Simple? Defining and Refining Basic Skills in a Complex Environment

--by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing

Back to Basics!

It sounds so simple, so straightforward, and so clear — except that it’s not. In every field I can think of, it’s possible to have a lively debate about what constitutes “the basics.” Last summer, for example, author George Couros started an interesting social media conversation on the basics in education. Couros observed that the traditional trifecta of reading, writing, and arithmetic is necessary, but not sufficient, to get along in today’s world. He posited that while the “three Rs” provide a sine qua non foundation for getting along in life, the “four Cs” of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are the real basics now. Couros further observed that even these new basics evolve over time.

So it also goes in aviation. We can probably agree that aviation’s equivalent of the scholastic basics is the familiar aviate, navigate, and communicate mantra, with the more recent addition of “mitigate” to cover risk management. Just as in education, however, defining the list is only the beginning. That’s why we have chosen to focus this issue of FAA Safety Briefing on “the basics” of aviate, navigate, communicate, and mitigate, presenting these fundamental skills in the context of how they are practiced in today’s complex operating environment.


At the most fundamental level, to aviate means to maintain control of the three As: attitude, altitude, and airspeed. That, in turn, requires mastery of what aviation safety expert Bruce Landsberg calls the “physical airplane,” also known as stick-and-rudder skills.

Yes, you need those basics, and yes, you should practice them by striving for attitude, altitude, and airspeed precision on every flight. But wait — there’s more. Today’s pilots also aviate using the remarkably sophisticated avionics that are the hallmark of modern-made aircraft. The basics thus include the “mental airplane” skills of information management and automation management. I first wrote about these concepts in the March/April 2007 issue of this magazine (then called the FAA Aviation News). In a nutshell, information management includes understanding how your Flight Management System (FMS) is organized so you can quickly find the information you need. Automation management is more than “just” the autopilot. You need to know about the flight director, as well as the many other functions that the avionics will helpfully perform on your behalf (e.g., change the course deviation indicator (CDI) sensitivity).


Though it makes me feel like a dinosaur to say so, navigation was positively primitive when I was learning to fly in the early 1990s. I first learned pilotage and dead reckoning, and I would argue that those remain in the category of fundamental, or foundational, skills that all pilots should have.

As for the rest — well, when I planned a cross-country flight, I drew the course on a paper chart, measured it with a clear plastic plotter, and used the quaintly-named E6B “flight computer” to calculate wind correction, ground speeds, and estimated time en route. I also learned the “basics” of VOR and — yes — NDB navigation. With NDB facilities fast fading into history, and many ADF receivers relinquishing their panel positions to GPS moving map navigators, a lot of the “basics” needed for navigation in today’s National Airspace System have changed.


The basics of aviation communication have perhaps changed the least, because at least for now we mostly rely on verbal radio transmissions. That could be changing with NextGen technologies. In the meantime, back to basics in communication involves striving for maximum precision and polish in the use of our unique Aviation-Speak language.


No one disputes the need for solid stick-and-rudder skills. But numerous accident reports attest to the fact that no amount of basic “physical airplane” skill can save a pilot who unknowingly ventures into conditions beyond the performance capabilities of the pilot and/or the airplane. As demonstrated by inclusion in the Airman Certification Standards, risk management has now been recognized as a basic skill for modern aviators.

Want to know more? Read on, and join us for this issue’s forward-thinking journey “back to the basics.”
Unlocking the “Superpowers” of Basic Airmanship

Click to read: "Fantastic Four Fundamentals"

Understanding the Lost Art of Aerial Navigation

Click to Read: "Where the Heck Are We?"

The Basic Elements of Aviation Communication

Click to Read: "How to Talk Like a Pilot"

Hone Your Flying Skills with 6 Basic Risk Mitigation Steps

Click to Read: "American Ninja Pilot"

Susan Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.

Created By
FAA Safety Team

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