Truly Good Briefings

Briefing and Debriefing—the Second Principle of Automation Airmanship®—may be the most undervalued influence in today’s modern cockpit. This blog post looks at how pilots at any level of experience can significantly improve outcomes by re-examining this often overlooked and all too frequently overdone airmanship tool.

Any cockpit crewmember with even just a few hundred hours of flight time can speak with authority on how flight briefings often contain too much of the “wrong” information and not enough of the “right” information. In some organizations, this has become so commonplace that the preflight, departure, or arrival briefings are viewed mainly as a list-like, rote memory exercise that enumerates organizational SOPs and routine threats that are generally always present and already known (so what’s the use?).

Indeed, the “required briefing items” that comprise many preflight and inflight briefings are often “written in blood”—but surely this critical flight crew duty could be vastly improved at just about every contemporary flight operation. A truly good briefing accomplishes so much more than we think. Updating what we understand about briefings and in turn how we give (and get) them can add significantly to our safety margins.

There is no “one size fits all briefing.” The fact is, situations are unique, conditions change, the experience of members of the team often varies, available time can be short or long, and the real world is likely to intervene, presenting new variables in a situation that you expected to be stable. In light of these facts, the best test of any briefing is to ask yourself: “Does my briefing make their job easier to do, or harder?”

There’s a lot of science on leadership and teamwork, but not much on the role that a briefing can play in realizing (or handicapping) a leader’s or a team’s goals. A survey of some of the best available science on briefing—and a lot of our experience in the field—reveals a solid list of what the best briefings often contain. Here is our list of what goes into a truly good briefing:

Truly Good Briefings

  1. Work best when they contain realistic and practical steps towards a reasonably achievable goal.
  2. Do not include rote and already-understood SOPs, procedural steps and norms (we can assume—most of the time—that the people we’re briefing live in the same shared culture with the same common references to “how things work”).
  3. Clearly convey the intent of the briefer.
  4. Capture the attention of those being briefed.
  5. Are delivered in an environment of minimal distractions.
  6. Are always a two-way communication (“I’m not just telling you these things, I want to know what you know about our challenges, and where I might have erred in evaluating the threats we’re facing”).
  7. Allow for adaptation (a reasonable “Plan B” for when “Plan A” runs into trouble).
  8. Make the job of everyone on the team easier to accomplish, and result in outcomes better than would be possible if the situation was preceded by no briefing or a poor briefing.

If we could only accomplish all that we wanted to do by ourselves, without the help of others, we would most certainly be able to do away with briefings. But because the real world is increasingly complex and our resources—at least the way it always appears—are ever more scarce, contemporary flight crews are continually asked to find ways to work together more closely and more smoothly. Often, this depends on how well we perform our briefings.

What we are able to provide in a briefing is only a small portion of what those crewmembers we are briefing have on their mind regarding what the team is about to do. So, what we brief should be important if we expect the person we are briefing to remember what we said, and to act on information or distractions in the way that we want them to.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.


Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1998. Chapter 13: The Power to Read Minds.

Chris Lutat and S. Ryan Swah, Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. McGraw-Hill Education, New York NY. 2013. Chapter 5: The Second Principle: Briefing and Debriefing.

2 thoughts on “Truly Good Briefings”

  1. Several points of briefing content is a mandate and must be briefed. To avoid these rote items being mundane include a special engine out procedure and brief particular duties of each crew member. Briefings should always be dynamic and to the point as the author mentioned.

  2. All valid points but in my opinion the most critical item is not in that list. To identify potential (hidden) threats in that particular procedure and how you will manage it. Discussing “what if” scenario’s.


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