Martha and John King: Practical Risk Management for Pilots

Martha and John King: Practical Risk Management for Pilots

By AJ Staff

In the last 27 years, Martha and John King, the principals of King Schools, Inc., the world’s leading producer of aviation ground school multimedia interactive training videos and computer software, have taught more than half of all the new private and instrument pilots in the U.S.

Through the school, based in San Diego, the couple has delivered more than five million videos with over eight million hours of video instruction. In addition, they produce Cessna Aircraft Company’s multimedia flight training system for Cessna Pilot Centers, which span the U.S., Europe, Canada and South America. The Kings have once again made headlines in general aviation news, with their video, “Practical Risk Management for Pilots,” released March 2003.

“If you tell any GA pilot, by and large, that aviation is risky and unsafe, they will argue with you,” said John King. “They’ll tell you, ‘That’s not true; it’s safer than driving.’ It’s not that they’re macho; it’s just that the industry has told this big lie for so long that we believe it.”

Insurance companies believe there is a risk. For the first time in GA history, they are now offering a reduction in premiums with a condition—that policyholders take the King course. “Practical Risk Management for Pilots” is now a part of the newly enhanced Safety Rewards Program of insurance giant Avemco, a subsidiary of HCC Insurance Holdings, Inc.

Pilots who send the completion certificate in will be eligible for a five-percent premium credit on their policy. Upon course completion, pilots are eligible to an additional five-percent credit for their recurrency training. The video, at a cost of $49 and available on a two-disc CD-ROM, uses mnemonic techniques and has a tracking device that forces you to complete all of the sections and answer the questions correctly.

Martha and John King are the principals of King Schools, Inc., the world’s leading producer of aviation ground school multimedia interactive training videos and computer software.

Martha and John King are the principals of King Schools, Inc., the world’s leading producer of aviation ground school multimedia interactive training videos and computer software.

“Total savings of up to 10 percent is unique in the GA industry,” said Jim Lauerman, executive vice president and chief underwriting officer for Avemco, who holds ATP, CFI and IFR ratings for single and multiengine aircraft. “We’re very pleased to be a part of this effort. We believe that this course is likely to make a significant contribution to holding down future insurance costs as GA pilots better manage the risks of flight.”

John King said the industry doesn’t have a liability problem; it has an accident problem.

“Our accident rate is unacceptable and must be improved to preserve the future of aviation,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s possible to fly a GA airplane without risk and I think we should not have an Aviation Safety Program; we should have an aviation risk management program.”

He added that the GA industry has been focusing on the wrong thing.

“It focuses on the absence of risk, and there’s no such thing as the absence of risk,” he said.

Eighty-five percent of all GA accidents are due to pilot error, or what he refers to as “failure in risk management.”

Statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board show the accident rate for scheduled Part 135 operators increased from 1.251 per 100,000 departures in 2001 to 1.575 in 2002. The number of GA accidents decreased slightly from 1,726 in 2001 to 1,714 in 2002. GA fatal accidents increased in 2002 to 343 compared with 325 in 2001; there were 576 fatalities in 2002. Despite reporting fewer accidents in 2002, the accident rate for GA aircraft increased from 6.28 per 100,000 flight hours in 2001 to 6.56 in 2002.

The number of GA accidents and fatalities in the last decade are staggering; there were 44,068 accidents, 8,387 fatal accidents and 15,321 people died. These figures don’t include Part 135 certificates.

King said that the expression, “driving to the airport is the most dangerous part of the trip,” is statistically untrue.

“It comes as a surprise to many pilots that our fatal accident rate per mile is seven times that of automobiles and 49 times that of the airlines,” he said. “Our fatal accident rate is on par with that of motorcycles. Sadly, these are not just statistics; these are people, husbands, wives and children.”

Due to turbine equipment, flying standardized routes and having more than one pilot on aircraft and dispatchers to help them, the airlines, says King, have a phenomenal safety record. He adds that a Cessna or Bonanza doesn’t have the same kind of guarantees that come with a transport category aircraft.

The “lie” of safe flying originated from before World War II, King said.

“I think it came from barnstormers who wanted people to fly with them in an airplane held together with bailing wire,” he said. “They’d tell their customers, like all hucksters would, that it was perfectly safe. At every stage in the game, we as an industry have tried to convince people that aviation’s safe.”

The Kings, who hold every class of pilot ratings as well as every flight and ground instructor rating offered by the Federal Aviation Administration, also work with the FAA’s National Aviation Safety Program in producing safety videos.

The Kings, passionate about changing the “culture” of aviation, said if flight schools wrote a tougher syllabus, one that exceeded the FAA’s minimum requirements, it would force instructors to teach “real risk management.”

