Why EASA is right to fight the question banks

The past practice of trainee pilots relying on EASA question banks is a situation that’s far from healthy. Graham Cownie, Managing Director, Padpilot, explains why EASA has recently undertaken a major overhaul of its exam question database and what this means for trainee pilots.

In the past, the vast majority of would-be pilots relied on question banks to prepare for their ATPL exams, leading to a situation where students could practise using exam questions that would later appear on their final exam papers, aided by instructors who put a lot of time into guessing which questions were most likely to come up. Graham Cownie, MD at Padpilot says, “Few would argue that it was a healthy situation.”

EASA’s recent changes will change that altogether, Graham explains. “Question banks can no longer be fully up-to-date, as EASA threatens to sue any provider found to have copied the new questions. That’s not to say question banks will become obsolete; understanding the general format and tone of EASA’s questions – as well as broadly what they’re looking for – is important for developing good exam technique. But if you’re simply regurgitating information in an exam, how do you expect to perform in a technical interview – let alone a cockpit?”

“Training prepares pilots for circumstances that can be predicted, but understanding allows pilots to think creatively”

A broader issue, Graham says, lies in the current conflict between knowledge and understanding, driven by an over-emphasis within the industry on ‘training,’ what Graham sees as the tendency to encourage pilots to exhibit certain skills and abilities, without guaranteeing an ability to react to unforeseen events. According to Graham, that ability is the most important. “Passengers pay pilots to fly safely, but above all they pay for a pilot’s ability to deal with dire circumstances intelligently and appropriately,” he says. “Training can only prepare pilots for circumstances that can be predicted, but understanding will allow pilots to think creatively and rationally in the face of something entirely unpredictable.”

Graham acknowledges that the industry has to take a share of the blame. “We’ve allowed ourselves to teach knowledge without acknowledging the need to ask, ‘So what?’ We’ve created an artificial dichotomy between theory and practical training, when in reality theory is practical and all practical skill is based on theory. Providing a compelling answer to the ‘So what?’ question is what makes theory relevant and interesting, not just a hurdle to jump over.”

Graham also adds the need to learn from pilot action in previous accidents.” Consider the tragedy of Air France Flight 447,” he suggests. “Despite more than fifty cockpit warnings the pilots failed to recognise that they were in a swept-wing stall at 38,000ft. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the pilots had received no theoretical training in swept-wing stalls since their basic training. Secondly, all of their early practical training had focused on straight-wing stalls. The result is a poignant example of how understanding could have saved those 228 lives from a situation where training alone could not.”

A counter example, Graham adds, is Qantas Flight 32. “An explosion in engine 2 damaged the wing and caused multiple systems to fail. There are no drills for such extensive system failure; no set course of action to take. Dealing with a catastrophic event such as this requires careful prioritisation and a firm understanding of how faults combine. Thankfully the crew were able intelligently to apply their theoretical understanding, balancing the effects of each system failure and thereby averting a tragic loss of life.”

“There are no shortcuts to a career in commercial aviation – it’s not easy and it takes time.”

Using these examples and others, Graham argues that the aviation industry is lagging behind the modern understanding of teaching. “In effect, question banks are both a symptom and a cause. The good news is that by cutting them off at the source, EASA is forcing training providers to redress the balance between knowledge and understanding.”

“In that respect, aspiring pilots also have work to do,” Graham concludes. “There are no shortcuts to a career in commercial aviation – it’s not easy and it takes time. Focus on your understanding, be patient, ask yourself – and even your instructor – the’So what?’ question. Sound theoretical understanding is the difference between good pilots and brilliant ones – which do you want to be?”