To Go or Not to Go

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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.

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 damaged.

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 late."

  • 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 six years.