“Priming” Enables “Performance!”

During any emergency, luck certainly plays a role in every outcome, but pilot action is often the critical component. Being alert and vigilant – having prebriefed the possible failure modes – enables successful performance in an emergency by preventing panic. Psychologists call this “priming,” a mental rehearsal and posture of expectation, so that “startle” does not incapacitate us.  Considering all the possible outcomes *before* beginning the flight helps ensure a correct and rapid response. And on every dual flight, we have two critical responsibilities. We are both the educator, but also to varying degrees, in charge of safety and survival. We need to be ready to handle the surprises illustrated below; game on!

Here are two very similar accidents that highlight how essential CFI vigilance and proper action can be when an emergency occurs. Some details are unknown and I am not judging here. Please take a look and click on each to dig into the NTSB details. When things go bad, we will be put to the test. Being ready – primed and vigilant – usually determines the critical difference in the outcome.

“Priming” is the reason we do pre-takeoff briefings, it is the stoic attitude that assumes “things *will* go wrong. A pre-planned, fluid response should be briefed and ready to go (Code Yellow). Surprise and panic will cause startle and inappropriate action since our genetically programmed response seems to be to “pull away from the ground.” When power fails we need to be spring-loaded to “unload” (the “big push”) and keep the wings flying. Whatever we have available to us after that is better than spinning in out of control.

The fatal accident here was dual and it is entirely possible that the fairly experienced female CFI was overpowered by a panicking client (the size disparity is not clear from the documentation). Briefing emergencies (and priming) with the learner helps prevent panic in an emergency (as does a trusting relationship). But if survival becomes a “fight on the controls,” in an emergency, the CFI has to do whatever is necessary to regain control. A trick available to CFIs in most trainers is to use your foot (and the greater power of your leg) on the crossbar under the panel to force the yoke forward. I have twice overpowered a panicking student over-rotating the pitch (in a Cessna) by easing down the nose forcibly with my foot. When “discussion” fails, positive action is required. It is wise to practice this “CFI trick” and be ready.

SAFE is reviewing all accidents presented in the General Aviation News and offering suggestions to enable safer flying. (Subscribe here). Wishing you all happier flying than this! Get out on these beautiful spring days and enjoy some relief from the pandemic and winter weather – before the heat hits down south! See you at AirVenture in July; fly safely (and often)!


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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