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Introduction to Aeronautical Decision Making

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from PocketLearning, September 2002
CFIDarren Newsletter, November 30, 2010

We used to believe that good judgment was obtained only as a natural by-product of experience.  But we know good judgment can be taught.  Mistakes in judgment can be fatal.  Effective risk assessment requires a good Aeronautical Decision Making model (ADM). The fundamentals of ADM include: 

  1. Identifying personal attitudes hazardous to safe flight;
  2. Learning behavior modification techniques;
  3. Learning to recognize and cope with stress;
  4. Developing risk assessment skills;
  5. Using all resources.
  6. Evaluating your ADM skills. 
The DECIDE model relies upon the pilot's ability to maintain situational awareness of all aspects of the flight.  We are all required to manage risks in flying.  The FAA espouses the DECIDE model to assist us in our choices:
Detect – the fact that a change has occurred
Estimate – the need to react to or counter the change
Choose – a desirable outcome for the flight or situation
Identify – actions to control the change successfully
Do – take the necessary actions
Evaluate – the effects of the action to react to or counter the initial change 
Using the DECIDE model should become the automatic response when something doesn't seem right.  Applying the DECIDE model before an accident can be useful in preventing it!  However, most pilots normally do not want to acknowledge that something might be amiss.  Your choice is to apply it before the accident happens or the rest of us will apply it as a case study of your accident.  Most preventable accidents have one common factor: human error, rather than a mechanical malfunction.

All experienced pilots have fallen prey to, or have been tempted by, one or more of these dangerous tendencies or behavior patterns in their flying careers:

  • Poor decision making based upon emotional response to peers rather than evaluating a situation objectively
  • The inability to recognize and cope with changes in the situation different from those anticipated or planned.
  • Clouds the vision and impairs judgment by causing a fixation on the original goal or destination combined with a total disregard for any alternative course of action. 
  • Tendency to sneak a peek by descending below minimums during an approach. Based on a belief that there is a built in “fudge” factor or an unwillingness to admit defeat and shoot a missed approach.
  • Pushing the pilot and aircraft capabilities to the limit by trying to maintain visual contact with the terrain while trying to avoid contact with it. (scud running)
  • Continuing VFR into IFR conditions often leads to spatial disorientation or collision with ground/obstacles. It is even more dangerous when not instrument rated or current.
  • Allowing events or the situation to control your actions rather than the other way around.
  • Loss of situational awareness which results in not knowing where you are, an inability to recognize deteriorating circumstances, and the misjudgment of the rate of deterioration.
  • Ignoring minimum fuel reserve requirements, either VFR or IFR, is generally the result of overconfidence, lack of flight planning, or ignoring the regulations.
  • Unjustified reliance on the (usually mistaken) belief that the airplanes high performance capability meets the demands imposed by the pilot's (usually overestimated) flying skills.
  • Unjustified reliance on the pilot's short and long term memory, regular flying skills, repetitive and familiar routes, etc.
Developing a good "personal minimums checklist" is an appropriate activity to build good aeronautical decision making skills.  For example:
  • Flight while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a never.
  • Flight with a known medical deficiency is never expedient or legal (FAR 61.53).
  • Flight outside the certified envelope is never safe.
  • Flight with less than the required minimum fuel is never reasonable.
  • VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions is never justified.
  • Descent below the applicable minimum enroute altitude is never justified.
  • Casual neglect of any applicable checklist is never justified.
  • Aircraft accident statistics show that pilots should be conducting preflight checklists on themselves as well as on their aircraft.
A good preflight personal check is the "IM SAFE" checklist:
lllness. Any Symptoms?
Medication. Prescription or OTC drugs?
Stress. Psychological, money, health, family?
Alcohol. Within 8 hours? Within 24 hours?
Fatigue. Adequately rested?
Eating. Enough proper foods for nourishment?
How to be a safe pilot?

Follow the rules.  Existing procedures, practices and regulations go a long way to mitigate accident statistics.

Resolving hazardous attitudes before they result in hazardous behaviours.

Safety Resources

IFR Risk Management
Things Your Flight Instructor Wish You Knew (Airplane) or Helicopter
15 Things Pilots Must Learn(Airplane) or Helicopter
Making Safe Choices
Flying Discipline
Hazardous Attitudes
Things Your Flight Instructor Worries About
Characteristics of Successful Pilots
Aviation Safety Programs
Personal Minimums Checklist (Airplane)
Flight Profile Flying - how to improve safety flying the profile
What's Killing Pilots - What to do to save your life

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