A safe flight relies on making the right choices. Decision Making is a major factor in aircraft accidents and incidents. Accident data show that the majority of fatal accidents are attributable to decision errors rather than to errors of perception and action. It is therefore essential to make good decisions before and during the flight.
Prepare your flight thoroughly considering for instance weather, airspace, airfields, aircraft state, fuel endurance and physical and mental fitness (am I fit to fly today, am I feeling good and alert?) and plan for contingencies. Once airborne, continually monitor what’s going on to maintain situational awareness and act accordingly. Be ready to adapt or deviate from the plan as the situations evolves.
Factors affecting decision making
Some factors influence decision making such as time pressure, workload, competences and experience, fatigue and sleep deprivation, stress, and perception, awareness and understanding of the situation.
Decision making errors
Here are some common examples of decision making errors:
- Misinterpreting or misdiagnosing a situation.
- Underestimating risks or not managing them effectively.
- Taking risks in order to save time, please a passenger or the boss, reach an aerodrome before it closes, getting to the planed destination or returning home early, etc.
- Pressing on when a situation degrades and gets worse, a human tendency (also called cognitive bias) known as Press-on-itis or Get-there-it-is.
How to make good decisions
What can you do to make good decisions and avoid decision making errors?
- Resist pressures including from family and friends, from the boss (if you have one), customers and from… yourself! Never try to impress anyone!
- Plan your flight: pre-flight planning performed in a quite environment allows producing a safe strategy for the flight. Plan ahead to select a safe route and establish decision points for each flight phase. Good pre-flight planning also reduces the workload once airborne. Have a plan B but don’t be overconfident and accept or take risks because you have a plan B! Practice contingency planning: “What if something goes wrong during the flight?”
- Set your personal minimums and stick to them: cancel or delay the flight if conditions are poor or degrading!
- Don’t take chances! Risk taking make accidents more likely to happen.
In flight, stay alert to changing situations and adjust your plan as the situation evolves.
- Refer to the aircraft Pilot’s Operating Handbook and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which provide pre-planned solutions to manage normal, abnormal and emergency situations.
- Use your prime resources: radio, GPS, autopilot, Helicopter Terrain Awareness System (TAWS), Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) and other technologies with safety benefits.
- Contact Flight Information Services (FIS) and Air Traffic Control (ATC) centres. Never hesitate to report if you are lost or experience a problem in flight and to declare an emergency! Air Traffic Controllers will help you.
- If the situation gets very bad, depending on fuel endurance and aircraft state return to base, divert to another airfield or Land & LIVE - a unique capability of Rotorcraft and Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft.
Aids to decision making
There are various aids to decision making that you might find useful.
Remember the 5 P’s: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
FADEC (helps prioritising tasks):
- Fly the Helicopter: Be aware of aircraft limitations and if the conditions permit, use all available aircraft automation systems, auto-pilot, etc.
- Assess Situation (Risk and Time): More time spent assessing the situation can lead to a better outcome. Try to avoid snap/quick decisions unless time available is very short
- Decide on a workable option and refer to abnormal or emergency checklists: Continue assessing the situation and action as the situation evolves (feedback loops).
- Evaluate: Consider your options, assess the pros and cons of each one.
- Communicate: with ATC and also ground for collaborative decisions review and with other personnel as appropriate.
And of course, never forget to Aviate, navigate and communicate (in that order).
Hazardous attitudes and solutions
Certain attitudes are known to lead to poor decisions. Know and recognize these attitudes in yourself and others. When you actively look for them, you can do something to help stay safe.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” This attitude is found in people who tend to regard rules, regulations and procedures as unnecessary burdens.
Solution: Follow the rules, they are that way for a good reason.
“Must do something now!” This is the attitude of people who frequently feel the need to do something, anything, immediately.
Solution: Not so fast. Don’t rush into action: think first, and think twice!
“It won’t happen to me.” Many people feel that accidents happen only to others, but can’t happen to them. Pilots who think this way are more likely to take chances.
Solution: Mind that that it could happen to you too!
Macho or egocentric:
“I can do it – I’ll show them what I can do!” Pilots with this attitude often take risks to prove that they are good and to impress others.
Solution: Taking chances is foolish! Even improbable things can happen!
“What's the use?” Pilots with this mindset will leave the action to others and are likely to give up in case of an emergency.
Solution: React and never give up! There is always something you can do, uses all resources at your disposal.
Training and further learning
A good pilot never stops learning. Here are some additional training that you might like to consider.
Threat and Error management (TEM) Training:
TEM training can be referred to as a form of ‘defensive flying’ for pilots. The objective of TEM is to manage in an effective manner the risks stemming from threats and errors to ensure a safe flight, prevent Undesired Aircraft States (UAS) and avoid that UAS result in accidents.
Decision Making Training:
As early as possible in their training, pilots should be made aware of the characteristics and limitations of human decision making. Trainers should emphasise the importance of maintaining Situation Awareness and of prioritising responses to UAS.
Simulator decision making training:
Simulators allow training decision making and TEM in demanding high-stress high-workload situations or in situations with poor, incomplete or conflicting information. Training scenarios can be tailored to the trainees needs. Simulators provide a safe environment to explore poor decisions consequences without endangering the safety of the aircraft and its occupants.
Here is a rich selection of references useful for instructors, pilots, safety managers and line managers: