You Never Roam Alone! Putting Single Pilot Resource Management to Work

--by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Editor

Aviation never fails to deliver a powerful “not so fast” lesson any time we think we’ve got something nailed.

Like many GA pilots, I got accustomed to being the sole pilot on board. Most of my flying involved being alone in the airplane or serving as pilot and flight attendant to my non-flying passengers. I figured I was pretty adept at “single pilot resource management” (SRM).

My moment of reckoning with the true challenges of single-pilot operations came just after Thanksgiving one year. I had flown to coastal North Carolina to spend some quality time with family and, since the weather forecast for the return trip looked grim, I moved my departure time up by several hours.

What could possibly go wrong?

First, I was in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) shortly after takeoff, but I figured I’d soon be on top. In fact, I was in the soup for the entire flight.

The ETA conditions at my destination were forecast to be marginal VFR. But Mother Nature doesn’t read forecasts. There were many clues that this system was not behaving as expected, but I still didn’t expect to hear a pilot ahead report missing the approach to my airport. Things got very busy, starting with the controller’s request for me to “say intentions.” There was no copilot or autopilot to help with basic flying tasks while I sorted through charts and options. There was no GPS, except for the tiny first-generation handheld I had recently acquired. I had never flown any of the approaches to Dulles, which was my only viable option. I had never flown a holding pattern “for real,” but I had just copied instructions for holding in no-kidding IMC. The workload was intense, and I knew it would take a lot of focus and concentration.

When I was eventually cleared for the approach, I flew with every bit of concentration and precision I could muster. I broke out of the clouds around 300 feet above ground level and experienced the incredible “there-it-is!” relief when I saw the brightly lit runway.

In the most basic terms, I passed the SRM test: I flew single-pilot, single-engine IFR in IMC and landed without bending metal or rules. In the broader sense, though, there was plenty of room for improvement.

SRM Defined

The FAA Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2) calls SRM the art of managing all the resources, both those onboard and those from outside sources, to ensure a successful flight. It is about how to gather information, analyze it, and make decisions. The pilot must be able to competently perform a number of mental tasks in addition to the physical task of basic aircraft control. These include:

  • Situational awareness
  • Task management
  • Automation management
  • Risk management
  • The aeronautical decision-making (ADM) process
  • CFIT (controlled-flight-into-terrain) awareness

The Risk Management Handbook also offers an observation that became very real to me:

Learning how to identify problems, analyze the information, and make informed and timely decisions is not as straightforward as the training involved in learning specific maneuvers. Learning how to judge a situation and “how to think” in the endless variety of situations encountered while flying out in the “real world” is more difficult. There is no one right answer in ADM; rather 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.

That is no small challenge, especially for GA pilots whose aeronautical experience may be limited. In my flight, which involved an airplane with no automation, solid training provided a firm foundation for task management and situational awareness. But I would have been much safer with a structured approach for gathering and analyzing information for both preflight and en route decision making.

SRM in Action

One of the most important things I lacked at the time was a set of personal minimums that, given the soupy conditions at my departure airport, would have kept me on the ground that day.

But let’s say that you launch, like I did. The most valuable resources I had that day were external. I had been monitoring weather via an Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS), but the pilot ahead of me on the approach provided real-time information that made my divert-to-Dulles decision pretty easy. While I didn’t need any special assistance from air traffic control (ATC), it was comforting to know that all the resources they offer were just one transmission away.

If you have passengers with you, they can assist by reading checklist items, watching for traffic, and listening to ATC radio calls. You might also teach regular passengers to assist with switching radio frequencies and basic programming for moving map and multifunction displays. Internal resources also include checklists and verbal briefings.

In basic terms, I passed the SRM test: I flew single-pilot, single-engine IFR in IMC and landed without bending metal or rules. But there was plenty of room for improvement.

Onboard equipment constitutes another important resource. Today’s technology offers an incredible range of information to assist with overall situational awareness, navigation, weather information, and much more. The key is to know what information is available and how to access it without diverting your attention from essential aircraft control duties.

To apply the tenets of SRM in a structured way, the Risk Management Handbook suggests regular evaluation of:

  • Plan
  • Plane
  • Pilot
  • Passengers
  • Programming

The point of the 5P approach is not to memorize yet another aviation acronym. Instead, you might simply write these words on your kneeboard, or add a 5P reference to your checklist for key decision points during the flight. Items to consider include:

Plan: Basic elements of cross-country planning: weather, route, fuel, current publications, etc. Since any of these factors can change at any time, review and update the plan at regular intervals.

Plane: Be proficient with all installed equipment, and familiar with performance characteristics and limitations. Monitor systems and instruments in order to detect any abnormal indications at the earliest opportunity.

Pilot: The “IMSAFE” checklist is a handy tool for identifying hazards to your fitness for flight.

Passengers: Passengers can be a great help by performing tasks such as those listed above. Be mindful, though, that passenger needs — e.g., physiological discomfort, anxiety, or desire to reach the destination — can create potentially dangerous distractions.

Programming: Electronic displays, moving map navigators, and autopilots can reduce workload and increase situational awareness. However, be mindful that the task of programming or operating this equipment can create a dangerous distraction.

Whatever SRM approach you choose, use it consistently and remember that solid SRM skills can significantly enhance the safety of “crew of you” flights.

Learn More

Susan Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Team