Module 7 – CRM for Single Pilots

CRM has been around in different forms since the early years of aviation. What has changed is the increased reliability of aircraft and aircraft systems; the percentage of accidents caused by human factors; the subsequent recognition of the part played by the human element and the attempt to define good and poor CRM practice.

The natural development of CRM has, not surprisingly, been mainly on multicrew aircraft as this was supported by flight and cockpit voice recorders, and the use of simulators facilitated scenarios where CRM situations could be practiced and discussed. Some high profile accidents involving multi-pilot aircraft also drew public attention to the subject. It is not surprising, therefore, that CRM tended to be regarded as being mainly applicable to multi-crew operations. This focus is understandable as much of the written material produced on CRM has been specifically written for multi-crew situations and has, to some extent, concentrated on the communication and relationships between pilots.

Single Pilot operations do exist in an airliner from time to time. If one crewmember should leave the flight deck for a short time it will leave only one pilot at the controls leaving that person with what essentially is single pilot skills.

However it should be recognised that CRM encompasses many elements which are applicable to both multi and single pilot operations. Much of this will be recognised as “airmanship”? which has now developed into “non-technical skills”. These non-technical skills can be defined and assessed to facilitate improvement. The intent of this module is to highlight best practice, to define the various elements of CRM to enable analysis (particularly self-analysis), to facilitate debriefing and create an improvement in operating performance of single pilot crews.

Single Pilot operations can be less complex with respect to certain aspects of CRM compared to Multicrew operations. There is no inter-crew communication and there are no flight deck issues involving authority and leadership. However, in other areas such as error management, decision making and planning, the lack of an additional crewmember can make the situation more demanding. The single pilot does not have the advantage of learning from the experience of other crewmembers on the flight deck and often has to learn from his own mistakes. The only debriefing and evaluation available to the single pilot during normal operations is self-evaluation.


Whilst communication across the flight deck may not be relevant to pilots of Single Pilot operations, there are many situations in which communication is equally important. Such situations would include keeping the passengers and other non-flying crew members informed during normal and abnormal operations, liaising with ground crew and communications with ATC.

The latter being particularly critical for flight safety as the cross check of instructions between crews on multi-pilot aircraft may not be available in the single pilot situation. It is absolutely vital, therefore, that if there is any doubt at all about ATC instructions, clarification is sought. Standard RT phraseology should always be used particularly when talking to ATC units that do not have English as their first language.

Other factors which may affect the correct understanding of communications are:

  • High workload
  • Fatigue
  • Distractions and interruptions
  • Pre-conceived ideas.

It must also be recognised that communications with the company by way of keeping up to date with changes in procedures, new information, additional airport and route information etc. is more demanding as there is no one else on the flight deck with whom to crosscheck the information. However, much can be gained from liaison with fellow crewmembers before and after flights in the crew room and operations/ planning rooms.


Incapacitation procedures have reduced the accident statistics for multicrew operations. However, these procedures are not available to safeguard Single Pilot operations in the case of incapacitation of the pilot. It is even more important, therefore, that pilots ensure that they are in a properly fit condition to fly if they are the only member of the flight crew.

In the event of feeling unwell during flight do not press on but land at the nearest suitable airport making use of all assistance available by declaring an emergency and making full use of any automation.

Workload Management

Workload management is probably the most important item of single pilot CRM. There is no opportunity to delegate tasks in the air and there is a greater potential for the single pilot to become overloaded especially during an unusual, abnormal or emergency situation. Maintaining situational awareness and preserving mental capacity for planning and decision making is more difficult. Attention to, and being aware of, the process of prioritisation is one way to try to maintain some spare capacity.

Comprehensive self-briefing and pre-flight planning are essential. The aim should be to have a thorough understanding of all the aspects of the flight, weather conditions, airport procedures, routeing, aircraft serviceability etc. and that as much of the work as possible should be carried out on the ground, prior to flight. Problems should be anticipated and ‘what if?’? procedures thought through so that in the event of any unplanned events the contingencies can be put into place without the workload increasing to an unmanageable level.

