot is expected to analyze each situation in light of experience level, personal minimums, and current physical and mental readiness level, and make his or her own decision. Single-pilot resource management (SRM) is the art of managing all onboard and outside resources available to a pilot before and during a flight to help ensure a safe and successful outcome. Incorporating SRM into pilot training is an important step forward in aviation safety. A structured approach to SRM helps pilots learn to gather information, analyze it, and make sound decisions on the conduct of the flight.

Safety Margins in Different Phases of flight. Image Source:

Resources for the Single Pilot

For the single pilot who is responsible for the safety of the aircraft and passengers, the availability of resources is limited to those that can be reached from the cockpit, i.e. they are either physically available and in the pilot’s reach, or they can be contacted on the radio. They can be broadly divided into two: on-board resources and those on ground. In these on-board resources we should also include the autopilot, weather radar, and various sensors. Further, there are control systems and back-ups for each. The more the automated systems in the cockpit, the greater is the need to manage them. For example, a Flight Management System (FMS) that has been programmed on ground is a very good resource, since it can operate the autopilot and display critical information that may otherwise be missed. However, it would have to be re-programmed in the air in case a flight has to change its destination or route. Even a simple change of flight level would have to be re-programmed in the FMS, and it would also involve critical calculations with respect to fuel and time. Needless to state, these occasions generally occur when there is already a heavy cockpit workload due to unexpected bad weather or some aircraft emergency. One may well ask whether the single pilot is trained enough to handle all these tasks simultaneously? In general, it is seen that trained pilots cope well in the case of one unexpected event, while their performance deteriorates slightly in the face of two serious events. It is seen that when there are three or more such failures/ occurrences, their performance drops to a critical level. The pilot has a certain capacity of doing work and handling tasks. However, there is a point where the tasking exceeds the pilot’s capability. When this happens, tasks are either not performed properly or some are not performed at all.

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The main task of any pilot, whether faced with an emergency or not, is the prioritisation of workload. The maxim of “Aviate, Navigate and Communicate” pertains to the priorities to be laid down. When workload increases, greater attention has to be given to the first two, and when there is a major problem, it might be only “aviate” that takes up all of the pilot’s attention. For these reasons, it is felt essential to have the second pilot in the cockpit of a large aircraft, so that the tasks can be divided. Development of technology has provided ever-increasing reliability in aircraft systems and autopilots, such that many pilots can leave the primary tasks to on-board systems. In the event of system failures however, those pilots who do not keep themselves ‘in the loop’ of automation are forced to pay a heavy price, sometimes at the cost of their lives and the lives of their passengers.

Many smaller aircraft are legally allowed to fly with single pilots, and it is necessary that they should be aware of the pitfalls, and be formally trained in Single-Pilot Resource management (SRM). Single-pilot Resource Management (SRM) is not a new concept. In many studies and books, it has been defined in many different ways, like “Threat and Error Management”, “Aeronautical Decision Making” or “Risk Management”. All these terms focus on avoiding accidents and improving safety, while some of these also cover pilot efficiency in flight. The term SRM evolved from CRM, which is Crew Resource Management.

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The Need for formal SRM training

How then can we systemically reduce the single pilot’s burden? Firstly, the pilot should be taught everything that should be known about the aircraft and its systems. Secondly, he/ she should be trained to use the supporting information available before and during a flight, like weather forecasts, airfield data, availability of diversions, and terrain features.  Thirdly, he /she should be trained to handle multiple unexpected situations. The most important part of training is psychological- it has to be focused on the ability to accept one’s inadequacy at that moment and ask for help in time. For all multl-crew aircraft, these training methods are already followed and they are compulsory for flight crew, but they have to be adopted for single pilot flights also.

