Decisions are so fundamental to life, both in and out of the cockpit, that the very process of decision making has become its own area of study. Google “decision making” and you’re up to your armpits in carefully designed websites, checklists, acronyms, and official studies. Frankly, it can be a little bewildering. The concept has been so complicated that one of the most difficult decisions is deciding which decision system to use. Here’s a simpler take.
For the final word in making cockpit decisions, check out Chapter 2 of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. The opening paragraph describes aeronautical decision making as “a systematic approach to the mental process used by pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances.” This is followed by 32 pages of charts, graphs, lists, and more, every one of which goes back to the basic Perceive, Process, Perform (3P) model:
Let’s break that down and expand it in a way we can all understand.
Hazard and risk
First, let’s define a couple of terms: Hazards and risks.
A hazard can be seen as a thing or situation that has the potential for harm. That being the case, it could be said that flying itself is a hazard. The very fact that we’re in a machine that is propelled by a mechanism in which explosions are taking place (the engine) is a hazardous situation. Even worse, that mechanism is getting us high enough that the fall would hurt us. We basically have no control over many of the hazards that are part of aviation. However, we can control the risks associated with the hazards.
A risk is often defined as the chance, high or low, that any hazard will cause somebody harm. All hazards have risks embedded in them, but the degree of that risk (how risky is it?) varies from airplane to airplane, pilot to pilot, situation to situation. Further, the risk factor is changing constantly depending on where we are in the flight and what we encounter on that flight.
The only sure way to eliminate hazards of flying and the risks attached to them is to never leave the ground. However, risks can be managed by analyzing the hazards that are part of every flight, determining the degree of risk, and developing a plan for how to handle it. Additionally, any plan to manage risk must include at least one alternate plan in case the first one doesn’t work out. Plan B should always be in the background.
Fundamentally, the degree of risk and how we handle it depends on the capabilities of the airplane, the ability of the pilot flying it, the situation at hand, and the pilot’s experience with those situations. Let’s say we’re making a cross-country trip from Denver, and the airplane is the ever-present Cessna 172. The flight is to be about 400 miles. There will be one set of risks when flying northwest to Afton, Wyoming. The risks associated with flying east toward Omaha, Nebraska, will be quite different. Even in benign weather conditions, heading west over the mountains in a 172 makes for white-knuckle flying. Conversely, flying the same distance east, across Nebraska, the challenge could be mesoscale thunderstorms. The risks would be different because the situations in which the flights exist are so different.
The hazards going west include high terrain which plays against the 172’s altitude limitations. During the summer, with higher density altitudes, the altitude risks would be even greater. Ditto the effect of the winds both at altitude and at ground level.
Going west, the airports available can present wind conditions during landing that a 172 can’t handle. An alternate airport may be the solution if a landing becomes impossible. The risks increase if the route is to be flown is straight line, rather than airport to airport, which limits immediate access to a safe haven should conditions demand it.
When analyzing the risks, the pilot’s experience with the types of conditions to be encountered is as important as the airplane’s ability to handle them. If the pilot has a solid background and a high degree of proficiency in mountain flying, for example, although the hazards stay the same, the risks of that kind of a trip are greatly reduced because he knows how to deal with the risks. His experience gives him a bigger safety margin, when compared to a flatlander who launches on the identical trip not truly understanding what he’s getting himself into. This speaks to the questions to be asked by both pilots.
If the pilot has no experience in that kind of hazard environment, then the risk level involved goes up considerably.
These questions should be asked on every flight, in every condition, local or otherwise.
When it comes to risk management and the FAA’s ultra-well-thought-out aeronautical decision making techniques, one thing that is seldom mentioned is good old-fashioned common sense.
While it is said that newbie pilots are short on common sense because they don’t know what they don’t know, that’s not entirely true. Every pilot, regardless of experience, has a built-in alarm. We know when we’re about to do something that, if we stand back and look at it, may be a little stupid. Or a little scary. Subliminally, we know we’re about to step over the threshold into someplace we really shouldn’t be. Heart rate goes up; a sweaty spot develops in the palm of our hands; we hear a tiny voice inside our head asking us, Is this really a good idea?
Maybe it’s pushing into questionable weather. (“But the GPS says it’s only five miles ahead!”) Maybe it’s trying to land in a wind that, after a couple tries, is obviously more than we or the airplane can handle. (“I can do this!”) Maybe it’s pushing the fuel too far. (“Yeah, it’ll be close, but we can probably make it.”) Maybe it’s continuing to take off even though the magneto drop was 300 rpm on one mag. (“Nah, that’s only on one mag and we have two.”) Maybe it’s thinking we’ll impress our friends with a really low pass. (“They’re gonna love this!”) In almost every situation, we know when something just isn’t right.
One of the reasons we know deep down that what we’re getting into isn’t good is that, without meaning to, some part of our mind is running down our own version of the FAA’s 3P decision making process.
Can I absolutely do it safely?
It’s only by pushing our limits that we get better. However, we shouldn’t push into areas where our comfort level is wildly exceeded. If you have to ask the question, the answer is probably no.
Am I positive the airplane can do it?
Again, if you have to ask the question, you know the answer. We know when it’s marginal. A lot of the airplane’s performance limitations are clearly spelled out in the pilot’s operating handbook. Read it, refer to it, then, if we’re talking loads, runway lengths, altitudes, or anything similar, don’t believe it. Those numbers were generated by test pilots in perfect, new airplanes in flawless conditions. We normal pilots won’t get even close to those numbers. Give the POH numbers a 25-percent margin or more. Don’t tip-toe to the edge they represent.
Realistically, how bad can it be?
If we’re talking weather, topography, runway surfaces, and other conditions, assume the worst. Always err on the side of conservatism. No one has ever been hurt by not going into a weather mass or not going through a mountain pass or not landing on a questionable runway in questionable conditions.
What if the plan doesn’t work or I can’t execute it?
This should probably be the first question we ask ourselves. If the plan doesn’t work, what is plan B? If I attempt it and it goes wrong, is my own survival at risk? What do I do then? Don’t commit to a course of action in which there is no way out if something goes wrong.
Aviation is rife with box canyons—literal or metaphorical. Maybe it’s playing with thunderstorms or pushing fuel to the last gallon or picking a one-way runway the POH says is too short. Always have a way out of every situation, whether it is a 180-degree turn out, a go-around, diverting to another airport, or something else. We always need to have a plan B tucked into a mental back pocket.
More importantly, we should always remember that the risk we’re taking in any aerial situation isn’t our risk. Yes, we’re the one likely to be hurt and we’ll be responsible for any damage. But, if we get ourselves killed, it’s our loved ones and friends who will pay the price. No risks are worth taking that have consequences like these.
The hazards presented by flight can’t be avoided. They are part of the package. However, we can clearly manage those risks if we give each situation that increases the risks some careful thought. Many accidents are the result of impulsively blundering ahead with no plan. There are no reasons for those kinds of accidents to happen. The bottom line is to think, then plan, then execute.
Budd Davisson is an Arizona-based CFI with 8,500 hours of tailwheel dual instruction given.