Safety Publications/Articles



Be your own safety expert


In ancient Greece, the small town of Delphi was famous for its oracle of Apollo, better known as the Great Oracle of Delphi. She was actually a high priestess who, each month, would hold an audience with the townspeople to hear their problems. She would listen intently, compiling information, then secretly meet with her "board of experts" -- people well versed in agriculture, medicine, and other areas -- to discuss these problems. The board would give their expert, objective answers, and the Oracle in turn would relay the answers (as her own) to the people.

Wouldn't it be just as wonderful if we all possessed this magnificent board of experts or the talent to objectively analyze problems and arrive at definite solutions? Better yet, wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to analyze ourselves and objectively determine our strengths and weaknesses?

Unfortunately, few of us have that uncanny ability. Wrong decisions caused by our inability to self-analyze can cause problems that range from losing friends, jobs, or material possessions to complete bankruptcy. And in flying, the inability to self-analyze is not so forgiving. One mistake can be fatal. This is where our self-analysis can be lifesaving.

I am certain you are aware of the five risk elements contained in flying: pilot, aircraft, environment, operation, and situation. Theoretically, we analyze these items before each flight. We examine the aircraft through a careful preflight; we scrutinize the environment, the weather, and the terrain. Next, we analyze the operation: How long are we going to fly alone; what stresses will affect us during the flight; how comfortable is the aircraft? We evaluate the situation. How safe or unsafe will the outcome of the flight be, depending on those risk factors? Finally, we analyze the most important risk factor in the equation: the pilot.

This is where self-analysis comes into play. What is your physical or mental being today? Are you tired, stressed, or upset? Assuming you are physically, emotionally, and mentally fine today, let's get to the bottom line: How is your flying ability?

Nearly 85 percent of all accidents are attributed to pilot error. In a study of aviation accidents, pilot activities were broken down into three areas: decisional activities (self-assessment of skill, knowledge, and physical and psychological well-being), perceptual motor activities (aircraft control), and procedural activities (aircraft controls and configuration). Decisional activities, also known as cognitive judgment, accounted for 51.6 percent or 2,940 of the fatal accidents and 9,081 or 35.1 percent of the nonfatal accidents.

Of course, flight instructors must attempt to train students to make good decisions. But pilots themselves must become more diligent in assessing their own flying ability. Pilots must develop a mindset of expectancy.

Always assume that during your flight, there will be problems. If so, have a plan of action to deal with them. If you encountered an unusually strong crosswind at your destination field, could you handle it? If you had to file IFR in the air because of deteriorating conditions, could you? If you lost all communications with ATC, what would be your out? In other words, are you getting in over your head without realizing it?

Here is where self-analysis is so important. Unfortunately, few of us have the ability to say to ourselves, "I think today may be a little too much for me to handle" or say to our friends, "I'm sorry, I won't take you on that flight today because the weather is beyond my skill." Instead, some of us will take that unnecessary chance. Most of us will make it. But some will not.

That's why it's so important to attend seminars like those produced by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and the FAA -- to learn about better, safer flying techniques or communications procedures. And why it's important to take a refresher course at a good flight school or enroll in the FAA Wings program for that objective evaluation.

Not everybody is lucky enough to have an airline captain or a flight examiner or a dedicated flight instructor for a friend who can continually update you on the latest flying techniques. But you can do the next best thing.

Update yourself in every way possible -- through seminars, flight schools, refresher courses, Wings programs, and the online interactive courses available at ASF's Web site. You will find that over time, you will be able to better and more objectively assess your flying skills and talents; in short, you'll be on the road to better flying self-analysis.

Bill Cuccinello is a CFII with more than 5,000 hours. The Boston Flight Standards District Office twice named him FAA Safety Counselor of the Year. He is a member of the board of directors of the Aero Club of New England, the oldest aero club in the United States. He owns a Piper Turbo Arrow.

By Bill Cuccinello

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