Much more study as well as training emphasis has been given to CRM as compared to SRM because fatal accidents on large aircraft involve a huge number of casualties. CRM training is always conducted for multi- crew aircraft, but SRM training is still left to an individual’s choice. Looking at the number of fatal accidents in general aviation that involve single pilots, it is high time that regulators introduce an SRM course for reducing accidents and generally improving the safety and efficiency of flights conducted with one pilot only. Another advantage of having a formal requirement is that SRM training would dovetail into CRM training, by providing a stepping stone for new pilots who go on to become first officers on large aircraft.

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The Present State

At present, when a pilot qualifies for solo flights, he is almost untrained in SRM concepts. This would be understandable considering that the necessity of learning skills related to take off and landing requires all of the pilot’s attention. This does not absolve the instructors of teaching a student pilot basic SRM skills such as situational awareness, handling of dire emergencies and unexpected changes in the environment. However, the space and time involved in flying solo within the airfield vicinity are very limited, so there is not much requirement of full SRM in practice. As the flight training progresses further into the flying syllabus, a student would be required to learn more and more of SRM. Flights outside the traffic pattern are the next step after the initial solo flights, where the pilot would have to rely a little more on his judgement. As the syllabus progresses, greater emphasis has to be placed on self-reliance. The highest level would require the student pilot to fly in IFR conditions, away from base, in a congested airspace. In case he or she encounters such a condition without adequate preparation, we are likely to witness a mishap.

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A cursory look at avoidable accidents in single pilot aircraft indicates that the majority occurred because of a lack of understanding of the implications of certain decisions. Weather- related accidents happened because a pilot did not recognise spatial disorientation, or did not divert to another airfield in time, or abort a mission. Yet others occurred because the pilot was not aware of his ground position and flew into terrain. Many have occurred because of psychological attitudes like “I’m capable of doing this”, “peer pressure” or “get-there-itis” that prevent objective assessment of a situation and proper decision- making. Relatively few accidents have been attributed solely to aircraft system failure. Neglect of discipline in-flight has also caused many accidents, e.g, unauthorised low flying, intentionally going away from the planned route, flying in weather below minima and not performing checks due to forgetfulness or laziness. Such attitudes can be detected in the pilot’s behaviour on ground also. A list of few such traits in individuals is given below: (from FAA- Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge) These persons-

  • Have disdain toward rules

• Have very high correlation between accidents on their flying records and safety violations on their driving records

• Frequently fall into the “thrill and adventure seeking” personality category

• Are impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined, both in their information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions to be taken

  • Have a disregard for or tend to under-utilise outside sources of information, including copilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors, and ATC.
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SRM training

Broadly SRM training can be split into three topics: Inculcation of the correct attitude, knowledge improvement, and decision making skills. The following list provides an insight into the ingredients of SRM training: (courtesy: Flight Safety International)

  • CRM/SRM Elements
    • Communication
    • Decision making
    • Situational awareness
    • Workload management
    • Resource management
  • CRM/SRM Scenario-Based Training
    • Normal procedures
    • Emergency and abnormal procedures
  • Personality Grid Training
    • Personal management style recognition
    • Identification of personality extremes
    • Movement motivation toward norm
  • CRM/SRM Toolkits
    • Decision making model
    • Workload management model
    • Flight safety model
    • Self-briefing mechanisms
    • Personal limits model
  • Threat and Error Management
    • Red flags of overload
    • Red flags of weather encounters
    • Red flags of inexperience
    • Red flags of temporal (time) pressure
    • Red flags of mission focus
    • Reversing adversity
  • Automation Management
    • Autoflight vs. manual flight philosophy
    • Flight management systems
    • EFIS displays and symbology
    • Autopilot modes
    • Flight mode annunciations
    • Flight guidance systems

Out of the items on the list, it can be seen that all these need not be introduced at the initial stages of training. The first two that need to be covered would be ‘CRM/SRM elements’ alongwith ‘Personality Grid Training’ and ‘Threat and Error Management’. At some point later, ’Automation Management’ would be introduced as and when the pilot is taught the use of these systems. In all these, decision making has to be applied, as also safety awareness and the knowledge of personal and aircraft limitations.

