Pilot Decision-Making

by Bob Worthington
Copyright 2020. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine (online) – December 2020/January 2021

Pilot decision-making is the process of deciding what to do when flying an aircraft. Consider this: 75% of aircraft accidents are caused by a pilot either doing something wrong or failing to do something right. Aeronautical decision-making may involve a higher degree of risk, simply because we are in the air.

Throughout our daily lives, we constantly decide how to do something. It may be as simple as deciding what clothes to wear or whether to eat a banana or a banana split. Our decision is based on personal desires, prior experience, and anticipated results.     

For example, what clothes to wear is based on what we perceive as most comfortable and stylish, what we want to achieve (going to a job interview or working from home), and the weather (our experience is that winters are cold, while summers are hot).

Other decisions may become riskier, depending on the circumstances. Do we take longer, less traveled routes to work or join the rush-hour traffic on the freeway? Do we assume a large loan to buy a house or car? Do we get married or divorced?

Judgement is the process of creating a viable list of options to a given situation and then selecting that alternative which is most likely to result in the best outcome.

Can good judgement be learned? Certainly, but not in the same manner as maneuvering an aircraft which emphasizes acquiring different skills. Mostly our decisions are based on our preferred results and our prior experience.

The FAA has an excellent publication (AC 60-22) which is almost 30 years old. It is titled Aeronautical Decision-Making, referred to as ADM.  ADM is defined by the FAA as a systematic approach to the mental process of evaluating a given set of circumstances and determining the best course of action. The information in this Advisory Circular is as valid today as it was in the late 20th century. Especially important is the section on how to be a safe pilot (pages 24-25, chapter 6) and its list of pilot operating pitfalls (behavioral traits or personal tendencies which interfere with good decision-making) found in chapter 1 on page 3.

How does one acquire good judgement? It is a two-step process. The first step is the personal desire or motivation to learn how to make viable decisions. This is the intellectual process of understanding and learning. Second is exposure to situations that require the person to recognize problems or potential problems and successfully resolve them.

If we act on faulty decisions (flying from point A to point B on minimum fuel) and in our past experience, always land at our destination safely, we possess an experience-based situation which has terminated in the desired result. Our flawed decision-making is reinforced because we have avoided danger. Since we have concluded this flight, in the past, successfully, we tend to minimize any risk involved, such as encountering headwinds, consuming more fuel, or having to make a diversion.

This example of poor judgement is predicated on the desire to get to point B as quickly as possible which overrides consideration of potential hazards. The bankrupt judgement is strengthened by the fact that while risks may be recognized and considered, the desire (motivation) to get to point B outweighs serious contemplation of what could go wrong, especially based on prior experience that nothing bad ever happened.

Poor judgement begets unsafe pilots. Safe pilots share common experiences in their flying backgrounds. Insurance research attempting to differentiate “safe” pilots from those who endanger themselves finds that low-risk pilots do things that high-risk pilots fail to do. Those pilots deemed safer fly more often, practice more, and engage in more learning experiences, such as safety seminars, flying with instructors, reading aviation materials and articles, on-line education courses, and knowing and obeying aviation rules and regulations.

So, how does a pilot develop good judgement and safe decision-making? The FAA advocates learning and adhering to published rules, regulations, procedures, and recommendations. This includes not only the FAA regs, but understanding weather conditions, your aircraft operating manual, the equipment in your plane, cross-country flying navigation, emergency procedures, and a refusal to place personal goals ahead of safe flights. Today’s glass cockpits and digital/electronic flight bags require a high degree of expertise in their proper management. This requires constant updating equipment data and continual training in their proper usage.

Safe pilot decision-making can be taught and learned. But pilots must be willing to put personal wants behind safe aeronautical practices. If the goal of every flight is a safe experience regardless of what we want personally, we should adhere to the rules and regulations and published aircraft flight manuals and pilot operating handbooks. These endeavors will go a long way to reduce risks in flying and improve a pilot’s decision-making.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the  author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (httpsMidwest Flyer Magazine://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer (www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor, attorney and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures or following any advice discussed herein.

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