Can you learn decision-making from pilots?
Tim Davies is a flying instructor, public speaker and aviation consultant. He is also the author of the fastjetperformance.com blog, where, among various other things, he discusses the controversial topic of pilots’ mental wellbeing. In the final part of the interview with AeroTime, he discusses upcoming book, pilots in Hollywood movies and the future of aviation, and most importantly – can people on ground learn decision-making skills from aviators.
The previous parts of the interview: Do mental issues mean you can never fly again? (I) and Do drone pilots get PTSD? (II)
You have mentioned thinking about changing careers and talked about writing as one of the many things you want to do. There’s a book coming up. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
The book was a request from some of the readers of the blog. And in fact, it does not actually contain much of the blog, the blog itself I can get together into a book and I probably will at some point, but it has more to do with what they wanted help with was – decision making: making decisions, making choices in everyday situations. Not special decisions, not which career to follow or which school to send your kids to. It’s about how do you make decisions when you’re in shock and you’re presented with washing machines, but they’re on special offer and you have to make a decision then. How does a pilot make a decision in the air when they haven’t got any time? Decisions are very important and they have a very impactful outcome, if you make the wrong decision. The book is about that, really. How to look at the consequences of a decision and how to make a decision that you can live with and you know that is well-thought out.
What I’ve done, of course, I have an editor, we agreed that we’d write more material than we’re going to use. Now we are making sure the material in the book is quality material so we’re condensing that. It should be released in September, maybe October.
It’s only one of many books I am writing. Because when I leave the military what I want to do is to reach out and help people on this land and how to make their lives better; I can use military service for that. The book is mainly about how pilots make decisions, especially rapid decisions, and how we can apply that to our everyday life. That’s the idea of the book. Actually, I must admit, it’s quite interesting thing to write, it’s quite enjoyable. I hope people will like it. What do you think about the ways in pilots are portrayed in the movies? Do you have a favorite or least favorite one?
I think for me it’s the film Flight with Denzel Washington, it talked about a pilot who has a drugs and alcohol problem. For me it very interesting, because he was still performing at a very high level – a very high level in fact, I think he saved the airplane. But then he has this problem, but that is what was keeping him flying. I felt that was a good portrayal of a pilot.
And that was not what we necessarily want to talk too much about, because pilots are human and they do have problems with substance abuse, and they do have problems with stress and sometimes they do not sleep properly. But the truth is it is very easy to portray a pilot in a very good light, isn’t it? Top Gun, as an example. The pilot who saves the world. But one thing I try to talk about on my blog is the fact that pilots are human, we’re like everyone else. We have the same problems, except when we go flying we have to do what we call compartmentalizing – we have to put those problems in a box and then we have to go flying and when we come down we can open that box again and then we can deal with those problems we have.
So it’s not ‘not having problems’, but rather overcoming the ones you have?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s the recognition that pilots might have day-to-day issues, but it’s making sure that they don’t take these problems to work.
I’m a big fan of talking about this and getting people to talk about this, because if you shut your eyes and say “it isn’t there, we don’t have pilots with mental health problems”, then what happens is you get a German Wings incident. And we all know this.
Some of the budget airlines, like EasyJet and smaller operators, cannot afford to have an accident. They are very much into flight safety, they are some of the safest airlines to fly with, because they know that if they have an accident or an incident, that’s the end of their airline. Therefore they invest so heavily into flight safety and they talk about mental health. And why wouldn’t you not? You can’t afford to lose all your pilots, you need to get them talking how they feel.
At the moment it is a very interesting time, because we know that the pilots are working quite hard, but we’re not necessarily paying pilots what we should. The industry for a long time has neglected the training of pilots, so pilots have a lot of debt.
So we got these pilots who are new, and they are young, they’re very heavily in debt, especially in the United States, North America, and we’re putting them into a cockpit. We read stories every day about pilot shortages and the thing is people don’t really want to be pilots anymore. That’s another question which is going to cost a lot of money for start.
Some people say it’s not even the shortage of pilots, but shortage of pilots who are willing to fly in the conditions they are offered.
Yes. There are a lot of pilots who will fly, but not for the money that’s being offered by some airlines. And the airlines have made this themselves. The airlines have created this through their management themselves, they comprehensively refuse – in my opinion – to pay what they should pay for quality talent and quality taunt [31:27] and quality pilots. They get a lot of very young pilots in who are willing to fly because of prestige of the job, but what that means is you might not get the best pilots in and you might not get the pilots who want to stay in.
This generation – millennials – they don’t just want to have one job, they want to have quite a few jobs, because that’s what life is. Life is about variety. So, you don’t necessarily see in the Air Force any more a guy joining in his twenties and staying until he’s fifty. We see a guy joining in his twenties and then doing, maybe, seven years, whereas I have done twenty. Maybe in ten years’ time you won’t have two pilots in a cockpit. You might just have one and a lot of automation. We are having cars like Tesla, the cars that are able to drive themselves. In aviation, you have to be very careful not to neglect this, because it is going to happen. We are going to have the planes that can fly themselves. How long do we keep insisting that we have two pilots in a cockpit? So it’s a very different career than when I went into twenty years ago.
Opponents argue that people won’t want to get on a plane without a pilot, because of the lack of trust of technology.
Yes, but remember – we don’t necessarily see train drivers anymore. Elon Musk is proving that his cars are safer driving themselves than they are having a person drive them. At the point at which it is understood that people aren’t driving their own cars [33:44] and cars that are driven via by computers. How long after that do we apply that to aviation? And I think we would be stupid not to, because we can automate a lot of these processes and we can make them a lot safer than they are now. The one problem in the aircraft –could indeed be the pilot. And this is what I tend to write about: the problems that we all have and the biases that we all have and the problems that we think about. The automation of aviation may come sooner than we think. And why shouldn’t it, really? Maybe the pilot can get some and then wake up for the landing.
It’s just an idea.