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Pilot Decision Making


Lindell Wilson, WVFC CFI

Decision Making – Evaluating Risk

Good decision making involves managing and minimizing risks before and during each flight. Common risks include pilot related (human factors) and environmental (airport, weather, night/day, aircraft, etc.) or some combination of both.  Many risks can be identified before the flight, however unexpected risks may exist or develop before or during the flight. In all cases, identifying the risk and then choosing a course of action to minimize the risk is always the best practice.

The FAA Pilot Handbook is a great source of information regarding Aeronautical Decision-Making including how to identify risks. Chapter 17 lists these Steps for Good Decision-Making;

1. Identifying personal attitudes hazardous to safe flight.

2. Learning behavior modification techniques.

3. Learning how to recognize and cope with stress.

4. Developing risk assessment skills.

5. Using all resources.

6. Evaluating the effectiveness of one’s ADM skills.

In the same chapter, figure 17-1 illustrates the percentage of accidents as they relate to different phases of flight. Interestingly, the accident percentages are highest for takeoff/initial climb 23.4% and for landing 24.1% phases.

Below is a list of some of the elements pilots should evaluate for possible risks prior to takeoff/initial climb. There are other risks, so add your own.

1.     Aircraft performance, weight and balance, takeoff roll, climb rate, density altitude, avionics programming

2.     Weather, wind direction and speed, temperature, visibility, day/night

3.     Airport terrain, obstacles, runway length/width/slope/surface

4.     Human factors, pilot psychology, sleep, stress, external pressures, food, passengers, situational awareness.

We can learn from accidents at KPAO. Here is a snap shot of some takeoff accidents found on the AOPA Airports directory. Can you identify the risks?

KPAO, Beech 23, August 23, 2011

On August 23, 2011, at 0940 Pacific daylight time, a Beech A23-24, N5779V, experienced a total loss of engine power and the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) landed the airplane on a dirt road 2 miles north of Palo Alto Airport, Palo Alto, California. The CFI and student pilot operated the airplane under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The airplane was substantially damaged, and neither the CFI nor student pilot were injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed. The local instructional flight originated at the Palo Alto Airport around 0830.

The CFI related to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator that after the eighth touch-and-go landing, and while in the pattern flying upwind, the engine began to lose rpm and then quit when they were 300 feet above ground level (agl). The CFI identified a dirt road and landed the airplane. During the landing roll, the left wing tip struck a tree and spun the airplane off the road and into a field of tall grass next to the road.

KPAO, Cessna 172

The certified flight instructor (CFI) reported that the student pilot, who was seated in the left seat, was performing a short field takeoff. The CFI said that during the takeoff, the airplane yawed left dramatically and became airborne in a nose-high attitude. The CFI reported that she took control and "pushed" forward on the yoke and regained control of the airplane; however, in the process, the airplane collided with an anemometer pole. The CFI reported that she was able to continue the flight, entered a non-standard pattern for the runway and landed without further incident. The airplane sustained substantial damage to the horizontal stabilizer; damage was also noted to the right wing. No pre accident mechanical deficiencies or anomalies with the airplane were reported.

KPAO, Cessna 172, January 9, 2009

The pilot reported that after takeoff, and during a left turn, he heard a sudden change in the engine sound followed by a loss of power. He stated that he increased and decreased the throttle with little response from the engine and elected to make a precautionary landing onto a nearby levy. During the landing roll on the levy, the airplane veered to the right, exited the levy, and nosed over in a bog. Both wings sustained substantial damage. Examination of the engine revealed that the oil pump/tachometer drive gear separated from the base of its driveshaft. Metallurgical examination revealed that the oil pump drive gear failed at the intersection of the shaft and gear. Scanning electron microscope images of the fracture showed raised and flattened areas typical of contact damage during cyclic loading. The cause of the fracture was not determined.

See Additional information at AOPA Safety Advisor – Mastering Takeoffs & Landings