Airmanship model

Tony Kern presented his model of airmanship in 19962 as a framework for clarifying the skills and attributes that constitute airmanship. Kern defines airmanship as based on three broad levels: principles, knowledge, and outcomes. These can be further divided into smaller sub-topics. In this article, we will examine those sub-topics, and discuss their contribution to aviation safety. In most cases we will do so by referring to past occurrences.

(Image embedded from Airline Command on 22 December 2009)

The airmanship model resembles the Parthenon, the famous Greek temple (although any modern construction will also suffix as a representation). By using the Parthenon, Kern represents airmanship as based on a solid foundation of discipline, skill and proficiency, from where five pillars of knowledge rise -knowledge of oneself, the aircraft, the team, the environment and the risks- to support the ultimate and more visible outcomes of situational awareness and judgment while operating the aircraft.

The Bedrock Principles


In aviation, rules and regulations represent an aggregate of operational wisdom, and operating outside of them may prove a dangerous bet. Flight discipline is, thus, the ability to adhere to these rules in the operation of an aircraft (Kern, 19962).

Aviation accident reports are littered with tales of pilots ignoring rules or not obeying operating procedures. But if there is one good example of the destructive potential that lack of flight discipline has, it is the case of Lieutenant-Colonel Bud Holland of the United States Air Force. In the period between 1991 and 1994, Holland had repeatedly and deliberately exceeded the operating limitations of the B-52 with regards bank and pitch angles. On one occasion, the forceful intervention of a co-pilot averted certain disaster when Holland was performing an extremely low level flyover of a ridge during a photography session. Yet these violations were not effectively discouraged by senior Air Force personnel. Holland’s reputation had become such that many Air Force pilots refused to fly with him. More worryingly, there were others who had chosen to emulate his actions (Kern, 19993). All it came to a sudden conclusion on June 24th 1994, when Holland, commanding a B-52 Bomber during an airshow practice, crashed the aircraft into the ground. Such was the predictability of the outcome of Holland’s behaviour that one of his colleagues anonymously stated that “you could see it, hear it, feel it, and smell it coming. We were all just trying to be somewhere else when it happened” (Kern, 1996, p. 362).

While Holland may have excelled in traditional piloting skills - those ‘stick and rudder’ handling skills -, his judgment for the deployment of these skills was wanting. In this case the very first bedrock principle of the airmanship model - discipline - was weak.


Skills can be thought of as the tools of a pilot’s trade, skills such as the ability to hold an altitude or heading accurately, the ability to handle an aircraft in a gusty crosswind, or the ability to recall checklists and emergency procedures.

A private pilot’s licence test largely determines whether the applicant has acquired a particular set of basic skills or not. They must demonstrate their skills at manoeuvres such as climbing and descending, turning, and holding altitudes and headings accurately. Recognition and recovery from unusual situations, such as stalls and spiral dives, are also tested to ensure that the applicant has the basic ‘tools’ to keep themselves and their passengers safe (CAA-NZ, 20071). This, however, is just the start. The PPL is often referred to as a ‘licence to learn’ and, indeed, it simply represents achievement of the most basic levels of piloting skill: that of being able to operate an aircraft safely. The acquisition of skill should continue throughout a pilot’s career, as a continuous process (Kern, 19962).


If skills are tools, proficiency is the keeping of those tools in good condition. Proficiency ensures that whenever the ‘tool’ is required it will be able to be used as intended.

A pilot exercising good judgment will never intentionally get into a situation where his skill is pushed to the limit. Occasions will arise, however, where despite the best planning and the best application of judgment, the unexpected happens. In these occasions a pilot must apply the skills that he possesses at the proficiency level he has developed them. The possession of high levels of skill and proficiency could well mean the difference between ending with a successful outcome and becoming another statistic. With good judgment, experience and lots of luck, a pilot’s skill will never be truly tested. But if either the judgment, experience or luck runs out, it is skill and proficiency that will make the difference to the outcome.

