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Scrubbing the Flight

Knowing your personal limits amid a myriad of potential factors is incredibly important.

Small white microlight plane ready for take off on a rural field with corn fields alongside under a dramatic cumulus cloud formation

Bad decisions are part of life. In every field, many have made some excruciatingly poor decisions. Our regrets to the publishers who turned down the Harry Potter franchise. And how about the actors that had a chance to be in one of the most popular and profitable movie franchises, Star Wars? Definitely, a dog day afternoon turning that down. Live and learn.

Unfortunately, in the world of aviation, bad decisions can be more than a mere inconvenience or life lesson. In fact, they can be the last poor decision you ever make.

How do we protect ourselves from bad aeronautical decision-making (ADM)? One way is to learn from others’ mistakes. Have you ever read an NTSB aviation accident report and thought, “I would never do that! I would never get in that kind of a situation.” Well, it’s likely that the subject of that accident report also said those very words.

ADM begins well before the wheels leave the ground. In fact, the decision-making to scrub a flight should start the moment you roll out of bed, rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. Yep, the go/no-go decision process begins before the flush of the toilet.

[Photo: Adobe Images]

Ask yourself how you’re feeling. Did you get enough sleep? Remember that fatigue results in symptoms similar to being inebriated. Few aviators walking the face of this planet would think about drinking and flying. Statistics prove that, yet they also prove that there have been more than a few accidents with fatigue contributing to the accident sequence. 


And speaking of inebriation, let’s not forget the eight-hour rule “from bottle to throttle.” That well-known saying uses a standard timeline for pilots to refrain from alcohol if they have a flight in the coming hours. However, many experts agree that for some individuals, eight hours is not enough to rid your system of the ill effects of alcohol. Your weight and what you’ve eaten will generally dictate your tolerance to its harsh effects. While an eight-hour period might be enough to pilot an aircraft safely, many of you might need considerably more time between bottle and throttle, even if you are considered “legal” in the eyes of FAR 91.17 and the law.

In addition, excessive consumption of alcohol the night before a flight may cause a severe hangover for your planned next-day sortie. You might have fun on the dance floor with the lampshade on your head, but remember, they make movies about hangovers. Throwing caution to the wind and scrubbing your flight because of an excruciating hangover might be as good of a decision as you will make. Good advice? Scrub the flight, take two acetaminophen, and call me in the morning.

How about your stress level? Did a significant event recently happen that is weighing heavily on your mind? Job issues? Family health issues? Spouse/partner trouble? These can negatively impact your judgment and might be a good reason to make that “no-go” decision and fly another day instead.


In addition to the negative stressors, major positive life events can also affect judgment. These can include starting a new job, welcoming a newborn into your family, getting married, and even buying a home.

The fact is that any significant life event, whether positive or negative, can make it difficult to concentrate and can ultimately compromise the safety of your flight. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s probably a good indicator for you to make that “no-go” decision.

Also, take a quick inventory of the medication you are taking. Did you take anything that could affect your thought process and decision-making? Let’s not forget about herbal supplements as well. And something as innocuous as over-the-counter cold medication could put your head in a tailspin. Be prudent and cautious with your medicines. Err on the side of caution.

Once you have passed the IMSAFE checklist (below), it simply means that you are physically and emotionally fit to fly. It does not mean that you are immune from bad decisions. Several influences can tempt you to ignore your personal minimums leading up to a flight.

[Photo: Adobe Images]

Peer pressure is undoubtedly near the top of the list. Whether the perception of other pilots negatively influences you or you want your passengers to be in awe of your piloting skills, sometimes you have to say no.


Peer pressure also contributes to another “malady” that can lead to your day in the sky ending badly. “Get-home-itis” is a well-known condition in aviation circles that contributes to preventable accidents. It is the overwhelming desire to depart when other conditions—such as bad weather, maintenance issues, or failing any of the IMSAFE checklist items—dictate that it’s best to wait until later to fly. Get-home-itis usually is preceded by self-induced or passenger-related pressures to get home. You have likely read NTSB accident reports where the probable cause may not directly state “get-home-itis.” Still, the report makes evident to the casual observer that poor pilot judgment, combined with the crushing desire to get home, resulted in the often serious or fatal accident. While you may survive a singular bout of this condition, there’s no guarantee, and the statistics work against you if it becomes a recurring theme in your decision-making process.

So, how can you avoid falling into this potentially fatal trap? After all, you wouldn’t intentionally make a decision that would jeopardize your safety or that of your passengers.

Our most significant safeguard to prevent these irreparable mistakes is to acknowledge—and remain conscious of—the fact that we are susceptible and vulnerable to the flaws of human nature. It sounds simple enough, but we all know that admitting your faults—especially every time they arise—is easier said than done. The FAA recognizes five hazardous attitudes for pilots: anti-authority, impulsivity, invulnerability, macho, and resignation. Regardless of your social status, intelligence, or general goodness as a human being, you can exhibit one or more of these attitudes for a moment in time—and, unfortunately, that is all it takes to make an irreversible mistake. We all must recognize our potential to adopt these attitudes and consciously try to avoid or mitigate the associated risks.


In the end, a good rule is to recognize that a decision to scrub a flight, extend your pattern, hold over that fix for another circuit, or say something doesn’t feel right and return to the hangar is the best alternative to making that one irreversible bad decision. There are no do-overs. Learn from others, avoid becoming the statistic others read about, and say, “It won’t happen to me.” For some, statistically speaking, it will happen to them. Don’t let it be you.

As pilots, we face several challenges in our quest to enjoy our world of aviation. We’ve made a significant financial investment and  put in considerable time and effort to become FAA certificate holders. You could have all the piloting talent of a Top Gun fighter pilot, but if you are lax in your decision-making, your destiny is that of a statistic in the worst possible sense of that word. While most of us are born with good judgment and the ability to make sound decisions, we all could use a little reminder and remedial training on what it takes to make good decisions.

It’s also wise to remember that while you may think you fly the airplane with your hands, you mostly fly it with your head. Make good use of your mind and excellent decision-making ability, and live to fly another day.

Windsock with cloudy sky background. Wind southwest. [Photo: Adobe Images]

Whether it’s bad ADM or some other culprit, what if you find yourself aloft and realize you are now in a dangerous situation? This results from a chain of events that typically precipitates the terror that comes once you find yourself in the unenviable position of danger in an airplane. And while the steps leading up to that point in time might have taken a while to develop, in a moment you realize the seriousness of your predicament, and your reaction is called the “startle effect.”


The startle effect occurs as a first response to something unexpected that triggers involuntary physiological reflexes. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and muscle tension are some of the few physical characteristics of someone experiencing it. Decision-making and the inability to quickly assess the situation will likely be affected. Luckily, the startle effect typically lasts less than a second or two, at which point the return to cognitive thinking and the subsiding of the condition allows for assessment of the situation.

While you may be a victim of this circumstance, you would most likely experience the psychology of surprise during any life-threatening airborne emergency, regardless of how it develops, whether because of a bad decision to take flight or something beyond your control, such as an engine failure from a catastrophic component malfunction. This occurs when the variance between your expectation and what presents itself occurs.

Sometimes the surprise supersedes the startle effect. And, sometimes, they go hand in hand. Examples of this would be an engine failure on takeoff or a sudden foray of a VFR pilot into IFR conditions. The effects are similar to the startle effect.

But how can the startle effect lead back to good ADM? Several factors contribute to it, including fatigue, stress, distractions, and other things you will find on the IMSAFE list. Therefore, reviewing this checklist before every flight will help assure any situation resulting in the startle effect during your journey will be handled to the best of your ability and capability, minimizing the risk inherent in startle and surprise.


As certificated pilots, you should conduct your flights to mitigate risk and allow for the safety and well-being of you and your passengers, as well as those on the ground.

Save this article, and put it under your pillow at night. Do whatever it takes to make your skies safe, and live to fly another day.

The FAA’s “IMSAFE” Checklist

Illness: Are you sick or feeling sick?

Medications: Have you taken any medications that could affect your thought process and decision-making? This could be something as simple as over-the-counter cold medication.

Stress: Are you under any undue stress, whether positive or negative? Family, financial, and spouse/partner issues are common stress inducers. Stress is known to affect judgment negatively.


Alcohol: Even though the eight-hour rule “from bottle to throttle” is well known, many experts agree that for some individuals eight hours is not enough to rid your system of the ill effects of alcohol. United Airlines now requires its pilots to refrain from drinking alcohol for at least 12 hours before reporting for duty.

Fatigue: Have you had enough sleep and nutrition? This is something you’ll need to reevaluate during your preflight. We are all individuals, so six hours of sleep and a Big Mac are sufficient for some of us to get through the day. For others, 10 hours and a well-balanced meal fit the bill. Whatever it is for you, ensure you are well rested, fully nourished, and ready for flight.

Emotion: Have you experienced any emotional, upsetting events preceding your planned flight? Are you dealing with the severe illness of a family member? Did you have to spend a day in court? Did you get into a shouting match with the neighbor? Were you on the receiving end of road rage? All these factors can harm your emotional health and, in turn, produce additional stress. As noted above, this is a vicious circle that certainly could affect your readiness to fly.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine.


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