By Paul Wiley
If you’re like me, you are probably puzzled when reading about certain general aviation accidents. Sometimes we cannot begin to understand what the pilot was thinking when he or she decided it was OK to go fly on a day when the condition of the aircraft, the weather or the pilot should have dictated that it was clearly NOT safe to fly.
Arguably the most important decision a pilot routinely makes is the decision to either fly or not to fly (Go/No-Go). This decision is often easy to make if the pilot is fit for flying, the weather is good, the aircraft is airworthy and the “mission” is well within the pilot’s comfort zone. However, a thorough understanding of risk is critical to the safe completion of every flight. Risks must be recognized and understood, thoughtfully considered and then dealt with before and continuously during every flight.
The classic definition of risk is the chance that something will go wrong and cause harm to persons or property. A common synonym for risk is danger. Here are 3 definitions (taken directly from FAA’s FY 2017 4th Quarter CFI Forum Report) related to risk that must be understood:
- Hazard – a condition or circumstance that could negatively affect the achievement of an objective, e.g. may lead to an accident.
- Risk – The likelihood that a given hazard will affect the achievement of an objective. Also known as “probability”, usually defined as low or high.
- Risk Management – The elimination or mitigation of hazards to acceptable levels of risk. Proper management of the risks associated with any flight is a process. There are good processes and many tools (such as checklists) available to pilots to help them evaluate and manage risk.
For example: the PPP risk management model (process) consists of
- Perceive (hazards),
- Process (assess the level of risk) and
- Perform (Risk Management).
This model and many more valuable tools are widely available on-line.
Pilots who have been trained to the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) in the past few years should be very familiar with the aspects of risk as they relate to the tasks for which the pilot is being tested. The FAA has made it a requirement for the pilot applicant to demonstrate the “ability to identify, assess and mitigate risks” associated with each and every task the examiner is evaluating. Flight Instructors now teach how to effectively manage risk with emphasis upon good Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and proper situational awareness – there will be more on ADM later in this article.
Analysis of accidents makes it clear that oftentimes pilots involved in an accident either 1) did not understand the risks associated with a flight, 2) underestimated the risk or 3) their plans (if any) to mitigate that risk were inadequate. Take for example the accident in January 2017 here in Arizona involving a Cessna 210 on a flight from Scottsdale to Telluride, Colorado. The non-instrument rated pilot was low time (less than 200 hours) and departed VFR without a flight plan being filed with the FAA, into what can only be described as terrible winter flying weather: widespread low clouds with mountain obscuration and icing. Had he obtained a weather briefing it would have undoubtedly included the phrase: “VFR not recommended.” The end result of this flight was a tragic accident with 4 fatalities. I presume this pilot did not purposely set out to kill himself, his wife and his 2 children. Had he fully understood the risk and hazards associated with this flight, I would hope that he would have opted not to fly that day.
How is it then that a relatively inexperienced pilot launches off on such a flight, presumably with the expectation that he can complete the flight safely? My belief is that this pilot suffered from one or more “hazardous attitudes.” Hazardous attitudes, as defined by the FAA, can include the following five shown here with their “antidotes” (ways to counteract them):
- Antiauthority – the rules don’t apply to me. Antidote: The FARs (it is often said) are “written in blood,” i.e. what we have learned from other pilots’ mistakes in the past (and often their “blood,”) are written into the current regulations to hopefully prevent similar accidents in the future. Learn from the mistakes of others. The rules are there first and foremost for a very good reason: Safety!
- Impulsivity – The tendency to act on sudden urges without careful consideration of the consequences. Antidote: Think it through, use proven processes (like the aforementioned PPP model) and tools like checklists to prevent an impulsive action from becoming a problem or accident.
- Invulnerability – The idea that one is immune to anything bad happening, like an accident. Antidote: Understand that you are not “bullet proof;” it can happen to you.
- Macho – People with a macho attitude are often thought of as bold, fearless or stereotypically masculine. When I was at Luke AFB, there was a big sign in front of Base Operations that said: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are NO old bold pilots.” One of the problems with a macho pilot is that he will attempt to do something because of his big ego and end up taking a risk that a more cautious pilot would not take. Warning to macho pilots: Buzzing or low level maneuvering continues to be a major cause of fatal accidents. Antidote: Understand that it’s not worth the risk.
- Resignation – This involves the attitude that you’re helpless, i.e. what’s the use in trying? Antidote: Know that you are not helpless. Use your knowledge and skills to make the aircraft do what you want it to do. Put another way: You fly the plane, don’t let it fly you.
Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM):
In teaching good Aeronautical Decision Making, we stress that attitude is primary and technique is secondary. We also say that ADM involves doing the right things at the right time. Good ADM involves situational awareness and is a way of acting safely. If you are not already familiar with ADM, I encourage you to get with your CFI and discuss this subject in depth so that you fully understand the concepts and how to apply ADM to your flying.
Good ADM will also help avoid errors of judgment. Some examples of errors in judgment: deciding to keep flying into deteriorating weather, deciding to “buzz” your friends house or to push on to your destination airport when your fuel is unacceptably low and you should stop and re-fuel at an intermediate airport.
Approximately 80% of all accidents can be attributed to “human error.” However, human error is a complex subject and can take many forms. Some examples: poor decision making, complacency, distraction and lack of knowledge. By understanding risk and how to use proper ADM to make good decisions (including the Go/No-Go) before and during flight, you can and will be a better and safer pilot.x