Crew resource management in general aviation for single-pilot operations

David Freedman and Michael Nendick
The University of Newcastle


This Paper was presented at the Fourth Australian Aviation Psychology Symposium Manly, 16-20 March 1998. From the forthcoming edited proceedings of The Symposium: Hayward, B.J. & Lowe, A.R. (Eds.). (in press). "Aviation Resource Management", to be published by Ashgate, Aldershot UK, in 1999.

The single-pilot operating in General Aviation (GA) has arguably one of the most demanding civil aviation tasks, which is reflected in the disproportionate rate of accidents experienced compared with other sectors of the aviation industry (Ritchie, 1988). Studies have shown that some form of human failure is present in over 70% of all GA aircraft accidents, with poor judgement and decision making, and inadequate pre-flight and in-flight planning being cited as the major causal factors (Trollip & Jensen, 1991). GA accident and incident rates far exceed those of the airlines, as do the numbers of people killed or injured. In 1996, the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI) (1996a) published a report on fatal airplane accidents in Australia. Of 75 accidents reviewed, 74 involved GA aircraft, one involved a regional airline, and none involved a major carrier. There were 162 fatalities with the majority occurring in single-engine aircraft. Poor judgement was the most commonly assigned human factor. Other factors were poor in-flight decision making, and inadequate pre-flight preparation. These results are consistent with world-wide findings that inadequate decision making contributes to a large portion of accidents in GA and airline operations (BASI, 1996b).

The airline industry, whilst experiencing a much lower accident rate than GA, has sought to address human factor issues in flight safety through the introduction of Crew Resource Management (CRM) training. Although there has been extensive research conducted into CRM for the airline multi-pilot crews, research into CRM for GA has been sparse. While many of the principles and concepts of multi-crew CRM may be applicable to the single-pilot environment, others may not. This paper summarizes selected findings of a study that evaluated the relevance of multi-crew CRM concepts to Australian single-pilot GA operations (Freedman, 1997).


The Delphi method (Ziglio, 1996) was selected to provide a structured process for collecting and distilling knowledge from a group of experts by means of a series of questionnaires interspersed with controlled feedback. Developed and validated by the Rand Organization (USA) in the 1950's, the Delphi technique demonstrated that iteration and controlled feedback provided benefits over "mere" statistical aggregation of opinion (Dalkey, 1972). It was found that: (1) on the initial round, a wide spread of individual answers typically ensued; (2) with iterations and feedback, the distribution of individual responses progressively narrowed (forming consensus); and (3) the group response became more accurate.

According to Ziglio (1996), the selection of members for a Delphi panel on the basis of expertise provides a more robust response than a larger number of panel members selected at random. Consequently, the membership criterion established for this study was either:

  1. an appropriate degree in aviation, or psychology with aviation related experience, and knowledge of the principles of CRM;
  2. bona-fide CRM instruction experience; or
  3. extensive experience in GA and a high level of working knowledge of CRM principles.

The resulting research panel consisted of thirteen individuals. Five were industry CRM providers. Three were psychologists with expertise in aviation human factors (HF). Three had aviation science degrees. Four were airline pilots and four were current GA commercial pilots. One was a full-time flight instructor. One worked for BASI, and one with the Australian aviation insurance industry.

Research questions

The study included the following research questions:

  1. Is there a suitable definition for the CRM concept in relation to single-pilot GA operations?
  2. Is there a need for modified CRM training for single-pilot operations?
  3. What components should be included in such CRM training for single-pilot operations?
  4. What is the need for, and methods of, CRM reinforcement training?
  5. Should CRM training be mandated by the regulatory authorities?
  6. If CRM training were to be mandated, what competency standards should be required and what evaluation methods employed?


Two rounds of questionnaires were used to collect data from the panel. Each questionnaire consisted of nine sections, each section dedicated to a specific research question. The initial questionnaire used relatively broad terms and invited answers and comments. These replies were summarized and the answers evaluated and used to generate the second round questionnaire. Within the second questionnaire, the results of the first were presented as a form of comprehensive controlled feedback, giving the respondents an opportunity to re-evaluate their original answers. This interactive process enabled clarification of issues, identification of areas of agreement or disagreement, and a determination of priorities.

