Before you launch off into the clag, take a moment to review your decision-making process. Did you make your go/no-go decision for the right reasons? How well has your training and experience taught you that crucial skill: how not to go. A little introspection might just enhance your life expectancy.
January 10, 1997
Every flight consists of countless decisions, which for the most
part are made as a matter of routine. We decide on routing and
altitudes based on weather forecasts, we decide on fuel loads
based on weight and balance factors. The results of these decisions
are almost always predictable. People (especially pilots)
are reluctant to admit limitations and shortcomings; we like to
think each decision is a result of exceptional skill, careful
reflection, and thorough knowledge of all variables involved.
Perhaps other factors affect the decision making process? After
all, to err is human, to admit it impossible.
A pilot departs in a four place single into low instrument
meteorological conditions, with reports and forecasts of moderate
to severe ice. Shortly after takeoff the aircraft goes down. All
five people on board are killed.
The pilot of a popular low wing single engine airplane made
several attempts to land on a runway with a crosswind component
in excess of twenty-five knots. On the final attempt, he lost
control and was killed in the ensuing crash and fire.
After completing a night, non-precision approach, the pilot
of a corporate jet elected to land downwind. Touchdown occurred
approximately two-thirds down the runway. The airplane continued
at high speed across a road, through a fence and came to rest
in a field. There were no injuries, but the aircraft was substantially
In each of these examples there is a common thread. All three
accidents were the result of a poor decision, or decisions. Federal
Aviation Administration statistics for 1990 indicate 69.7 percent
of all general aviation accidents are related to human factors.
11.4 percent were mechanical related and the remaining 18.9 percent
were unknown or undetermined. The implications here are clear.
More than two-thirds of all accidents could be prevented by analyzing
human performance and decision making.
Hazardous Thought Patterns
What makes an otherwise rational person load five people into
a four place airplane and venture into weather which grounds airliners?
Why did an experienced pilot make continued attempts to land with
very strong, direct crosswinds when there were at least seven
airports with runways aligned into the wind within twenty- five
miles. A discussion of human personality traits and attitudes
may help clarify how such obviously poor (at least in hindsight)
decisions are made.
Researchers have identified five patterns of hazardous thought
which may contribute to accidents.
ANTI-AUTHORITY: This type of individual is apt to act
in a way contrary to safety simply in an attempt to defy authority.
This person thinks regulations are simply "a bureaucratic
waste of time," "checklists are for the other guy,"
and "aircraft manufacturer's limitations are to be ignored."
IMPULSIVITY: This pilot is likely to do anything, as
long as it's quick. "I'm sure the weather's ok, besides I'm
INVULNERABILITY: This thought pattern is perhaps the
most dangerous. This individual thinks "It won't happen to
me. After encountering unexpected head winds this pilot flies
past a good fuel stop "because things always work out."
MACHO: Also a very dangerous thought pattern. A Macho
individual believes "I can do it." For this person cancelling
(or even delaying) a flight is a sign of weakness and executing
go around is admitting defeat.
RESIGNATION: This person, when faced with a challenge,
thinks "what's the use." This pilot might continue flight
into deteriorating weather because "it's too late to turn
back, the decision's already been made."
Almost every pilot has experienced each of these thought patterns
at one time or another. Additionally, each of us can probably
identify friends or acquaintances who fit one of the categories.
The Bad Decision Chain
Accidents are seldom caused by a single bad judgment. They are
usually the result of a chain of bad decisions. The key to accident
prevention lies in recognizing, and breaking, that chain.
Step one, evaluate. When faced with a decision, check
to see if it is being made as a result of a hazardous thought
pattern. Remember, everyone is subject to each of the thought
patterns. Have all options been considered?
Step two, stop! If the decision is a result of a hazardous
thought pattern, break the chain early! Accidents are almost always
the result of a series of events and bad decisions.
Step three, verify. Before committing to a course of
action always check to see if there is a way out if things don't
turn out as expected. Never leave yourself with only one alternative.
Learn How Not To Go
In the course of flight training we spend significant effort on
learning how to complete a procedure. Once certified, even more
value is placed on "completing the mission." Most cross
countries are flown to the planned destination, most landings
to touchdown, and most instrument approaches to completion. The
go-no-go process shouldn't stop after take-off, it must be continuous.
The "no-go" decision may take the form of a diversion
to an alternate, a detour around weather, landing short of the
destination, or a go-around or missed approach.
For many of us this requires a change in thought process. We must
redefine in-flight diversions, go-arounds, and missed approaches
as normal procedures. The most important skill a pilot can learn
is when and how "not to go."
One footnote: recent statistics are encouraging. Previously mentioned
1990 figures indicate a 9.4 percent decrease in accidents caused
by human factors when compared with averages for the preceding