“This would force instructors to make a decision of whether or not to advance a student,” Martha King said. “It has to be based on more than the practical, written or physical ability to handle aircraft.”

Many instructors or flight schools claim they teach risk management, she says, adding that if that were true, the accident rate wouldn’t increase to nearly 50 percent when students leave the supervision of their instructors.

“Instructors tend to be focused on physical skills and the navigation of flying,” she said. “They’re not asking the ‘what-if questions.’ They’re focusing on tactics—the immediate physical control of the airplane—not strategy. For example, strategy is, ‘What if your GPS quit?’ People think of risk management as attitude, but it’s not just attitude.”

For example, she says, instructors need to fly students in low visibility. She said that doesn’t mean encouraging them to fly in low visibility, but actually having students “see” low visibility.

“They need to learn how to judge when the visibility is low and how low is too low,” she said.

The Kings would also like instructors to teach in-flight scenarios that would force the student to think about the “what ifs,” instead of discussing risk management on the ground, while sitting in comfortable chairs drinking coffee, which has no emotional impact for the student.

One scenario would be that of a student flying to airport A, who while en route, might encounter problems such as running low on fuel, or the weather changing, causing the need for immediate changes.

“You want the student to consistently end up at a different airport than they originally planned to land at,” she added. “Too many pilots end up in situations where they can’t handle real reality changes that require spring-loaded thinking on the spot. If students were constantly diverting routes and constantly having to be anticipatory of risk management while flying, they would internalize it with an emotional connection.”

At issue is how to make an evaluation about what is an acceptable or an unacceptable risk.

“Today, for example, if you don’t land in a crosswind that exceeds the crosswind component of your airplane, someone will say, ‘Well, you could have done that; you were stupid for not doing it,'” John King said. “I want them to say, ‘Tell me how you justified landing when the crosswind was that bad.'”

King says that instead of encouraging pilots to take a risk, they need to be asked, “Why would you ever take that risk?”

Being goal-oriented, as most pilots are, is a trait that works against them, blinding them to the real risk of flying, King said, adding that the risk of flying involves parts played by the pilot, the aircraft and the environment. The external pressures, he said, are some of the most insidious factors of them all.

“One of the external pressures, for example, is GA pilots’ desire to prove that they’re skilled and that the airplane has utility, and to show everyone, finally, that they’re not such a damn fool for learning to fly,” he said. “They’re justifying the cost, the money they spent for lessons and money they paid to own and maintain a plane.”

If pilots can’t get utility out of their plane, he said, they can’t justify flying it.

Martha and John King, principals of King Schools, Inc., in front of their Falcon 10.

Martha and John King, principals of King Schools, Inc., in front of their Falcon 10.

“Everyone talks about ‘get-home-itis,’ but I don’t think that explains why pilots continue to fly VFR into worsening weather conditions,” he said. “I think what explains it more adequately is that we’re goal-oriented; we went through extensive training, which required a great deal of commitment.”

Certain goals, said King, are completely arbitrary. He gives the example of a pilot who decides to make Wichita a fuel stop.

“From that point on, Wichita becomes the goal, and come hell or high water, we’re going to Wichita, because we don’t like to give up goals,” he said. He adds that the antidote to that way of thinking is changing the culture of aviation, where you don’t feel like a “wimp” for choosing a smarter alternative.

“In recent decades, we’ve undergone several culture changes,” he said. “We no longer tolerate drunk driving, seat belts are required, smoking in public places is against the law in most states, and we’ve changed our attitude toward integration and civil rights. All of these things are dramatic culture changes. We have to change our culture and attitude about aviation; insurance companies and the rest of society will no longer accept the accident rates that we’ve historically had in GA.”

The King’s 18,000-square-foot complex, owned free and clear by the company, is a self-contained production company with state-of-the-art equipment, a dedicated television studio and several editing bays; 200 duplication machines turn out over 320,000 videos every year. The facility also has an accessory, warehouse, shipping and order department onsite.

Out of the 80 people they employ, most are pilots or flight instructors; customers can talk to their pilot advisory staff 14 hours a day.

“We’ve come a long way and we appreciate all of the hardworking people that we have on our team,” Martha King said.

The company, which, as well as their other endeavors, has produced, edited and completed final projects for ESPN and other television networks, grossed 12 million dollars in sales last year. A main source of income is derived from Cessna’s Takeoff Kit, a complete learn-to-fly system, which is an interactive multimedia program.

“By the time a student is actually sitting in the left seat of a real cockpit, they’ll be fully prepped and free to concentrate on flying,” she said. “This technology is first rate and the computer quizzes students, which lets them know right away if they’ve understood a new concept.”

