Judgment Day

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No, it's not your relationship with your makeróbut some serious thoughts on improving the ability to make better decisions in the cockpit.

To be a competent and a safe pilot you need an amazing array of information at your fingertips.

Sound judgment is only as good as the information available, the state of mind of the pilot, and his or her ability to rationally perceive a problem.

The reality of aeronautical decision making (ADM) often doesn’t fit neatly into the book solution.† Nor does analyzing accidents allow us to get into the mind of the deceased, to learn what factors influenced the fatal decision.

Knowledge Is Key

The first foundation in the judgment process is knowledge.† To be a competent and a safe pilot you need an amazing array of information at your fingertips—and most of it from immediate recall. Aircraft performance data such as V-speeds, fuel consumption and engine operation, combined with an in-depth understanding of weather phenomena, as well as current METARS and TAFs. A plethora of regulations and operating procedures to which you must adhere. And the list goes on.

But a lot of knowledgeable pilots are brought to an untimely end each year—so what’s the secret? As we learned early in life, experience has a lot to do with correlating knowledge with the current situation to make safe decisions about a pending problem.

There are numerous acronyms such as DECIDE and IMSAFE, to help us through the decision-making process. However, the word ‘decision’ doesn’t infer a qualitative factor as does the word ‘judgment.’ What is missing is the ability to assess threats (risk) in a rational manner.† More than likely we all think we do this.† Surely we often fool ourselves, or are fooled by, the circumstances that surround the event that is calling for, not just a decision—but the best choice—sound judgment.

Commitments Are Deadly

Few aspects cloud judgment more than a mind that is dealing with interfering thoughts—such as the ever popular “I gotta get there” obligation.† Typically a commitment that drives the pilot deeper into weather that neither the pilot nor the plane can handle, plays a large part in the accident chain. Another is an overly complex operating environment—lack of proficiency with an MFD or FMS that is presenting a mind boggling array of displays and push-button options.

This is not the publication in which you want to have your judgment analyzed.

We often review accident reports and second guess the unfortunate pilot’s judgment, wondering how thoughtless they could be for choosing option A when it’s obvious that option C was the correct and safe decision. However, when your mind is encumbered by one or more distracting factors, you too could make the wrong choice.

This is where scenario based training should help.† But does it—FAA analysis notwithstanding. The human mind is a complex organ that can play tricks on our thinking ability, and stress is just one of the factors.

FITS To The Rescue?

I attended a six-day session by a major aviation manufacturer several years ago.† It was allegedly based on the FITS (FAA Industry Training Standards) philosophy. However, it came up short.† Perhaps it was not well presented.† In the ensuing years I have been subject to several other “programs” that were likewise FITS based.† None effectively introduced any common stress or distraction factors in a realistic manner that would impede real-world decision making.†

The question then is, how can a critical issue be inserted into the training environment when the simulated event lacks reality—such as a personal commitment, an overwhelmed consciousness, or simply a lack of awareness?†††††

It is these real life events that impair the ability to make sound judgments.† Only when we survive the consequences of poor judgment, do we get an appreciation for the factors that almost killed us.† In rare cases, the pilot stops flying.† In some instances the pilot pursues remedial training or acquires more knowledge, or vows to get more thorough weather briefings. Of course there are those who may not appreciate how close they come to that other judgment day and proceed to repeat the same error. Not much can be done for the pilot who ignores basic currency requirements and one can only hope that the IPC and flight review (and a healthy dose of common sense) will bring stark reality to most of the pilot population.

An obvious solution is to avoid getting yourself into a situation that is often the first link in the accident chain; that business meeting on Monday morning—leave Saturday, not Sunday.† Plan intermediate fuel stops at places that can provide alternate transportation. Perhaps one solution is to have a strategy before leaving the ground to avoid having to make critical decisions under pressure.† But this is often unrealistic as there are many extenuating factors. Once the flight is launched the emotions and commitment aspects begin to mount. A risk assessment matrix can help bring into focus areas that you might not otherwise have considered.

There is nothing inherently wrong with launching with the intent of taking a look.† This is how we gain valuable experience and broaden our perspective.† The problem appears when we feel compelled, for whatever reason, to continue into conditions that are clearly beyond our capabilities.† Good judgment is when to recognize that point—rationally.

Summing It Up

The initial judgment factor may be in not backing yourself into a corner that subsequently requires greater piloting skills than you possess, or being at the mercy of other decisions that are made under the stress of a commitment.

One of the biggest threats to a pilot is lack of proficiency. When this is coupled to a chain of bad decisions, the result is predictable.

We know that accidents are rarely caused by a single factor, they are often a series of events—the accident chain.† Taking a critical look at each event and linking them into the whole is difficult until the final link presents the fateful summary conclusion.

We have to be aware of pivotal events that often lie outside the original planning boundaries. Anytime you encounter one of these, your risk-averse antenna should alert you.† Remove or mitigate the risk option, or you are in danger of continuing the chain.

Teaching Judgment

Can you train a pilot to react with considered judgment when emotions consume rational thought? Is it possible to define scenarios that exercise in-flight decision making under pressure? One solution is carefully scripted ‘progressive revelation’ scenarios to evaluate and ‘grow’ pilot judgment with changing conditions.

An effective technique for teaching judgment is to use a "progressive reveal" flight scenario in a simulator.

This is the period of training where I prefer to make an initial flight with a pilot in a simulator. When I introduce a factor that requires a decision, it is helpful to put the sim on HOLD to discuss questions or comments the pilot has about their options. This is difficult to do in the airplane, especially if you are in IMC and ATC is waiting for your response.

Scripting a scenario that involves a finite fuel supply, changing weather conditions (revealed during the flight) and realistic equipment failures can cause a pilot to exercise their ability to evaluate options and modify their flight strategy. While the answer appears simple, you can get yourself entangled with the distracting realities. Teaching judgment is a difficult and demanding task.

Learning from another person’s experiences by reading such books as Flying IFR (Collins), or Instrument Flying (Taylor) can proved a wealth of information and professional perspective.

Programs such as IFR Bootcamp or IFR Mastery (Pilot Workshops) is another means of gaining more knowledge, honing skills, and developing your ability to make better judgments. Some excellent scenarios can be found in the latter.

Ted Spitzmiller is a CFII with the Civil Air Patrol, FAASTeam member and Editor of IFR Refresher.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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