A Safety Management System (SMS)—the risk assessment and dispatch process for each flight—represents a critical aspect of commercial or corporate flight operations. A series of factors must be considered through an independent evaluation system that lets pilots and supervisors know if a particular flight is riskier than others. One of the great values of these systems is that they use objective parameters to determine the risk, which in turn depersonalizes the decision to fly or stay on the ground. I’m not suggesting you conduct your personal flight operations like an airline. On the other hand, I’m not above stealing a good idea from people who fly professionally. An organized risk-evaluation system that uses objective rather than subjective information is useful for anyone considering a flight.
There are several free risk-evaluation applications currently available through the (Apple) App Store, but they seem to be oriented to corporate or commercial operations as they request information about the captain and first officer and ask if you are carrying passengers or repositioning, and the like. However, AOPA has a nice Flight Risk Evaluator program as an interactive course in the Air Safety Institute (ASI) section of their website that targets VFR and IFR general aviation, personal flights (Part 91). You’ll find the evaluator is user friendly. All these flight-risk-assessment tools essentially use quantitative information about the Pilot, the Aircraft, the enVironment, and the External pressures—the mission particulars—to help make you aware of any unusual risks for that flight. It’s the FAA’s PAVE checklist in digital format.
To get to the AOPA Flight Risk Evaluator, go to the AOPA home page, put your cursor over the “Training and Safety” tab and click on the ”Air Safety Institute” tab to get a new page. On the new page click on “Interactive Courses” on the left sidebar and that will take you to the course menu page. Finally, you want to select the “Use this Application” link under the Flight Risk Evaluator course. Once you’re into the application you can bookmark the URL so you don’t have to go through this drill every time you want to use the tool. I asked, and found that AOPA is looking to develop this tool as an application on iTunes.
There are actually two ways to use the AOPA tool: a “Quick Check” and a “Detailed Evaluation.” I experimented with both. After I had done my normal flight planning, it took me less than ten minutes to use the detailed evaluation tool to assess my flight’s risks. The Quick Check provided a hard copy checklist of the detailed evaluation that saved me from re-entering all the data for a complete analysis. I spent less time on the computer program, but I still evaluated the flight with the checklist generated by the “Quick Check” version, and I strongly recommend you do the same.
In either case you get objective information about the risks associated with a particular flight and some suggested areas for consideration, if there is an elevated risk element. Many pilots are data driven and are more comfortable making a decision based on the detailed, objective facts rather than the general, subjective story you get if you mentally run through the PAVE checklist before a flight. Having something formal also makes it easier to tell a passenger or someone who expects to see you at your destination why you have to cancel a flight.
This kind of analysis is particularly useful for personal flying if you are planning a route to an airport you’ve never seen before rather than those you see on a recurring basis. Once you use the tool a few times it will become second nature, and you will be more alert to any increased risks on every flight.