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Given that there could be many pitfalls in the pilot’s psychological make-up that make him/ her prone to accidents, it is imperative that sufficient emphasis be placed on the correction of attitudinal deficiencies during SRM training. This process has to start right at the commencement of flight training itself. Unfortunately not much emphasis is given to this, and the result is that an over-confident but otherwise proficient student pilot has an avoidable accident. In the same circumstances, a pilot who respects limitations would have avoided the risk or taken a safe decision. As the saying goes, “there are no Old and Bold pilots”.

Learning from Experience

One of the ways that young pilots were groomed during their flying careers was by learning from the experience of senior pilots. When there is a seniority-wise hierarchy of pilots, like in a large organisation, senior pilots shared many such experiences, formally and informally, with the junior pilots. In today’s day and age, there are decreasing chances for such interaction because of increasing demands on time and greater individualism. While the logic for such learning persists, it has been neglected as a good training aid, and greater dependence is placed on following laid down syllabi. New technology has also overtaken old experiences, e.g. what might have been expected in manually controlled aeroplanes might not be so in newer autonomous machines. For example, a design flaw in the Boeing 737 MAX led to two fatal accidents. Such instances of machine (mis) behaviour could have not been foreseen by even the most experienced pilot, as the pilots were not aware of the system design changes introduced by the manufacturer.

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Workload Management

Human error is often related to workload, and there is usually a positive correlation between excessive workload and the occurrence of errors. It should be noted that errors could also be associated with low workload. Levels of workload that are too low are often found in fully automated systems where the operator serves largely as a monitor of the automated processes. In these cases the operator/pilot may become inattentive and/or bored, and this situation is generally referred to as task under load. At the opposite extreme, levels of workload that are too high often cause the pilot to miss important information, fail to perform tasks, make errors or engage in task shedding in an attempt to reduce workload.

Cockpit workload has been blamed for many pilots losing situational awareness or lagging behind an aircraft. It must be understood that quite a bit of the cockpit workload can be shifted to the ground preparation stages if the pilot takes adequate time to assess all the eventualities that may occur in flight. Consider a training cross-country flight. When the route is decided a careful study of the topographical map, forecast weather, diversionary airfields available and COM/NAV frequencies for various stages of the flight can be very helpful. Such data could be jotted down in a format that can be easily accessed in the air. The temptation of putting off things until they are required could lead to serious workload problems when the same information has to be retrieved in the cockpit in an unplanned manner. At that time the single pilot also has to fly the aircraft, respond to communications and maybe handle some emergency. Proper training in workload management would go a long way in mitigating this problem.

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Stress Management

Stresses will always occur in daily life. Many studies have shown that a certain level of stress is necessary for obtaining the best performance, but also that too much stress can greatly degrade a pilot’s capability. One of the major lessons that need to be imbibed for pilots is to leave their domestic stresses “at home” and concentrate only on the flying aspects. A fine line has to be drawn between having “too much stress” and “not enough stress”. For example, a pilot who is facing many serious problems with his career or at home might have a low threshold of additional stressors. On the other hand, a pilot who has not been facing any problems at all might also have a low threshold of additional stress. These two are at the extremes of the stress curve, but the effect on their performance might be the same. In a two-crew cockpit, there can be a natural outlet for sharing one’s stresses, but this is not the case in a single pilot situation. Therefore, SRM has to focus more on such cases.

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Safety Awareness

Safety awareness is one of the primary requirements not only for a good pilot but also for the organisation s/he works for. We have witnessed many occasions when a young pilot takes unwanted risks because of pressure from the organisation or passengers. This has sometimes led to fatal crashes. Such accidents could have been avoided if the concerned crew had not compromised safety. The passengers are mostly unaware of the crew’s and aircraft’s limitations so they cannot be blamed directly for an incorrect decision. On the other hand, a pilot’s decision in the interest of safety should be fully supported by the concerned organisation. The aim of business organisations is to make profits, but it should be understood that profits cannot override safety considerations. SRM training should cover this aspect as well, and train pilots to deal with conflicting demands where safety could be compromised.

