Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pilot In Command

Decision-making is key, not just for Red Bull Air Race competitors, but all general aviation pilots

Confidence is required to make any decision, good or bad. A good decision will always have the right balance of confidence, offset by respect for environmental factors, aircraft capability, pilot experience and ability. Don’t ignore your gut feeling if something doesn’t seem right, and believe in your abilities when you’re making a decision.

Another decision-making factor, one of the most challenging to deal with in the air-racing world, is one that we’ve all faced before and might not even have known it. I call it the “cost-benefit trap.”

In aviation, the nonfinancial cost side of the cost-benefit equation is generally clear as it pertains directly to flight safety. The benefit side is less clear, especially in a noncommercial setting, but could be driven by ego, competition or something as trivial as not wanting to get stuck and spend the night 20 miles from a final destination. In the race environment I’m often faced with critical decisions influenced by emotion and the cost-benefit trap multiple times in a flight.

In the last race of the season, we were experiencing poor weather with showers on and off all day. Rain is a huge safety factor in the track as it drastically reduces the available G in a corner, significantly increasing the potential for a low-level accelerated stall. Airborne and in the final hold, engine leaned, prop set and positioning for my final run in, I was effectively “all systems go.”

Seconds before my clearance into the track, I had some light rain on the canopy and noticed a shower had begun on the north side of the track. Race control confirmed the track was clear of rain and cleared me into the track. Despite the pressures of being mentally and physically ready to go, TV cameras rolling and 100,000 fans in the grandstand, I aborted the run. When everything is ready to go and they give you the “Smoke-On” call, it’s not an easy decision to make based only on the chance of shower waiting for you on the 11-G corner from gate 3 to 4. It was a good decision as the rain forced a delay in racing.

This illustrates both how imperfect information and a cost-benefit trap can make a seemingly simple decision quite difficult. Whether it’s to the benefit of a happy sponsor for a win in the track or a happy spouse for making it home on time from a Sunday fly-in, it’s not worth the cost of even the smallest amount of unmanaged risk. I think we can all agree that both the sponsor and the spouse would rather accept the necessary change in plans over the potential alternatives.

From the last example, you can see how one of the biggest contributors to a poor decision can be imperfect information. This could come in the form of an inaccurate weather forecast or even a faulty fuel gauge. Be defensive with the information you use to make a decision and always consider the possibility it’s not perfect. When I race, I have to trust my aircraft and my track data 100%. However, if something isn’t right, I’m ready to alter my plan in an instant because I accept the possibility that something might have changed.
Strong pilot decision-making is the boundary layer that separates us from the often immediate and potentially dangerous consequences we all can face as a result of poor decisions in the air, whether racing under a 40-foot bridge or in the pattern at your flying club. The next time you fly, don’t forget to bring your head with you to keep your hands and feet company!

Pete McLeod, 26, is the youngest pilot ever to compete in the Red Bull Air Race. In 2010, Pete captured 33 world championship points, finishing the season in fifth place overall. Pete grew up flying float planes in northern Canada and excelled at unlimited competition aerobatics.


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