The Pillars of Knowledge

The pillars of knowledge stand on top of the bedrock principles, and are necessary to support the capstone outcomes. The model suggests that these pillars of knowledge are of equal importance to the outcomes and thus have an equal role to play.

Knowledge of Self

Most student pilots around the world are introduced to the ‘IMSAFE’ model at a very early stage of their training. It serves as a useful method for pilots to assess their current physical and emotional condition, and it has been recognized as an effective tool in reducing aviation accidents (Stripe, Best, Cole-Harding, Fifield & Talebdoost, 20064). The model serves to bring to the pilot’s attention factors which may affect his ability to safely operate the aircraft:

  • Illness - Do I have any symptoms?
  • Medication - Have I been taking prescription or over-the counter drugs?
  • Stress - Am I under psychological pressure from the job? Do I have money, health, or family problems?
  • Alcohol - Have I been drinking within 8 hours? Within 24 hours?
  • Fatigue - Am I tired and not adequately rested?
  • Eating - Have I eaten enough of the proper foods to keep adequately nourished during the entire flight?

Knowledge of the Aircraft

General Charles “Chuck” Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than the speed of sound in level flight, strongly advocates pilots having an in-depth knowledge of the aircraft that they are flying: “You've got to understand systems. Even in today's airplanes, you have to understand systems. The better you understand them, the better off you are in case an emergency arises” (Interview: Chuck, 1991).

The crash of British Midlands Flight 092, a 737-400, is often quoted as an example of how unfamiliarity with an aircraft’s systems can have dire consequences. During the flight the crew became aware of a smell of smoke and an engine vibration. The cabin crew had also observed flames coming from the left engine. The first officer also said that he monitored the engine instruments and, when asked by the commander which engine was causing the trouble, he said ‘IT'S THE LE … IT'S THE RIGHT ONE.’, to which the commander responded by saying ‘OKAY, THROTTLE IT BACK’ (“Aircraft Accident”, 1990). In making the decision which engine to shut down, the crew disregarded the input of the vibration monitoring instruments. This was due to the pilots’ belief that the monitoring system was unreliable, as indeed was the case on many aircraft. However, the unreliability of vibration monitoring was an issue that had been addressed in the development of the 747-300, and on this -400 aircraft the vibration monitors were considered reliable. Throttling back the functioning right engine did have the effect of removing both the vibration and the smell of smoke, which further convinced the crew that they had taken the correct action. In reality, they had shut down their only functioning engine, which had the side-effect of masking the symptoms from the failing left engine (“Aircraft Accident”, 1990). The aircraft crashed just short of the runway after the left engine finally failed completely and efforts to restart the right engine were unsuccessful. 47 passengers were killed, and a further 74 people received serious injuries in the crash.

Knowledge of the Team

One of the most often quoted aviation incidents is that of United 232, a DC-10 which suffered complete hydraulic failure, causing loss of aileron and elevator control. Despite this, the crew were able to fly the aircraft to an airport, and very nearly succeeded in landing successfully. On touchdown the right wing clipped the runway, and the aircraft broke up. However, 185 people survived the accident, which is remarkable given the total lack of control the crew were faced with.

The likelihood of totally hydraulic loss had been calculated as being so remote that no contingency plan existed. As such, the crew were left with very little in the way of resources to deal with the situation. Captain Al Haynes, the pilot in command of United 232, has often spoken about the events of that day, and attributed the fact that they were able to land the aircraft partly successfully to the fact that they were working together as a team. Augmenting this effort was a DC-10 instructor pilot that happened to be travelling as a passenger on the flight.

We had 103 years of flying experience there in the cockpit, trying to get that airplane on the ground, not one minute of which we had actually practiced – any one of us. So why would I know more about getting that airplane on the ground under those conditions than the other three? So if I hadn't used CLR [Command Leadership Resource Training], if we had not let everybody put their input in, it's a cinch we wouldn't have made it (Haynes, 1991).

