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Pilot Decision Making


Lindell Wilson, WVFC CFI

Keep It Simple, Keep It Honest

Can we make Pilot Decision Making simple? After reading numerous articles about how pilots make decisions, I found several articles that suggested simple and easy to remember decision making steps. Many authors also stated that “even the best decision-making process can be circumvented” if the pilot is not honest with themselves about interpreting each decision step result. 

The AOPA Safety Advisor article on Decision Making suggests a simple three step process: Anticipate, Recognize, and Act.  

Anticipate– The pilot thinks ahead about what could go wrong, then considers possible responses in advance.

Recognize– The pilot recognizes a real or potential problem and considers the appropriate response.

Act– The Pilot considers the seriousness of the problem and available alternatives, then acts to mitigate the problem. 

Let’s consider a real example of an experienced Pilot who apparently did not utilize or misinterpreted (was not honest) the decision-making process. 

NALL Report 2008. McMurray, Washington. Three fatalities. A Cessna 172N pilot and two passengers departed VFR for an airport 85 nm to the southeast. No flight plan was filed. Marginal VFR and IFR conditions prevailed over a wide area including the entire planned route. The pilot received VFR traffic advisories during the first 15 minutes of the flight, maintaining a southeasterly track at altitudes between 2400 and 2500 msl from most of that time. Shortly before the radar service was terminated, the airplane began a gradual descent to 900 msl, followed by a series of turning climbs and descents between 1500 and 2200 msl. The last three radar returns indicated a descending right turn to 2200 msl, where the airplane crashed into a heavily wooded hillside. The 14,200-hour pilot, age 47, had an airplane multi-engine ATP rating, airplane single-engine commercial rating, turbojet powered rating, and various type ratings in transport category aircraft. 

Let’s look at the accident using the simple (and honest) decision making process.

1)    Anticipate – Poor preflight planning. VFR flight into marginal VFR and IFR conditions for the entire route. 

2)    Recognize – Poor preflight weather hazard recognition. During the flight, poor weather recognition, and scud-running up/down/around deteriorating weather.

3)    Act – Pilot failed to act to mitigate risks associated with deteriorating weather.

This sums it up… “Even the most expert pilots can’t count on avoiding obstacles they can’t see. The only safe way to fly in poor visibility is at altitudes where there’s nothing to hit. This pilot’s catastrophic decision to try to slip between descending weather and rising terrain is all the more surprising in light of her evident qualifications to make an instrument flight instead” (From the NALL Report 2008, ASF Comments).

So, how can I use Pilot Decision Making to make my flights safe? 

Answer: Anticipate, Recognize, and Act, plus be honest!

Additional Reading:   NALL Report 2008