Safety Pilot: Mission Mindset

January 1, 2009

Bruce Landsberg regularly consults with FAA, NTSB, and various aviation groups on safety issues.

Pilots are people of focus and commitment. You have to be in order to run the gauntlet of training that our certification system demands.

In the instructional process that’s not bad, since it tends to weed out those casual souls who aren’t willing to make the effort to learn aviation. That same perseverance, however, can lead to disaster later when the pilot attempts something beyond his or her capability. Call it the mission mindset.

Mission is often associated with the military—such as an operational task, frequently assigned by a higher authority such as “Come back with your shield or on it.” Synonyms include goal, purpose, or objective. This is heady stuff that in normal life is held in high esteem, but for most civilian flying it requires a keen sense of judgment about risk versus reward. Failure is frequently not an option for those with a mission mindset. There are some nuances, however. Not getting to where you want when you want is not failure—that’s delay. Wrecking the aircraft and possibly dying in the attempt—now that’s failure!

The idea is to accurately assess if you’ve got the skill and the aircraft has the capability to do the job safely. The penalty for failure in aviation can be fatal, but it’s something that we in the industry sometimes gloss over in our enthusiasm not to scare off prospects. But many of us are living proof that with a sensible approach, mortals can fly safely.

As we look at similar accident scenarios over and over again, I wonder if mission mindset isn’t a part of the problem. Some pilots talk themselves into thinking that they have to go; that someone might think less of them if they canceled, postponed, or modified a flight. More than a few probably enjoy the risk. In my Safety Journal blog last fall, “What part of cloud don’t you understand”, I shamelessly promoted the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s new online case study about a pilot who flew VFR into instrument conditions. A reader responded that, “Far too often we hear tales of daring-do from ‘heroes’ who have dared to go where angels fear to tread. The uninitiated believe this baloney and try it themselves. Fools survive their own stupidity because of blind luck. Conversely, professional pilots (paid or unpaid) use good judgment, preparation, and an honest assessment of skills to protect themselves and their passengers.”

There’s currently a big discussion within the FAA and the NTSB regarding emergency medical service (EMS) flights since there have been a disproportionate number of accidents over the last several years. This is mission mindset déjà vu. About 25 years ago the EMS community went through another bad series of accidents. A consensus emerged that the crews shouldn’t be told the nature of the flight. It could be a routine transport or it could be an emergency life-saving mission.

The decision to fly, or not fly, would be based only on operational considerations such as the weather and available landing facilities. A no-fly decision might result in the death of an accident victim who might have been saved but it also significantly reduced the deaths of flight crews and EMS technicians. The logic was that there is no percentage in attempting to save one life by killing the flight crew and possibly the victim(s) as well. We should be employing the same decision process.

In personal flying, our decisions are seldom so stark, but there is often a strong financial incentive such as nonrefundable reservations, expensive or unavailable alternative transport, or a lost business opportunity. One of the EMS findings showed that helicopter companies, hospitals, or government flight organizations occasionally rationalize a questionable flight to earn reimbursement or to justify the existence of the organization itself. After all, why have a $5 million aircraft if it only gets used a few times a month? Sound familiar? Hindsight quarterbacking abounds, especially in marginal conditions, which is what makes the call so tough. When the dangers are clear and present, almost anyone can make the right choice.

There have also been a number of GA accidents involving charitable sightseeing flights and non-emergency medical transport. In the flightseeing group, the enthusiasm by inexperienced or aggressive pilots was so deadly that the FAA created new regulations designed to protect the public. Overreaching? Perhaps, but when we invite the public aboard, the regulators watch.

A turboprop pilot recently told me of an encounter that illustrates the risk perfectly. He had landed to refuel and wait out some thunderstorms when a Cessna 172 pilot with a relatively new instrument rating was getting ready to launch on a volunteer medical transport over mountainous terrain, at night, with active sigmets and widespread convective activity. It’s hard to imagine a more ominous scenario. When asked what was so urgent, the Cessna pilot replied he needed to complete the flight. Lady Luck smiled this time.

This pilot’s decision-making process was incredibly dangerous, not only for the people on the aircraft but also for the reputation and financial well being of the charities that coordinate these flights. That he will be emboldened by lucky success is a foregone conclusion. To be fair, most charities are professional and uncompromising in guiding overenthusiastic pilots. Their records are very good, but in politics, public perception, and legal entanglements, just a few “aw shucks” wipes out a tremendous amount of goodwill. It’s something charity boards and the pilots who fly for them have to consider.

Another of my blog respondents noted, “I believe that sometimes the utility of GA is not put in a proper perspective for new (and experienced) pilots. While traveling in a light airplane is a wonderful way to get from point A to point B, and is often a very reliable form of transportation, it is simply not the way to go if you absolutely, positively have to be there. This is true with the airlines also, of course, but if they cancel, you have someone to blame it on.”

So, it comes down to not playing mind games with ourselves by honestly assessing the abilities of pilot and aircraft. Weather is a huge variable and our ability to predict it is inconsistent. In many cases, perhaps the majority, the forecast was spot-on and the deal was sealed as soon as the flight departed. In others, the threat was more subtle. Survival requires a levelheaded appraisal and the willingness to do something different.

Too many times we hear, “I’ll just go take a look” when, in fact, the pilot is only kidding himself. Once the mission mindset takes hold we allow ourselves to be sucked in. Optimism is a great asset in most of life’s endeavors but in flying a healthy skepticism is healthier.