Knowledge of the Environment

According to Kern (19962), the Environment in the context of aviation can be further broken down into three smaller subheadings, which themselves can be further divided:

  • The Physical Environment
  • The Regulatory Environment
  • The Organizational Environment

As an example of how a lack of understanding of physical factors caused the crash of a Boeing 707 on Mt. Fuji in Japan, let us examine the case of BOAC Flight 911. After departing from Tokyo International Airport just before 2 p.m. on the afternoon of March 4th, 1966, the wide-body Boeing was performing a visual departure via Mt. Fuji, a route that had been requested, possibly to give the passengers a better view of the mountain as they departed for Hong Kong ("Accident Description", n.d.).
However, on the downwind side of Mt Fuji, the aircraft encountered turbulence severe enough to cause the aircraft to lose control and break up, causing the deaths of all 124 passengers and crew. What the pilots had failed to recognize was the presence of mountain waves: a phenomena that can occur on the downwind side of a mountain or range of hills with certain wind velocities. The tell-tale sign of mountain waves is the formation of lenticular cloud – this was visible in satellite photos taken shortly before the crash, but had not been recognized by the crew. However, lenticular clouds will not always form when mountain waves are present: the key is to consider the direction and speed of wind flow and the likely position of any turbulence.

Knowledge of Risk

The act of boarding an aircraft and taking to the skies carries with it an inherent degree of risk. Indeed, even in going through our daily lives, we routinely take risks. If you took no risk, you would most likely spend your entire life at home. Simply stated, risk is required to get things done (Kern, 1996, p. 199).

What is called for is a reasonable balance between the risks of getting something done, and the benefit. Is there an alternative that will make the task safer, yet not unduly disrupt the task? An appreciation of risk involves thinking of “what if” scenarios, and minimizing the damage that could occur if such a scenario occurred. It’s the reason that we buckle our seatbelts, or look both ways before crossing the road.

Consider the case of John F. Kennedy Jr, who died along with his wife and sister-in-law when the aircraft that he was piloting crashed into the sea en-route to Martha’s Vineyard. The flight was conducted at night, and over a large body of water. The pilot did not hold an instrument rating, and was relatively inexperienced. At the time of the accident, the aircraft was descending towards the ground out of control at a rate of 4,700 feet per minute. The probable cause determined by the NTSB was “the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation” (“Accident report”, 2000). Crossing large bodies of water at night in single-engine airplanes could be potentially hazardous, not only from the standpoint of landing (ditching) in the water, but also because with little or no lighting the horizon blends with the water, in which case, depth perception and orientation become difficult. During poor visibility conditions over water, the horizon will become obscure, and may result in a loss of orientation. Even on clear nights, the stars may be reflected on the water surface, which could appear as a continuous array of lights, thus making the horizon difficult to identify ("FAA airplane", 2004, p. 10-6). Given this, let us examine the track of the airplane taken from Essex County Airport towards Martha’s Vineyard. The aircraft made a more-or-less direct track towards its destination, which resulted in travelling a long way offshore, at night, with questionable visual references.

Examining this in hindsight suggests that a less risky course of action would have been to track along the coast and then turn towards Martha’s Vineyard once past Rhode Island. This would have kept the aircraft within gliding distance of the shore should an engine failure occur, and for the majority of the trip would have provided a clear visual reference (the coast line) providing a better aid to orientation. For the short over-water leg that would be required, the risk could have been minimized by gaining as much altitude as possible prior to crossing the water, thus providing the greatest gliding distance should an engine failure occur. Flying at altitude also gives more time to troubleshoot and attempt to regain control if required, as well as minimising the risk of collision with terrain.

