Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Risk Management

Do we know what we don’t know?

In the art of managing risk, preflight is often the best preventive measure we can take. Patty Wagstaff flies an OV-10 Bronco for the California Department of Forestry during fire season.
There’s an interesting syndrome called the Dunning–Kruger effect. Wikipedia says the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” To put it more simply, let me quote Warren Buffet: Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing.

If learning what not to do is as important as learning what to do, how do we find out what we don’t know? I believe pilots are morally responsible to learn as much as possible from incidents, accidents and close calls. In aviation, every mishap, every moment of anxiety in the cockpit, every close call contains a pearl of wisdom.

The stories are easy to find. Hangar flying is wonderful because even if the storyteller tends to exaggerate, we can learn a lot. We can gain knowledge and insight from books, magazines, safety journals and NTSB reports. The United States has the best safety reporting system in the world. Take advantage of it. The FAA publishes preliminary accident and incident reports daily. The NTSB studies and dissects the causes of every accident, and makes its findings available to anyone in the world in a timely fashion. Read them regularly and learn from pilots who have made mistakes, both stupid and honest.

Every time a general aviation airplane crashes, we all get a bad rap and a bad rep. There’s one less member of the public who will look up in wonderment and awe at an airplane flying. There’s one more noise complaint. There’s more fear, heightened anxiety, higher insurance rates, increased legal fees and yet another knee-jerk reaction of tighter rules and regulations aimed at the lowest common denominator. Ugh! “No man is an island.” We can teach each other, we can educate ourselves, we can take it seriously and realize that, like it or not, we’re all in this together to keep the skies safe, free and accessible to new pilots.

Cave Diving And You

What, you may ask, does cave diving have to do with flying? Not much. But it has a lot to do with risk management.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who enjoys scuba diving in central Florida’s intricate system of fresh-water springs and underground caves. When I asked how dangerous it is, he told me that cave diving used to have a terrible and tragic safety record. Since 1950, nearly 400 divers perished in Florida’s caverns and caves, most of them having no formal training in cavern or cave diving. From The Cave Diving Website (

In the 1960s and 1970s, cave diving pioneer Sheck Exley conducted a careful study of cave diving fatalities. What he discovered was that, in virtually every instance, the victims’ demise could be attributed to one or more of just three direct causes. Later, National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) Training Chairman Wes C. Skiles identified two additional factors that, while not directly responsible for divers’ deaths, nonetheless contributed substantially to most such fatalities. Together, the findings of Exley and Skiles form the basis for what cave divers know as the Rules of Accident Analysis.

The Insurance Perspective

By Angie Harris, President of CannonAviation Insurance

With regard to analyzing and managing risk, I believe there are three main elements we look at in the aviation-insurance industry, which also can be applied to almost any situation: the operator, the equipment and the environment. In our case, the operator is the pilot, the equipment is the aircraft, and the environment is the usage. By looking at these three elements, we can begin to analyze and manage risk at the basic level. In aircraft insurance, we can manage the risk of the operator (pilot) by requiring initial training, recurrent training, annual medical exams, etc. We reduce the equipment risk by exploring the aircraft’s history, whether it be loss history in general on that make and model, or discovery of unrepaired damage from a previous accident involving that specific aircraft. With the environment comes a number of risks to analyze, ranging from typical weather conditions it’s operating under to the use of the aircraft—air shows, charter, aerial mapping, etc. By gathering information on these three key elements, which is essentially what we do, we can mitigate the risk that comes with insuring an aircraft.

When an underwriter agrees to insure an aircraft, they’re assuming a certain amount of known risk from the information they’ve gathered. However, they’re also assuming a certain amount of unknown risk. We can’t control the three elements as they may be deviated from, especially when considering the human factor that’s so deeply embedded in aviation. The operator has the freedom of decision, and those decisions typically are the leading cause of most aircraft accidents.


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