Using Cessna’s program in tandem with King training videos, which includes nine DVDs, allows a student to get their “private ticket in record time” she said. The material includes an exam course, highlighting every question and answer used by the FAA. In addition, a King course book with detailed notes are included with three practice exams; this information is a “dry run” of the sign-off form used for the FAA’s Knowledge Test.

“Our videos have an instructor and an actual FAA examiner, who show the student exactly how to demonstrate his or her knowledge and how to perform every aerial maneuver flawlessly,” she said. “This gives the student an inside edge; they’ll know what to expect from the oral to each maneuver. There are no surprises.”

Martha King’s motto of “clarify, simplify and make it fun” has been the driving force behind the company’s creations.

“As important as technology can be, it can never take the place of inspired course content,” she said. “We provide logical organization, a clear and concise format, evocative examples with a lot of humor, and vivid learning and graphic techniques with exciting live-action in-flight videos, which places the student inside of the cockpit and into the air.”

Much of the Hollywood panache seen on a King video is credited to David Jackson, president, who is the former producer of ABC’s “Wide World of Flying.” The Kings depend heavily on Jackson for his expertise and production knowledge.

In addition to providing top-notch training, the Kings give away a new “first class” Cessna 172-Skyhawk SP every two years to students through an in-house sweepstakes program in conjunction with the Cessna Company. They also set funds aside for the Civil Air Patrol and volunteer their time talking to high school and college students about how to start a small business.

They actively fly their Falcon jet around the country making national TV appearances as aviation experts and recently, CNN’s “Business Unusual,” featured the couple demonstrating their flying expertise.

In addition, the couple will often fly the Fujifilm blimp, for which they serve as back-up pilots. Taking turns as captain and co-captain, they have flown the blimp over the Kentucky Derby, Davis Cup, Super Bowl, U.S. Open Tennis Tournament and the EAA AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, which received national television coverage on the Fox, ESPN, CBS and USA networks.

“The Fujifilm blimp is very much like an ocean-going ship; it’s large, stately and is a mental exercise on flying because the controls aren’t terribly effective,” she said.

Martha King, appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the first Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board to help promote celebrations of the 100th anniversary of flight, also hosts the presentation for the “getting started” wizard on Microsoft’s new flight simulator 2002 program.

Building An Empire Fit For Kings

The Kings met at Indiana University, where each earned a bachelor of art’s degree. They married in 1965, when Martha was 19 and John was 20.

The couple soon started a lubrication and oil-changing business together. However, they both actively disliked the business, so they sold it and purchased a Cherokee 140 with their profits. Martha said her first airplane ride was at her husband’s urging.

“John’s friend took us up in his Piper Pacer,” she said. “It was a miserable winter, and I sat in the backseat. It was uncomfortable, noisy, bouncy and I didn’t like it at all.”

Despite her aversion to flying, in 1969, they both took flying lessons, and within two months acquired private certificates.

“The first time I realized that I liked flying was during my solo flight, which was a cross-country flight,” she said.

In 1970, after a two-month hiatus from work, they started an oil and lubrication franchise business. They also continued to earn more pilot ratings, and made San Diego their home.

They soon had over 40 franchises, but, young and lacking business savvy, the couple focused “more on being a big-time operation and becoming nationwide, instead of focusing on how to make and keep money,” said Martha King.

“We stuck our necks out too far,” she said. “When the energy crises hit in 1974, we went broke.”

The Kings knew that aviation was their passion, but until they could start an aviation related business of their own, they went to work as flight instructors in Oklahoma; without warning, the company went out of business. In 1975, they founded King Schools and started a two-day weekend ground course, which they conducted while traveling to various cities.

They found that because there were several cities within a rural area that had populations spreading over larger geographical areas, it gave them a niche in the market.

“These areas provided favorable flying conditions, however, the population wasn’t dense enough to support flight or ground schools, so they would come to us,” she said. “We realized that if people could take our class in two days and pass their FAA exams, we were providing a valuable service. Not only did we find our business niche, we found that our hearts were into this business.”

After that, they converted a bedroom in their house into an editing bay and began videotaping their classes. In 1988, with King Schools solvent, they started duplicating, warehousing and shipping their own videos.

Martha King said they formed the company because they enjoyed aviation and people, adding that the ideal situation is when “you’re making a living out of something you have fun doing.”

“If you have your heart into your work, the money will follow,” she said. “The most important and valuable thing you can have is a passion for something; it doesn’t matter what you have a passion for, as long as you have something that really excites you and makes life interesting.”

She adds that they take what they do “seriously,” and, after 27 years, still enjoy meeting new students.

“We follow them through their training and their lives, which we are very grateful to be a part of,” she said.

For more information on King Schools, Inc., call 800-854-1001 or visit []. For more information on Avemco’s Safety Rewards Program, visit []