The Capstone Outcomes

The capstone outcomes are built on the bedrock principles and are supported by the pillars of knowledge. As such, the model suggests that all supporting structures must be in place before being able to exercise judgement or gain situational awareness.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is “the accurate perception of what is going on with you - and your crew, wingman, lead, student, instructor, etc -, the aircraft and the surrounding world, both now and in the near future” (Kern, 1996, p. 2332). As such, it is apparent that loss of situational awareness is a major contributor to aviation accidents as it covers such a wide range of scenarios: fuel starvation, controlled flight into terrain, continued VFR flight into IMC conditions, spatial and geographical disorientation… Situational Awareness is the primary resource available to the next capstone outcome: judgment.


Judgement sits at the pinnacle of the Airmanship model. As with Situational Awareness, it is wholly dependent on the layers beneath it in order to function correctly. With the importance of good decision-making to aviation, volumes has been written on the subject, and a very succinct summary has been made by a NASA-Ames Research Centre psychologist, Judith Orasanu, whose method has been discussed by Kern (19962).

The first objective that must be achieved is gaining a solid understanding of exactly what the problem is, using the model shown below:

  • Step One: What is the nature of the problem? Answering this question accurately will call upon the aviator’s Situational Awareness, but more specifically the Pillars of Knowledge applicable to the problem at hand. For example, a pilot flying at night whose aircraft suddenly develops a rough running engine will very quickly be calling upon his knowledge of the aircraft, environment and resources available in order to avoid disaster.
  • Step Two: How much time do I have to work the problem? Some problems require immediate action: an onboard fire for example, while others may be restricted only by the amount of fuel or daylight available. It is timely to mention the tendency for pilots that are troubleshooting a problem to neglect to perform the most basic of duties: flying the aircraft. It may well be that the undercarriage light that isn’t indicating seems the most urgent of issues: however, letting Situational Awareness slip and neglecting to fly the aircraft can let a much more dangerous situation take him unawares, such as Controlled Flight Into Terrain.
  • Step Three: What are the risks associated with this problem? Again calling on the pilot’s Situational Awareness and knowledge, an assessment must be made of the potential outcome: ranging from mild embarrassment to life-threatening (Kern, 19962).

Having assessed the situation, the next objective is to create options, and then decide which to pursue. This creation of options calls upon the Airmanship Model: a better knowledge of the environment, the team, the aircraft etc. will provide a better, more thorough basis for sound decision-making.

However, Kern lists several potential pitfalls regarding decision-making, including the following:

  • Strength of an Idea: If the person suggesting a solution is seen as more experienced, or the problem is extremely time-limited, a solution is more likely to be accepted even if it is wrong. Sometimes known as ‘Captain-itis’
  • Seeking a perfect solution: There may not be a solution available that satisfies every requirement. Rather than seeking perfection, emphasis should be on the ‘best possible solution’.
  • Hidden Agendas: Is judgement being clouded by another agenda: the desire to arrive at the planned destination rather than divert, for example?


So what is Airmanship? As a summary of the model, it could be said that a pilot with good Airmanship has a solid skill-set to call upon: both routine procedures and emergency actions. These skills are well practiced and have been recently revised. They have the discipline to operate within the limits of the aircraft and of the rules, but will have their own more rigorous standards that they strive for. This discipline extends almost to a pedantic level – if an instruction was given to fly at 3,500’, then a pilot with good airmanship will not accept that flying at 3,480’ is ‘close enough’.

The pilot with good Airmanship knows his aircraft well: both its limitations and capabilities, and uses this knowledge to assist in his decision making. They are well studied in meteorology, knowledge of airspace requirements and regulatory limitations. They have an objective and accurate view of their own limitations and capabilities, and those of the team around him, and apply this knowledge conservatively. Airmanship dictates that a pilot does not take unnecessary risks, and will actively seek methods of removing risk where possible. A pilot with good Airmanship is aware of what is going on around him in all respects: the environment, the aircraft, the team and himself. He possesses a clear idea of potential hazards, and has given thought to ‘what-if’ scenarios. Finally, he takes into account all of the factors listed above when making decisions.

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