Data analysis

Data reduction employed either measures of central tendency, or rank order for selection of preferred items. Means and standard deviations were derived from responses to Likert-scale items, medians and inter-quartile ranges for questions involving the ranking of items. The means gave the relative weighting of the responses. The medians gave the relative preference for individual items. Measures of dispersion gave an indication of consensus; the smaller the dispersion, the greater the consensus (Wedley, 1980). Analysis of open questions and general comments utilized subjective assessment of the underlying themes. A cluster analysis and frequency count of issues noted within these comments was conducted.

Results and discussion

Defining CRM for single-pilot operations

The development of an acceptable definition is a primary step in developing a common understanding of the critical concepts and providing a CRM training needs analysis for GA. The findings from the first questionnaire (Qnr 1) indicated that "decision making" should be included. This was also reflected in the BASI (1996b) conclusion that inadequate decision making contributed to a large portion of accidents in GA. The "decision making" concept was incorporated into the Lauber (1984) definition of CRM forming a hybrid which emerged as the overwhelming panel choice. CRM for single-pilot operations was defined as:

    "optimizing the pilot’s decision making process, through the effective management of all available resources, information, equipment and people, to achieve safe and efficient flight operations".

This statement links safety with efficiency raising the concept of "affordable safety". Proponents within the industry and community at large are divided on whether economic factors should be a consideration in determining an acceptable level of safety. The realities in GA are such that without efficient operations, economic viability may be compromised. Thus, some marginal operators may be tempted to reduce expenditure on training, crewing, maintenance, and other safety related items in an attempt to maintain an acceptable level of profitability.

An alternative label for single-pilot CRM Single-pilots may have some difficulty reconciling the "crew" concept to their situation, therefore a range of alternatives to the CRM label were examined. "Flight Resource Management" emerged as the preferred title, however there was only weak consensus on this choice. "Crew Resource Management" was ranked sixth of a series of alternatives, with the phrase "resource management" being common to all preferred options.

The Rationale for Single-pilot CRM Training

The traditional training focus in GA has been on the technical aspects of flight and an individual pilot’s technical performance. The less clearly defined criteria of resource management, decision making and other human factor issues have only recently been recognized as important indicators of overall pilot performance. The most common factors to emerge from research conducted into GA accidents and incidents, are those of poor judgement and decision making (BASI, 1996a). Judgement can be viewed as a subset of decision making, with Jensen (1995) defining aviation judgement as "the mental process used to formulate an aviation decision". An intervention that improves these processes has the potential to reduce the rate of accidents and incidents. The panel concluded that the delivery of CRM training to single–pilots would result in an improvement in their decision making processes, leading to an overall reduction in the rate of accidents and incidents, and to an improvement in the efficiency of flight operations. This finding was consistent with a study by Diehl (1990) which found that judgement training can lead to a significant reduction in aircrew error.

It was considered that the HF components of the current ab initio and commercial pilot training syllabus did not fully cover the required CRM concepts. A clear need for a form of additional CRM training for the single-pilot was identified, to improve the safety and efficiency of GA flight operations.

CRM training components

To develop a generic syllabus of training, a broad list of syllabus items was compiled from the literature. The panel rated this list on the "level of knowledge required" for individual items, and suggested additional items. The highest rated item was "how to say no to the boss and pax" (suggested by the panel in Qnr 1). This was followed by "maintaining situation awareness", "impediments to good judgement", and "pre-flight planning and decision making."

"How to say no" acknowledges the situation within GA, where commercial pressures can place pilots in situations which encourage the infringement of regulations, or reduction of the flight safety margin. Pilots can believe that their employment may be jeopardized if they refuse a request from an employer or passenger on the grounds of legality or a reduced safety margin. Other highly rated items included "conflict resolution" and "assertiveness", both important attributes in the ability to refuse an unreasonable request.

The high rating of situation awareness, judgement and decision making reflected the aim of single-pilot CRM training to optimize these vital inputs to the aeronautical decision making process (Jensen, 1995).

