The Question Already Answered

Many times in your flying career, even if while on the wing, your most focused objective is comprised of nothing more then Sunday afternoons chasing clouds hither and yon, you will have to make decisions. Most will be simple ones, such as making sure to lean the mixture at cruising altitude, not adding full flaps during that crosswind landing, perhaps deciding to land at an intermediate airport when the fuel gauges begin reading lower than you expected during a cross-country flight, or deciding that you aren’t going to fly up to that business meeting today because of a much bigger drop in rpm on that left mag, when you did your run-up.

Okay so maybe they won’t all be easy. That’s actually my point. Not to seem sepulchral here, but ironically, it was John Lennon who once said ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.’ And in aviation, even the most carefree Sunday morning pancake hunters are someday going to have to make a decision about something that won’t go away just because they aren’t thinking about it. It’s inevitable (if you fly for any appreciable time at all) probably because moving around in three dimensions takes the care and effort that it does, since you were born with arms, and not wings, and once you’re up there a bit, you soon see how negligence, incompetence, and neglect all tend to be rather non-habit forming.

An airline captain once recounted a situation in which he was taxiing to the departure end of the runway and his first officer was agonizing over whether to abide by company policy of taking off with reduced thrust, to go easier on both the fuel and the engines. The penalty for this not surprisingly would be an increased take-off roll as well as stopping distance, had they needed to abort the takeoff. The reason this was such a dilemma was because things suddenly were no longer cut and dry—literally; that is to say, the runway was damp. Both knew that the policy of reduced thrust did not apply during conditions of wind shear, or when the runway surface was contaminated by snow, ice, or rain. But it was only damp, you see. What did they decide?

In this case, the right answer was elicited by a simple question from the captain, which was: ‘What would you say at the hearing?’ In our case, the metric with which we might second-guess fate would be to imagine having to do a rug dance in front of the FAA (rather than the NTSB) at a FSDO inquisition. Ah, the blessings of a good imagination.

To begin from beyond the fringe of the most neurotically overcautious, a phobia-ridden pilot might decide never to leave the ramp when the runway is wet. That’s one solution, but it’s not realistic. Many decisions are indeed no-brainers, but some, as they say, try men’s souls. No, the right approach is something I learned early in my flight training, called the conservative response rule. When faced with a decision that has alternatives, one of which will put you back on the ground, inconvenience you, disappoint someone who is waiting in another state, cost more money, compromise your reputation, besmirch your family name (well, it might seem that bad, although it almost never is), picking the alternative that involves not flying, being late, or spending more money (or someone else’s) is usually the right choice. If intimidation by implication isn’t your cup of tea, look at it this way. I call it the ‘long’ view: the cancelled appointment, the forsaken lunch, the extra night in a hotel, the missed deadline; who will care or even remember in five years? Remember, it’s better to be late in this world than early in the next.

You may be thinking something along the lines of ‘Okay, that was nice, but if I wanted homilies, I’d pick up a copy of Readers Digest.’ And I’d agree. So let’s take a few real world examples:

  • A pilot starts a cross-country flight in good weather, with a forecast for marginal VFR at his destination. He resignedly continues his flight, now only an hour away from landing, as the VFR turns into progressively worsening weather and finally, IMC.
  • A pilot feels a growing doubt that his fuel supply is getting dangerously low, and increasing unease that his gut feeling to land at an airport short of his destination might be the wisest choice, but he decides that he can do it.
  • Not thinking much about the reported low-level wind shear because he knows that he can handle almost any crosswind, a pilot approaches at a low airspeed and turns too tight, too close to the ground, with no room for recovery.The cause of most civil aviation accidents (somewhere around roughly 80%, depending upon how you analyze them and who you ask) involves human factors or put another way, pilot error. The common perspective involves a poor decision or a series of poor decisions (the so-called error chain) made by the pilot-in-command. The best way to break this chain is to teach pilots how to recognize the combination of events that result in an accident and to deal with the situation correctly in time to prevent the accident from occurring. I said ‘events’ but it really begins with something else: ourselves.

    Good aviation curriculums all produce skilled and knowledgeable pilots, but there is a third essential element needed besides being capable and well-informed, and that is good judgment. This additional attribute is one that some consider to be an innate trait that cannot be taught, but in fact, good decision-making skills can be acquired through experience. Over the last few years, the FAA and other training organizations have given increased recognition to the fact that a syllabus that is strictly performance based is ultimately inadequate.

    So what is judgment? Well, to be sure, it always involves a problem or choice, an unknown element, often a time constraint, and stress. As defined by Transport Canada, it is the process of recognizing and analyzing all available information about yourself, your aircraft, and your environment, followed by the rational evaluation of alternatives to implement a timely decision that maximizes safety. It involves your attitudes about taking risks, your ability to evaluate them, and how well you make decisions based upon your knowledge, skills and experience.

    Don’t get me wrong; accidents can often be attributed to oversights involving something far less dramatic than wonton recklessness, such as a lack of time in type, poor adherence to the use of standard emergency procedures, unfamiliarity with the type of circumstances under which a particular incident could (or did) happen, recency of training… the list goes on. But human error has its roots in how we perceive ourselves and our surroundings, and in a general sense, our attitudes.

    Pilots who learn to recognize these hazardous attitudes in themselves can also learn how to counteract them, can learn to control their first instinctive response and can learn to make a rational judgment based—not to get ingratiatingly folksy here—on simple common sense. Here are the ones most commonly defined:

  • Anti-authority. This attitude is common in those who do not like anyone telling them what to do.
  • Resignation. Some people do not see themselves as making a great deal of difference in what happens to them and will go along with anything that happens.
  • Impulsivity. Some people need to do something, anything, immediately without stopping to think about what is the best action to take.
  • Invulnerability. Some people feel that accidents happen to other people but never to themselves. Pilots who think like this are more likely to take unwise risks.
  • Macho. Some people need to always prove that they are better than anyone else and take risks to prove themselves and impress others.The best motivation to help one subvert these attitudes is to start with the realization that as good as one might be, we are all human. Regarding resentments toward authority, no one is omniscient, and anyone can be in a position where someone else has a bigger picture than they do, and although it might seem as though a directive is based more on ego or privilege than reason, remember that there may be an explanation for why someone is telling you what to do. When it comes to resignation, perhaps we need to remind ourselves sometimes that it was we who earned the privilege and responsibility to be up here in the first place, and we often can make a difference in determining what happens in any given situation; you won’t know if you don’t try. As far as impulsivity is concerned, unless you’re on fire, there are few times where there isn’t enough time to sit on your hands for a moment and think something through first, before jumping at the first thing that comes to mind. The easiest and most often cited cure for feeling invulnerable is to realize that everyone else has the same self-centered view of their world that you do, seeing it as they do through their own eyes, just as you do through your own. Yet, accidents have happened to these same people, and so, one could happen to you, too. Finally, the cure for overt acts of bravado is humility. Remember that everything else is relative; for every valiant cause, each brilliantly inspired feat of derring-do, and every token of admission into the annals of history or a loved one’s heart, there will always be one that is better, as well as someone needing nothing and wanting nothing else, except ourselves.

    In a manner of speaking, most accidents don’t just happen; in a way, they’re ‘planned’. Aside from the occasional act of God or the truly mystifying mechanical malfunction, most originate within ourselves. So, why do most accidents happen? Most of the time, we already know.