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Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM)

In spite of all the precautions and preparations for unforeseen events in flight, it might so happen that a crew is faced with some unknown factor that could endanger their flight. In the case of single pilots, the decision-making window is much narrower than in multi-crew situations. Since there is no assistance in the air, he/she would have to depend entirely on personal knowledge, skill, and the ability to use support from the ground. Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) deals with decisions made in a dynamic situation. Like CRM it is a much researched topic and there are many decision making models that can be applied. One of the more well-known ones is the DECIDE model used in ADM. It covers both- the immediate control of an aircraft as well as the longer term decisions that a single pilot might make. The acronym DECIDE stands for:

D – DETERMINE THE PROBLEM (what event requires you to take some action?)

E- ESTABLISH THE CRITERIA (what would be a favourable outcome? i.e. What is the aim?)

C- CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES (what are the possible courses of action?)

I- IDENTIFY THE BEST COURSE OF ACTION (which is the best way to achieve the aim?)

D- DO THE ACTION (follow the best course of action)

E- EVALUATE THE RESULTS OF ACTION (compare the results against your criteria)

The steps listed above have to be repeated as long as the end result does not meet the selected criteria. A point to remember in the case of flying is that in case a decision is put off, the available options keep reducing, as the aircraft continues moving towards the area of uncertainty, fuel is consumed and weather deteriorates. Therefore, a pilot has to decide on the safe way out while he still has the time and reserves of skill to take further action.

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The increasing use of automation in the cockpit has led to a forecast that manufacturers will devise ways to further reduce the number of on-board flight crew to just a single pilot, even on large aircraft. Of course, there are many pros and cons in this step, but the fact is that the step itself is being researched and debated in many circles. Single-Pilot Resource Management (SRM) is a concept that should ideally have been introduced along with CRM. CRM itself had been difficult to justify and implement in its early stages, but the spate of accidents due to lack of crew co-ordination led to the adoption of CRM as a proven tool for enhancing flight safety. In the same manner, we need to take a hard look at SRM, as more and more aircraft take to the sky and single pilot flying expands in scope. One advantage of SRM training is that it can be included as a part of the course for pilots’ licenses right from the time a student pilot gets airborne for the first time.

In earlier, less formal days the need to operate any aircraft safely and within the rules was covered under the broader term “Airmanship”. With the proliferation of aircraft and greater use of international standardisation, there is now a need to include certain aspects of this intangible term “airmanship” in a structured and formal way in various training programs. This is being done as Crew Resource Management (CRM) by the operators of Multi-crew aircraft, but it also needs to be done as Single pilot Resource Management (SRM) for all pilots. Left to the choice of individual pilots, the lack of proper training in resource management might become the ‘Achilles heel’ of flight safety  The aviation regulators therefore need to include SRM and CRM training as a part of pilot license requirements.

SRM covers almost the same aspects as CRM, with the difference that the other crew of the aircraft is not on board. The three major constituents of SRM listed in this article are inculcation of the correct attitude, knowledge improvement, and decision making skills. These can be the framework for setting up a syllabus for SRM training right from the pre-solo stage up to the grant of a pilot’s license.

Author: Air Cmde RH Karve, Retd was an accomplished fighter pilot in The Indian Air force.  The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image: Pinterest

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

3 thoughts on “Single Pilot Resource Management: the Need for Formal Training

  1. Formal SRM training, as you bring out in the article, is required for safe and efficient operation of any type of flying, primarily as a single pilot operation. As aircraft/ aviation related / engine related technology improved, the accident rates came down substantially, due to other cause factors. However, accidents due to human error continue to confound aviation experts. Bringing down the accident rate is a pressing issue. Human factors training is now a pre-requisite for issue of any aviation licence. CRM training has been mandated for all multi-crew aircraft. You make a strong case for mandating SRM too, and rightly so. Right now, I believe, it is more in the nature of advisories.

    Liked by 1 person

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