Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

What Were They Thinking About?

Some Hints For Teaching Aeronautical Decision Making

A pilot in a Piper Arrow was picking his way VFR through the clouds in a mountainous area. In his attempt to get home, he hit the obscured peak of a mountain, killing all aboard. Another pilot in a Cessna 150 decided to surprise his girlfriend by flying low over her house. He didn't see the power lines before he became entangled and plummeted to the ground in a shower of sparks. A Beech Baron pilot was an hour from home when he bypassed his scheduled fuel stop, thinking he had plenty of fuel to make it. He crashed while on the approach.

All of these accidents were preventable, and you can't help but wonder why the pilots made decisions that led to their demise. The National Transportation Safety Board reports listed the probable causes respectively as VFR into instrument meteorological conditions, failure to see obstacles on the ground during maneuvering flight, and improper fuel management. While these causes terminated the flights, they weren't the root cause of the accidents. There was one root cause for all three accidents: poor decision making - deciding to scud run in mountainous terrain, deciding to fly too close to the ground, and deciding to push fuel endurance to the limit.

One of the most difficult tasks flight instructors face is training students to make good decisions, and yet flight instructors are the key element in nurturing these lifesaving skills. Some have said that judgment and decision making can't be taught. Well, they can. Teaching decision making is nothing new. It goes back to the period when humans first walked the earth. A caveman's father taught him to decide how to escape a wild animal's attack or retreat in the face of an enemy tribe's invasion. Most of this learning was through example, with the father serving as a role model. Aeronautical decision making (ADM) is no different than caveman decision making (CDM). The sound practice of both ensures survival. One of the best methods for teaching students to make good decisions is for instructors to set a good example.

There are old salts out there who will tell you that the best way to train student pilots is to take them out in the conditions they will face after they get their tickets. I'm reminded of an experience I had with one of my instrument instructors. He was involved in a research project on thunderstorms, and much of my instrument training was conducted near towering cumulus while he took pictures. We got splattered by hail and bounced around in moderate turbulence. I quickly adopted the attitude that "this isn't so bad." After I flew through one on my own, I decided, "Yes, it is." From then on decisions about flying near thunderstorms were easy to make. My instrument instructor set an example that lulled me into believing that the danger of thunderstorms was overblown. The importance of the instructor as a role model cannot be overemphasized.

For years, the core of training in aeronautical decision making has been based on identifying hazardous attitudes and training students to recognize these traits. Once recognized, it was hoped, students would be aware that these attitudes could adversely affect their judgment and decision making. I'm familiar with a flying club that requires all new members to submit their driving records. Those with an excess number of points for traffic violations are rejected for membership. The theory is that a member with a bad driving record displays the hazardous attitudes of antiauthority and macho, and the other members don't want them in their club. This seems to have served them well, because the club's safety record is remarkable.

While still valuable as a training aid for teaching good decision making, the trend is away from hazardous attitudes and more toward personal awareness, processing of information, skill development, and sound cockpit procedures. The downside of hazardous attitude training is that it's often difficult to get students to recognize these attitudes in themselves, and if they do, the sensitivity wears off quickly.

As instructors, we should make our students aware of the following:

Personal awareness involves fatigue, illness, stress, or any other malady that keeps a pilot from operating at peak performance and making proper decisions.

Plots need to collect as much information as possible about the flight. Students should be taught not to just concentrate on the path of flight, but to look at what's happening on either side of the flight path for alternatives. The more information you have, the easier good decisions are to make.

Skill development is important because the stress of making decisions is reduced when one is competent in handling the airplane. If you can't easily hold altitude and heading, the mental space you have to concentrate on a critical decision is reduced.

Some say that cockpit re-source management (CRM) is not possible if there is only one pilot on board. This is a very narrow definition of the practice. CRM includes resources in the cockpit such as navigation equipment, charts, radios, flight computers, and nonpilot passengers who can watch for traffic or identify approach lights. A pilot who organizes himself or herself in the cockpit, collects all the available information relevant to the flight, effectively uses all available equipment, and enlists the help of any nonpilots on board is practicing CRM. When an important decision has to be made, CRM will help to make it a good one.

Students need to learn that the closer they get to a destination on a cross-country flight, the harder it is to make good decisions (see "Learning Experiences: A Christmas Journey into IMC," p. 56). When one takes off and immediately experiences unforecast instrument meteorological conditions, the decision to go back to the airport is easy. On the other hand, if a VFR pilot is 20 miles from the destination when these conditions develop, the decision becomes much more difficult. Unfortunately, the decision may be to press on - with disastrous results.

There are a number of excellent instructional aids for teaching decision making. Start with FAA Advisory Circular 60-22 that provides introductory material, background information, and reference material on ADM. Make certain your students have a copy of the Personal Minimums Checklist. This form forces one to think about all aspects of an upcoming flight and to consider the pilot, the aircraft, the environment, and external pressures. The checklist points out that the more important the trip, the more the pilot tends to compromise personal minimums, and the more important it is to have alternate plans. You can print copies of the Personal Minimums Checklist from the FAA's Web site ( ).

By Richard Hiner

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports