We’ve been talking about how to survive our addiction to flying for a long time now, since the beginning of aviation, in fact. We’ve called it Airsense, Headwork, Judgment, Threat and Error Management, and other names not fit to print, but now we have a relatively new label for it: Risk Management. As the FAA transitions from the Practical Test Standards to the Airman Certification Standards in 2016, you’ll hear a lot more about Risk Management (RM), since it will be evaluated on the practical test, flight reviews, etc. There will be no shortage of aerial educators, pontificators and bombasticators, myself included, discussing RM and how it applies, in excruciating detail, to the practical test. But, before that happens, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to put RM into context.
While technology, in and out of the cockpit, has exponentially increased our ability to identify and, therefore, manage risk, we’ve not done a good job of overcoming the very real limitations of our own personalities. At its core, RM is about how we balance our achievement-oriented, self-confident personalities with the very real risks involved in flying—so we don’t do something stupid.
There are two classic approaches to presenting RM, the first being academic. As academics, we talk about models, quote statistics and draw conclusions to make our points, even if those statistics were drawn from arguably questionable data. I know; I did it for years. Then there’s the anecdotal approach. Pull out a good war story, sprinkle it with a touch of humor, add a dash of theory, don’t forget the embellishment, and you have a pretty good recipe for an RM lesson. I know; I did it for years. Well, I still do it; but, in my defense, I spent a lot of years being paid by the government to do stupid stuff in airplanes, so I have a few good stories. Full disclosure: All the other stupid stuff I’ve done in airplanes, I’ve done for free. But instead of either of these classic approaches, I want to offer you four pieces of advice that have worked for me.
1. If in doubt, don’t. (Do You Have An Accident Personality?)
2. If you feel uncomfortable in an airplane, you’ve already exceeded your limitations. (Anxiety And Pilots)
3. Plan every approach to a go-around. (Why Can't We All Just Go Around?)
4. Get an honest flight review every year. (Designing Your Flight Review)
If you’re good with these, thanks for your attention…Blue Skies, Tailwinds, Keep the dirty side down and pointy end forward (the inverse for helicopters) and Keep ’Em Flyin’. If you need a bit more convincing, please read on.
“I’m suggesting we like to take on challenge and adventure, and risk is an inherent part of both.”
If In Doubt, Don’t
Pilots, by nature, are achievement-oriented individuals. Once we decide to do something, like fly from here to there, we generally do it. The problem is that all the traits that make you a successful pilot—intelligence, confidence, problem-solving skills, attention to detail and, of course, impeccable good looks (choose any four)—tend to make you more willing to take on challenge and its associated risk. I’m not suggesting we’re reckless adrenaline junkies; I’m suggesting we like to take on challenge and adventure, and risk is an inherent part of both.
That goal-oriented drive can be a real problem when making go, no-go decisions. It’s easy to make a no-go decision when there’s a tornado watch all along your route of flight; it’s a lot harder to make one when conditions are marginal. More times than not, you’ll opt for a take-a-look strategy, even if your analytical self says the risks may outweigh the benefits. It’s even harder to abort when you’re airborne and the destination is just a few more miles ahead. “It’s not that bad yet. I wonder what it might be like just ahead. Should I turn around? It’s just a few miles ahead.” Sound familiar? This is doubt creeping into your decision-making, and probably for good reason. I see a lot of this behavior when administering practical tests: “The weather is a little iffy, Roger, what do you think?” “The crosswinds are a bit strong today, what do you think?” “I wouldn’t fly solo today, what do you think?” I think if you have doubts, don’t! If you find yourself questioning whether the course of action is acceptable, it’s probably not. Simply don’t do it.
For more on making the call, see The Go/No-Go Decision.
If You Feel Uncomfortable In An Airplane, You’ve Already Exceeded Your Limitations
We’ve evolved to sense danger, but since we don’t have a lot of saber-toothed predators skulking about the airport, we tend to ignore those senses. That gut feeling, that tingling in your spine, that elevated heart rate, the hair sticking up on the back of your neck are all signs your highly evolved, if under-exercised, senses are telling you something. In flying, it’s usually that your skill-available-to-skill-required ratio is getting lopsided. Trust your senses, stop what you’re doing, don’t do what you’re about to do, turn around, go around—whatever it takes to remove you from the immediate situation. Think of it this way: If you found yourself walking down a well-lit street in a strange city with a somewhat dubious reputation and have the choice of walking a block or two farther to your destination or cutting down a dimly lit alley with a few pairs of red eyeballs blinking at you, you’d probably walk a few more blocks. So why would you continue to fly toward worsening weather, at lower and lower altitudes, in worsening visibility, when you could divert? Just sayin’.
To learn more about how the brain reacts to stressful situations in the air, read Crisis: Your Brain On Overload and The Human Factor: Panic. If you're looking for a plan for hazardous situations, check out Worst-Case Weather Scenarios.
Plan Every Approach To A Go-Around
Admittedly, this is a hybrid of the other two, but go-arounds bear special attention. We hurt a lot of people, bend a lot of metal and give insurance companies a lot of our money because, as a group, we turn bad approaches into equally bad landings. I see this routinely on practical tests, flight reviews and 61.58 checks, not to mention a lot of Internet videos. I suggest you imagine a smoke doughnut somewhere off the approach end of the runway. Make a deal with yourself that unless the airplane is on a stabilized approach—meaning at the right airspeed, the right descent rate, trimmed and pointed at the runway with crosswind control inputs at the ready—you’ll execute a go-around at the doughnut. It can be a big or small doughnut, size doesn’t matter. It can be close to or father away from the approach end, depending on the aircraft, your experience level and your proficiency. The more proficient you are, the smaller it may be—but no matter how good you think you are, go around if you don’t meet the criteria you’ve agreed to.
Get An Honest Flight Review Every Year
By honest, I mean find an instructor who will give you a thorough and objective evaluation. I know we feel more comfortable going to someone we know and haven’t had a bad experience with; after all, this is how we pick examiners and dentists. But ask if you’re getting a complete evaluation of your potential weaknesses. Flight reviews are an opportunity for you to identify potentially lethal problems in your Knowledge, Skills and Risk Management abilities. Is your buddy, who doesn’t instruct anymore, but gives you your flight review, the right person for the job? Many professional flight instructors offer flight reviews for free, because they believe they’re that important. If you think you’re getting nothing because you paid nothing, think again; what you’re getting is priceless. Why once a year? Airline pilots get a check every six months, almost all corporate pilots, at least once a year. Why not you? Just sayin’.
As we transition to the new Airman Certification Standards, we’ll get into more detail on Risk Management, but for now, I hope these few pieces of advice help keep it all in perspective.
Let me say this advice wasn’t for buffoons. If you’re one of those pilots who knowingly disregards regulations, takes unnecessary risks, endangers your unwitting passengers or otherwise acts like an aerial ass-clown, I don’t expect you to take any of the advice I, or anyone else, might offer. But since you’re going to fly anyway, I have just one request: Fly solo.
Roger Sharp is a pilot, an instructor and a designated examiner from San Antonio, Texas. For weekend fun, he flies warbirds with the Commemorative Air Force.