In the event of an abnormality or emergency it is even more important to comply with standard operating procedures. This will help one to stay calm, make proper diagnosis of the problem and take the appropriate action. Reduce workload as much as possible, engage the autopilot if available, advise ATC and request for radar positioning. Many accident investigations highlight the fact that the checklists were not used and that inappropriate action was taken which prevented or reduced the likelihood of reaching a successful conclusion.

Error Management

Much of the error management in a multi-crew environment relies on cross checking of vital data and actions by the other crewmember. This facility is not available to the single pilot and therefore other techniques have to be employed.

In an ideal world the system will have eliminated latent errors. However, in the real world latent errors ready to trap the unwary pilot do exist in many guises. Therefore one needs to be constantly alert for these traps and be conversant with the aircraft and the operation to the greatest extent possible. Adherence to SOPs is again one of the main defences and all pilots should be alert to situations which are new, untried, distract from normal operations or are outside SOPs. The pilot should be comfortable with the operation. If not then it is probably necessary to take action to restore the comfort factor even if this means a decision to delay or cancel the flight.

Workload planning will allow the pilot to make decisions in good time and to self cross check any critical actions before implementation.

Decision Making

There are a number of guides and mnemonics which are designed to assist the decision making process for multi-pilot crews such as the PILOT model. These generally involve:

  • Assessing the situation and gathering data
  • Considering options
  • Deciding on the ‘best’? option
  • Communicating your intentions
  • Carrying out the actions
  • Checking/reviewing the situation
  • Adapting to new information or changing situations.

Research shows that experienced pilots use previous experience of similar situations to “short cut”? the decision making process. However, no two situations are exactly the same and it is important to recognise that the decision making process is driven by the pilot’s situation assessment.

In the Single Pilot operations case there is usually no one to help gather the information and cross check actions. Also, facing an abnormal or emergency situation alone can be a frightening and traumatic experience. A natural reaction can be one of shock (surprise) or disbelief, which is called startle reflex. This is a completely normal and instantaneous phenomenon as the brain can absorb information about an emotionally significant event (such as fear) before we are consciously aware of it. This initial startle reflex can provoke a desire to try to resolve the situation quickly – perhaps leading to incorrect actions being taken. Therefore, one should try to stay calm and above all continue to fly the aircraft. There are some situations which require immediate action but the majority of incidents will tolerate a short delay while you gather your thoughts and assess the situation.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness relates both to the status of the aircraft and its systems and to the geographical position of the aircraft. Careful monitoring of the aircraft systems together with a good technical knowledge will help the pilot maintain situational awareness and to stay ahead of the aircraft. This, combined with good workload management, will increase spare capacity and allow better anticipation of potential problems.

Geographical position and lowest safe altitude should be constantly monitored and crosschecked using all available aids . Environmental influences such as bad weather should also be anticipated and a plan of action formulated in case the planned flight path, destination etc. has to be changed. A mental picture of the aircraft’s position should be maintained at all times.

Situational awareness is particularly critical in the departure/approach and landing phases of flight. Many Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) type accidents have occurred due to loss of situational awareness and proximity of terrain. Statistics indicate that this is a high risk area to the Single Pilot. The risk may be increased due to the aircraft being fitted with less sophisticated equipment but lack of planning, “press-on-itus” etc., also aggravate the situation.

Commercial Pressures

In the single-pilot environment commercial pressures may be greater and more personalised. The pilot may be persuaded by the operator who may also be the owner of the business. With no one else to share the burden one may be more prone to accede to such pressures and accept a situation which is against your better judgement. Such pressures may also come from passengers who may be anxious to get to an important meeting or simply want to get home.


Airline pilots are trained to use cockpit resource management (CRM) as a vital decision-making tool. The CRM concept goes beyond just seeking input from crewmembers. All resources at the airline pilot’s command are tapped to help manage the flight with sound decisions.

