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Pilot Decision Making


Lindell Wilson, WVFC CFI

Decision Making - Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Much of our flying safety is dependent on anticipating and recognizing problems, and on the quality of the decisions we make. We hope for the best, but expect the worst.

We have all certainly read stories about aviation accidents and wondered how the pilot found themselves in that situation? Could this happen to me?

As pilots, we must anticipate potential problems, recognize problem signs, then make decisions and act to remedy the problem. Numerous pilot caused accidents can be traced back to one of the following;

1)    Pilot not recognizing potential hazard(s) and/or not taking timely action to avoid the hazard(s).

2)    Attempting to push the aircraft limits; overloading, fuel, and weather.

3)    Attempting to push the limits of the pilot; fatigue, nutrition, stress, skills, and proficiency.

So, where are some common decision points that we could use to help to improve the safety of our flights? Some possible decision points are;

1)    Pre-flight planning (IM SAFE, personal minimums, weather, aircraft equipment/performance)

2)    Preflight inspection (is the aircraft ready for the flight)

3)    Takeoff climb (weather still ok, plan is working)

4)    En-route (weather changes, winds, checkpoints as expected)

5)    Pre-landing (checklist, ATIS, winds, pattern entry)

6)    Landing (checklist, GUMP check, wind, runway)

I found this true story article in the Modesto Bee newspaper about “classic” bad pilot decision making.

“The pilot was flying a Piper Tri-Pacer from the Modesto airport with a passenger on her first airplane flight. Shortly after takeoff the pilot returned to the airport and made an emergency landing due to smoke coming out of the engine.

After landing, the pilot apparently found a broken exhaust hose clamp and went to the nearby Wal-Mart to get a new clamp. The pilot fixed the problem himself (no mechanic) then decided to take off again. The cockpit filled with smoke a second time, so the pilot declared a second emergency and landed.

The pilot found a small break (cut) in the exhaust hose and apparently replaced the hose. He took off a third time but this time the engine caught fire and he made a third emergency landing. His passenger (who was shaken), jumped from the aircraft on the runway and ended up in the hospital. The third landing caused damage to the aircraft (bounced landing), and the ensuing fire burned the aircraft 

Ian Gregor of the FAA indicated that officials were surprised that the 52-year-old pilot would try to take off a third time after having been forced to land twice because of smoke in the cockpit. We’re going to have a long talk with the pilot.”