Flying Single Pilot – What can we learn from fun and games?

by Rachel Obermoller
Aviation Representative, MnDOT Aeronautics

I asked a few fellow pilots over the last couple weeks if they had any good single pilot flying stories to tell – perhaps a hangar-flying tale they learned a lesson from, or an interesting technique or skill they picked up along the way, which has served them well.

One of them told me, “I generally avoid flying alone, but when I have to, I talk to myself. Then I always have a crew of two!” While it doesn’t quite solve the problem of being the only pilot in the plane, and might get you funny glances from passengers, depending on how you converse with yourself, this idea isn’t without merit.

So, what makes a good pilot, and beyond that, what makes someone a good single pilot?

Is talking out loud, or unfailingly running checklists, the solution to the risk of single-pilot operations?

How does crew resource management (CRM) play in to all of this?

The majority of all fixed-wing general aviation accidents can be attributed to pilot-related causes. Research shows that among general aviation commercial operators, the likelihood of a single pilot being involved in an accident is 1.6 times greater than a multi-crew operation. Pilots are often a critical link in the error chain leading up to an accident, and the risk increases when there’s only one pilot in the chain. The increase in safety for multi-crew operations can be attributed to many things, including frequent and comprehensive recurrent training and experienced crew members, but resource management also plays an important role.

What began in the 1970s as a concept for airline crews, can also be applied today to general aviation and single-pilot operations. MnDOT Aeronautics presents safety seminars around the state for pilot groups and local airports. These seminars span a wide range of topics, from use of current technology to accident survival to our newest seminar on single-pilot resource management. We call this presentation the “CRM Olympics,” and use activities and games, or “events,” to debrief single-pilot resource management concepts and apply them to single-pilot operations.

In this safety seminar, we debrief the activities using concepts, such as aeronautical decision making (ADM), automation, task and risk management, situational awareness, and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) avoidance. Teams compete in three events, which highlight these concepts using basic aviation skills suitable for pilots and non-pilots alike.

Discussion surrounding ADM focuses on making and acting on good decisions under pressure and with limited information. Using the model of Perceive, Process, and Perform, we debrief how experience, information, and stress impact decisions. Automation includes the use of onboard equipment, such as autopilots and GPS units, as well as iPads and other portable electronic devices.

Task management and related concepts, such as prioritization and checklist usage, help to increase safety, especially in times of high stress. Risk management and the process of mitigating or eliminating risk whenever possible is critical to improving flight safety. Situational awareness ties many of these concepts together, and is paramount to CFIT avoidance as well.

Case studies and scenarios in our presentation highlight these concepts and provide practical applications, and the wrap-up includes a discussion about professionalism. While most general aviation pilots who fly single pilot are not paid to fly, we can and should still operate professionally. Professionalism and fun flying can and do coexist. An attitude of professionalism can improve safety and help passengers to feel more comfortable and confident in the pilot’s abilities and enjoy the flight.

Consider the average Saturday flight to a nearby airport or for some sightseeing. A first-time passenger who shows up at the airport to find the pilot preflighting a clean airplane and able to hold a brief but well-informed conversation about the day’s weather and flight conditions, puts the passenger much more at ease than finding a pilot rushing to take care of last minute details, checking weather on their cell phone while they preflight the plane, add oil, and clean the windshield. The first pilot in our scenario, who planned ahead and got their weather briefing ahead of time, is likely less distracted, has more thoroughly reviewed the day’s flight, and is more aware of the weather and aircraft conditions than the second pilot, who is multi-tasking from the get-go.

Let’s go back to the pilot at the beginning who decided talking out loud was the solution to flying single pilot.

From checklists to decision-making to approach briefing, in a crew environment  there is a lot of discussion and talking that goes into even a routine visual approach. This discussion helps ensure that both pilots are in the loop and that the decisions are informed ones based upon all the information present in the situation. When flying single pilot, the act of reading a checklist out loud and verifying the action or taking an extra minute to assess the situation when making a decision that is not time critical, provides an extra layer of safety and reinforces good habits in a similar manner. Professionalism, CRM, and single-pilot flying can all go hand in hand, and talking about practical ways to apply these concepts is a good first step to minimizing the risk for pilot error.

If your pilot group, airport, or other aviation organization is interested in having our office present the “CRM Olympics” or speak on another topic, please don’t hesitate to contact us. You can reach me at, and I would be happy to help you arrange a speaker. We enjoy meeting pilots throughout the state and learning about what is important to them and how we can better serve the Minnesota aviation community.

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