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Pilot Decision Making


Lindell Wilson, WVFC CFI

Pilot Decisions - The Right Stuff or Not?

Pilot decision-making is often casually associated with the “right stuff” and discussed in various articles such as “never again”.  Pilot decision-making is serious business and the FAA estimates that 80% of all aviation accidents are related to human factors. In addition, many researchers believe that traditional Analytical models for decision-making are not always optimum for pilots where stress and/or time-critical decisions must be made. So, what is the best decision-making model?  Let’s explore several different decision-making models to answer that question.

Decision-making models range from simple to complex. Several examples include the simple OODA, Automatic/Naturalistic, and the more complex Analytical decision process models.

The OODA loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) by John Boyd, USAF retired, is a simple process, easy for pilots to remember, and can be quickly used to determine the necessary actions.

The Automatic/Naturalistic model is of medium complexity, and is believed by many researchers to be the most natural human decision model. This model uses the DECIDE six step process; Detect, Estimate, Choose a course of action, Identify solutions, Do the necessary actions, and Evaluate the effects of the action. The Automatic/Naturalistic model leverages both pilot training and experience during the Identify solutions step.

The Analytical model is more complex. It uses the same DECIDE six step process, BUT the Analytical model requires the consideration of several alternative solutions to determine the best course of action. Research has shown that it is unlikely that people can Evaluate and apply Analytical strategies in less than a minute. Therefore, while the Analytical model could be effective during preflight planning for example, it may not be effective during in-flight situations where stress and/or time constrains are present.

So, which is the best decision-making model for pilots? The answer is… it depends on the situation.
Here are two examples of “what not to do” where pilots failed to effectively use both the Analytical model during preflight, and the OODA loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) during the flight. Source NTSB Safety Alert, SA-23 March 2013.

1)     A private pilot (not instrument rated) and his three passengers were killed after the pilot experienced spatial disorientation and lost control of a Cirrus SR20 in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The pilot had attempted a descent toward an airport that was reporting IMC, but he could not find it and told the air traffic controller that he was flying “in and out” of clouds. After the controller learned that the pilot was not qualified for flight in IMC, another controller advised the pilot of several nearby airports that were reporting visual weather conditions. The pilot initially indicated that he would divert to one of those airports but then changed his mind. Shortly after the pilots last communication with controllers, the airplane entered a right turn that tightened abruptly before the airplane descended to the ground in a steep, nose-down attitude.

2)     A pilot and his three sons were killed when he lost control of his Mooney M20J airplane, which collided with mountainous terrain in a rapid descent. Before the flight, the pilot had obtained weather briefings that included advisories for mountain obscuration, turbulence, and icing. The pilot had previously canceled his plans to fly the trip (the purpose of which was to return home from vacation) due to adverse weather conditions, and he had made alternate arrangements for himself and his sons to travel home on a commercial airline. However, when the airline flight was canceled (for non-weather reasons), the pilot decided to depart on the accident flight. The pilot’s decision to depart into known adverse weather was a cause of the accident. The investigation identified several safety issues, including evidence that the pilot’s self-imposed time pressure adversely affected several safety aspects.