Do the right thing

February 1, 2006

Bruce Landsberg, ASF's executive director, is a CFII who has been making aeronautical decisions for more than 30 years.

Want to get into trouble in an aircraft? There's no better way to do it faster than to make poor decisions. More has been written about aeronautical decision making, or ADM, than perhaps any other topic. The results of poor ADM are always expensive and sometimes fatal.

Thousands of papers, books, texts, articles, essays, and courses have been created to convey how to do the right thing. There's some fine work on the topic and you could spend years trying to absorb it all, but it would be good to take in at least a little. In a typical year, roughly 70 to 80 percent of the accident reports imply that pilots are the primary cause. Certainly many of these accidents are caused by deficiencies in physical skill and handling, such as takeoff and landing, but the case might be made that if you're that rusty it would be a good decision to get some additional instruction.

Describe ADM and judgment? Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, renowned for his inability to define pornography, declared, "I know it when I see it." So it is with ADM — tough to describe but you'll know it — especially when it's lacking. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has taught ADM (although we didn't necessarily call it that) for years, largely through seminars. This season we're starting a new round using DVD technology that will allow the audience to use a decision tree. You'll get to make the tough choices and discuss them with fellow participants. It's a high-water mark in live seminars.

As we set about defining a complex psychological construct — and trying to simplify it — a few basic ideas emerged. This will start a debate, but I'll offer an opinion that there are three core areas where pilots get into ADM trouble. The first is in trying to extract too much utility from the aircraft. The small aircraft that is overloaded by 300 pounds, the nonturbocharged aircraft at high density altitude, the nondeiced aircraft in icy clouds, the Category I ILS-equipped aircraft trying to land in Category III conditions, the aircraft that needs just 50 miles more range — we could go on for hours. The accident files are replete with situations where the pilot could have kept it all going but the machine's capabilities were just a little too light for the job. In other cases the aircraft would have been perfectly adequate, but the pilot kept pushing to take more than it was capable of giving under those circumstances.

Pilot ability stretching is next: The most obvious is the VFR pilot who presses into instrument conditions. It's been said too many times that if you're not certificated and proficient, don't go there. The 12-knot pilot who takes on a 15-knot crosswind is trying to get more utility out of his skills than current conditions allow. Another example is the rusty IFR pilot who tackles big weather and doesn't have enough skill to make the approach — or several approaches — after struggling for three hours in the system.

The other big ADM judgment area stems from trying to have too much fun with the aircraft. Seems like an oxymoron. How could you have too much fun with an aircraft? Buzzing, impromptu aerobatics in nonaerobatic aircraft, river running without proper reconnaissance, untrained formation flight, deliberate off-airport treks without planning — again, the list goes on. It seldom has anything to do with using the aircraft for transportation but rather as a recreational vehicle. Don't get me wrong — there are times, places, and aircraft that are appropriately suited for many of these activities, but a significant number of accidents come from pushing the fun meter a bit too far to the right.

Tied to utility is the concept of "mission." Some pilots have the mindset that the future of the nation is riding on completion of a trip to the set destination at the planned time. They get that steely eyed look in their eyes that says almost no risk is too great for someone of their mettle. Not delivering the goods constitutes a slur on their abilities and possibly their ancestry. Mission is a military term and implies an imperative that really doesn't exist in the GA context. Instead of mission, think in terms of a trip (sounds less ominous) and plan on delays and occasional cancellations — the airlines do it daily. The professionals are smart and know when it's time to bail. Ricky Nelson, a rock star from another era, sang that fools rush in where wise men fear to tread. Amateurs blithely push on despite not having the tools or skills to do the job safely.

To sum up, know your limits, those of the aircraft, and if you're doing something that's a lot more "fun" than usual, chances are you're outside the envelope or close to the edge.

Nobody who crashes starts out thinking that crashing is a likely outcome, although it may be rather obvious to more objective bystanders. And the truth is that most faulty judgment or ADM does not result in an accident. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that very few VFR scud runners get nailed the first or even the fifteenth time they engage. For an accident to occur, all the links in the chain must come together at just the right time. Break just one and the accident won't happen.

Gaming the system, gambling, whatever you call it, most of the time it works. For many pilots that reinforces faulty ADM and they continue to roll the dice and win constantly.

It's like the Vegas gambler who's had a wonderful run all evening and decides to bet it all on the next round. Rather than money, though, we're betting something far more valuable. When one last link snaps into place nobody is more surprised than the player who, up to that point, had a perfect record against the house. But it is also true that the odds here are much better than in Vegas — there are winners who make dozens, if not hundreds, of flights under lousy conditions and never come to a sudden stop.

Optimism, which is generally a healthy trait, sometimes works to a pilot's detriment. Take a forecast. If it's good, expect it to change for the worse. If it's bad, expect it to change for the worse. Plan accordingly and be pleasantly surprised when it all works. Optimism also seems to catch a large number of pilots in fuel mismanagement. The winds will abate, the tanks were full when we started, the gauges are wrong, this thing burns less than book, there won't be any delays on arrival, so many rationalizations. Do the right thing — stop for fuel!

Now to the famous go/no-go decision. If it's "no go" life is simple, but we're trying to get someplace and it's a major hassle to go with plan B.

So once we decide to go because it's just marginal, it's time for some real ADM. There are only a few things to remember in this model. Visualize where the trouble is likely to be and anticipate that there may be multiple sources of difficulty. It could be convective weather, low ceiling and visibilities, high winds, low groundspeeds — any of the phenomena that made the "go" decision tougher.

Now be a pessimist and start watching for the bad stuff to materialize. Recognize the problem. Look for the clues that give the warnings — the wisp of cloud that floats by, the ASOS proclaiming lowering ceilings, shrinking temperature-dew point spread, building cumulonimbus, and low groundspeed. The survivors often say, "I just didn't see it coming." Finally, take action, or mobilize yourself to do something. In so many accidents, if the pilot had only changed course or course of action a few minutes earlier the accident chain would have been broken.

If you need a slogan here's a bad one: Visualize, Recognize, Mobilize (VRM rhymes with CRM). Good pilots think like this on every flight and it becomes second nature. New pilots need to ask lots of questions and learn the basic skills. Treat forecasts the same as a politician's campaign promise and you'll start to think like a pro. Do the right thing — go to the ASF seminar when it comes to your area or get the DVD that will be out later this spring. It may change your way of thinking.