Single Pilot operations are faced with virtually the same decision-making tasks as are captains of jumbo jets. The only difference is that they’re scaled down in altitude, payload, speed and distance. And even a single pilot in the smallest cockpit can make use of CRM tools to help manage the flight with sound decisions.

Here are several tips on CRM that help define the concept as it applies to the GA cockpit. (Plane & Pilot 2003)

You have a CRM team of FSS specialists and ATC controllers at your beck and call.

These professionals have the resources and have been trained for the task of knowing how to assist your in-flight decision-making.

Don’t wait until a situation of concern turns into a crisis to call for information or advice.

Once you allow an issue to grow into a true emergency, your options are often so limited that assistance from the ground has minimal value. In general, you should put out a call anytime:

  1. Your fuel supply comes into question and you’re uncertain about the exact location of an airport within easy reach
  2. A malfunction of needed equipment arises for which you can’t achieve a ready fix
  3. You become unsure of your position
  4. You feel like you’re “coming down with something” that may impair you (like the flu)
  5. The weather starts to look a bit scary. Certainly call before clouds force you below 2,000 AGL, visibility drops below five miles or it looks like you may be forced to enter an area of precipitation, fly above a ceiling or get caught by darkness in deteriorating weather.

Call upon your CRM when you’re faced with a precautionary landing.

FSS can help you select an appropriate airport. If your concern is a rough engine, for example, you’ll want to land at an airport with adequate repair facilities. If your problem suggests a hazardous landing (such as gear up), you’ll want an airport with fire and rescue equipment. If weather is a problem, FSS or ATC can quickly determine the easiest route to the best airport within your reach… a decision that often can’t be determined on your own. Should a passenger be stricken with a serious medical problem, your ground CRM team can help find the closest airport with a nearby hospital.

If finding the remedy to an in-flight mechanical problem confounds you, call a nearby FBO’s Unicom.

Ask to speak with their mechanic – another CRM team member.

Knowledge is power when making decisions

Stay abreast of the weather surrounding your flightpath, but beyond your range of visibility. Tune in frequently to the ATIS and AWOS/ASOS stations lying ahead and to either side of your route. These automated reports will keep you aware of surface winds, visibilities, cloud coverage and precipitation occurring in the area. Frequencies are displayed on your sectional chart at the station locations. Reception range is about 70 miles for ATIS, 30 miles for AWOS/ASOS.

Keep an extra set of eyes aboard

No matter how hard we try, we simply don’t see all significant traffic. That’s where requested ATC radar traffic advisories come into play as a part of your CRM. There may be times when the controllers’ IFR workload prohibits them from issuing VFR advisories. Time permitting, however, ATC wants to be a part of your flight management and encourages your participation.

If you don’t see the traffic reported by ATC (a common occurrence – don’t feel bad), advise ATC with: “Negative contact.” ATC will then provide progressive reports until you advise: “Have contact.” If you’re still unable to spot the traffic by the time it’s reported three miles, request a clearing vector.

VFR traffic advisories are normally available from ATC Approach Control when you’re within 20 or 30 miles of the airport they serve. En-route traffic advisories are available from ATC Control Center. Approach Control frequencies are displayed on the communications panel of your sectional chart. FSS will provide the ATC Center frequency appropriate to the route segment you’re flying.

By all means, stay in working touch with an instructor you’ve come to know and trust, one who knows you and your flying skills.

The plane and sky is a CFI’s workplace and an experienced instructor knows it well. By knowing your limitations and strengths as a pilot, a good instructor becomes a valuable decision-making resource and advisor to call upon when a proposed flight might test your airmanship. Imagine, for example, a different outcome had JFK, Jr., phoned for an outside opinion and advice before his ill-fated flight.

Professionally-minded pilots use every tool at their command… and cockpit resource management becomes a natural part of their lives aloft.