Safety Pilot: Flight risk evaluator

July 1, 2010

The Wrights, being among the first test pilots, understood risk better than most and were methodical in dealing with it, as they were in everything else: “In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks,” said Wilbur. As the hardware and systems have gotten progressively better, the problems shifted from mechanical to human. Right now, it’s running about three to one against Homo sapiens. In professional aviation, be it corporate, airline, or military, there are formal procedures to manage all the variables, but in general aviation it’s largely left up to the pilot—and we don’t always excel.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation looked for ways to package the concept of risk management in a way that made sense without all the complexity that surrounds the regulations surrounding the airlines and charter operators. The result is a free online interactive “Flight Risk Evaluator,” now available on the ASF website. In big flight departments, operations specifications, or ops specs, take much of the decision-making out of the cockpit—as one goes up in the aviation hierarchy fewer options are given to the pilot and the accident rate goes down. This is not unique to aviation and in my past life with nuclear weapons, to avoid Homer Simpson moments, there was an entire protocol for everything from going to war on Tuesday to dealing with a mission-critical malfunction such as a recalcitrant toilet (shut down the site and surrender).

The airline model introduces some significant limitations that would severely constrain and raise the cost for light general aviation. However, as with so many things aeronautical, if we could take 30 percent of what good risk management offers and reap 75 percent of the benefit, that seems like a good tradeoff.

The concept behind the planned decision is simple. There is plenty of time to think about what might happen in advance—given a certain set of circumstances, be it weather, airport conditions, or fuel state. The pilot is relieved of having to think through various and sometimes complex options while avoiding the temptation to take an expedient way out that has a higher risk. When time is limited this thought process is essential, and even when it isn’t, it still guides pilots to the right place.

Let’s look at some examples: You’ll remember that fuel is not optional. Regardless of how inconvenient it may be to stop, that pales in comparison to the off-airport landing and the messy business of dealing with insurance companies and the FAA inspector. A solid one-hour reserve on landing would save us millions of dollars and a few lives every year.

In Part 91 we are allowed to take a look at the bottom of an instrument approach if the weather is below IFR landing minimums. In the airline world the crew is not allowed to even begin the approach if the weather is below minimums before they reach the final approach fix. Are there times when this results in a needless diversion? Sure, but more frequently it removes the temptation to shave just a little off the bottom, which has been proven to result in more than a bad hair day.

ASF’s Flight Risk Evaluator helps one to set personal minimums, which for many of us should be higher than those required by regulation. In my first corporate flying experience, after being checked out in a twin, the ops specs required my minimums to be 800 feet and two miles until I’d become familiar with the aircraft and gone through a recheck with the chief pilot. The airlines have “high minimums” captains who have just transitioned to a new aircraft, even though they have thousands of hours of flight experience.

Most new pilots limit their exposure to crosswinds intuitively but it’s often more by gut than by plan. Flight schools, however, limit students to a specific wind limit for both cross and total wind component. It also makes sense that when you’ve set your limit at, say, seven knots crosswind and the aircraft is demonstrated to have 15 knots, perhaps it’s time to start working with a CFI to increase your limits.

One size doesn’t fit all. It varies with pilot, aircraft, recency of experience, even surrounding terrain. Mountainous terrain near an airport has a way of compounding just about everything in the wrong direction. The pros take that into account when planning. In a multiengine aircraft, how does it affect the ability to clear terrain if one powerplant takes a powder several minutes after takeoff? The Flight Risk Evaluator looks at many different things to help you think through your situation. Anything like this will have a disclaimer—your mileage may vary but the important thing is to start the thought process. What would a professional do in this circumstance? The evaluator gives you an example. The program also includes some tongue-in-cheek evaluations of several flights set as both good and bad examples. The idea is to get pilots really examining the options. There’s an internal battle played out between the conservative IFR pilot who’s checking forecasts and the why-bother side of his personality that says, “We’re going anyway.”

In addition to these general guidelines, pilots can load in their experience level, departure and arrival airports, and the forecast weather to get a detailed assessment of that particular flight. This is the beginning of a broader model that ASF is developing and hopes to have available soon. We’ll be looking for your feedback.

AOPA Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg is an active pilot with 6,000 hours.