Aeronautical Decision Making and Risk Management

In most cases teaching someone the skills to fly an airplane is pretty straight forward.  I have heard instructors say, “With enough bananas I can teach anybody to fly.” What’s difficult is teaching people how to think in an aviation environment. The FAA calls it aeronautical decision making and risk management.

NTSB statistics tell us that 80% of all accidents are due to pilot error and most of those are due to poor decision making not an inability to fly the airplane. Why is that? A big part of the problem is that pilots are generally goal oriented, high achievers and getting them to deny themselves something they think they should be able to do is a tough trick to pull off. As long as the decision making process is informal,pilots can fall into the trap of thinking “it’s not that bad” and start or continue a flight when they should be in the bar or looking for the next available runway. Conversely, if you apply an organized decision making process to objectively evaluate the risks of a flight you can make a go/no-go decision that depersonalizes the decision so you can accept the fact that a flight is ill advised without hurting your ego and not feel bad abouttelling your passengers it’s time to drive.

What are the factors you need to consider? The FAA suggests four areas to evaluate: 1) the pilot, 2) the airplane, 3) the environment and 4) the external pressures.

When you evaluate yourself as the pilot of the flight it’s not are you a good pilot or a bad pilot but, rather, are you really up to speed for this flight? Do you have the required currency and are you really proficient for the flight you want to make?FAA legal does not necessarily mean really capable. You have to have had 3 landings in the last 90 days to carry passengers but if those 3 landings were two months ago at Palomar and you’re thinking about going to Big Bear you might want to go up the day before by yourself and get some proficiency.  Are you healthy? Medicating? Hung over? Tired after an eight hour work day?

Is the airplane suitable for the trip you have in mind? Taking 4 people in a Cessna 172 or a Piper Cherokee into Mammoth mid-day in July might not be a big problem but getting out of there could be a real thrill. If you’re flying IFR, are the instruments appropriate for the navigation you plan? Can you fly that airplane into known icing? Do you really want to fly to Catalina without life vests?

What’s the weather and what are your personal minimums? You should establish personal minimums for VFR and IFR flights when you don’t have a particular trip in mind and remember that flying in your local area is a lot different than flying into a strange field on a long cross-country flight. Trying to find an unfamiliar airport when you’re staring at near empty fuel gauges in marginal VFR is a great way to turn your hair gray and convince people they never want to fly with you again.

External pressures are the hardest to define and yet they are probably what most influence pilots to make bad decisions. If you’re planning to be home for Christmas you should have a backup plan with the airlines just in case the weather is not good. And remember, even the airlines cancel flights for bad weather or problems with equipment. That means you can, too.

If there’s a red flag in any of these four areas it’s usually obvious you need to cancel the flight. What’s more difficult is convincing yourselfthat if there are yellow flags in two or more areas it’s time to drive or use the airlines.

Darwin’s law of evolution is particularly strong in aviation. Pilots that make poor decisions will not be around long. Don’t disappoint your friends and family.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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