Leadership items and those associated with group processes received relatively low ratings, reflecting a differentiation between multi-pilot and single-pilot CRM.

CRM principles reinforcement

Hayward (1995) stated that initial CRM training should be regarded as an awareness phase. Continuing high quality reinforcement is necessary to produce long-term attitudinal and behavioral changes. This view was strongly supported. Reinforcement following initial training was considered to be a positive way to maintain and enhance CRM skills and behaviors.

Steps to develop a positive CRM culture were recommended to inculcate the principles throughout the wider body of GA pilots, reinforcing and complementing other modes of CRM training. It was suggested that the aviation authorities, including the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and BASI, should play a leading role through:

  1. the activities of check airmen (ie. flying operations inspectors);
  2. the development of appropriate benchmarks for the selection and testing of the authorized testing officers (ATOs); and
  3. the inclusion of pro-CRM articles and other materials within their extensive range of publications.

Mandating CRM training

There was consensus towards formal recurrent training being mandated for commercial operations, but reservations were expressed about the practicality and desirability of such an imposition on the non-commercial sector.

The term "mandating" tends to generate negative emotions within GA, implying penalties for failure to comply. Without mandatory CRM training, many organizations and individual pilots may elect to avoid the cost and effort involved. However compulsion may generate a negative attitude towards such training being imposed from "above" regardless of circumstances, reducing its overall effectiveness. Compulsory CRM training could become a "tick in the box" exercise, promoting surface, rather than deep learning (Moore & Telfer, 1993). The need to internalize standards was expressed by Edwards (1997), who wrote that pilots need to "conscientiously train themselves…to ensure they are as prepared for each flight as they can be, and for all involved in managing flying to conform to a code of responsible behavior for its own sake, not because it’s the law" (p. 9).

It was noted that the requirement for mandatory training and the setting of a minimum level of proficiency could be viewed as two separate issues. Mandating a training requirement does not necessarily require an associated mandatory assessment process. The requirement to assess a training programs’ effectiveness may be achieved through a broader evaluation than "merely" evaluating an individual pilot’s performance. For example, the success of a CRM training program across the GA industry should be reflected in a reduction in the rate of incidents and accidents, where poor decision making and judgement were contributing factors.

Evaluation of CRM Competency

The panel supported the proposition for a minimum standard of CRM competency, however it strongly advocated that the training outcome should not be evaluated on a pass/fail basis. This dichotomy reflects a very difficult issue with lack of consensus previously noted elsewhere (Birnbach & Longridge, 1993). While the formal assessment of a theory exam is usually a straight forward procedure, the assessment of CRM competency evaluates behavior, attitudes and decision making skills; all highly subjective dimensions of human performance. CRM competency must be set against clearly prescribed criteria, and assessed by an evaluator with a commensurate level of skill in the performance and evaluation of CRM competencies. CRM training does not lend itself easily to either standardization or regulation (Hayward, 1995).

There was little agreement for CRM competency criteria which reflected the highly subjective nature of CRM performance, and the difficulty its evaluation may present.


The findings of this study supported the introduction of a form of CRM training into GA directed primarily at optimizing the single-pilot’s decision making processes to increase flight safety, and improve the efficiency of flight operations.

The choice of an appropriate label for single-pilot CRM will be important for the face validity of this construct. Crew Resource Management is not appropriate to describe the resource management training concept for the single-pilot. The word "crew" has a clear association with multi-pilot operations and includes elements distinct from a single-pilot focused syllabus.

The findings indicated that some form of CRM training should be mandated throughout GA, however, if a program is perceived to be too costly or difficult, it is liable to meet with significant resistance from within the industry.

Evaluation was deemed to be the most difficult issue to address, particularly the establishment of criteria on which a valid evaluation process could be based. There was little support for the direct evaluation of an individual pilot, especially on a pass/fail basis. Evaluation of the efficacy of CRM training may be more achievable through indirect methods, such as the development of GA industry markers. Effective CRM training should be reflected in a reduction in the rate of accidents and incidents, especially those with a judgmental or decision-making contributing factor.


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