Top Ten Aviation Risk Reduction Steps

Manage risk wisely by developing a set of policies to implement when results are too threatening.

By Dave Higdon

How's this for an aviation truism? "The best pilots possess the superior judgment to avoid situations requiring their superior skills to survive." While arguably more true than a whole wealth of aeronautical truisms, it doesn't provide much guidance in our quest to become one of those wiser and more-capable aviators. Which raises an obvious question: How does one develop such profound judgment?

Old, no-longer-bold, aviators (another truism) generally know the answer: by surviving unwanted experiences. Which reminds us that experience is hands-down the best teacher, something we hear repeatedly. We're not saying that experience is the safest teacher; obviously, the learning pilot faces elevated risks in the course of gaining the experience from which wisdom grows.

Aviation Risk Reduction Steps

A safer approach, of course, is absorbing tribal knowledge from those sobering hangar-flying tales of others' experiences we hear and read. Another approach is to sample risky situations from safely within the confines of a full-motion cockpit simulator capable of providing exposure to palm-sweating situations without the, you know, danger. In the end, however, we have to emerge from the sim, leave the comfort of our fellow hangar flyers, and actually put on an airplane and fly it.

Regardless of our degree of skill and experience, the trick to safely nudging the envelope comes in knowing as much about what we don't know as what we think we know and weighing those factors wisely before we venture forth. And the process of weighing those elements before making the call is a process known as "risk management."

Risk Management Basics

First off, what exactly is risk? Borrowing a widely used formula, we can describe risk as the product of a known threat weighed against the probability of that threat occurring. Another way to express it would be something like Risk = Probability x Consequences.

Our risk-managed learning process begins the first time we venture out alone. Our maiden solo is just the first of such envelope-expanding experiences we'll face.

What's the threat in a first solo? The student crashing, of course, or freezing at the controls, or running the plane off the runway, or.... Since it's our CFIs who urge us into that first solo flight, we can reasonably infer that the CFI has made that risk assessment for us, and gave us the nod when the instructor gauges as low the probability of a bad result.

But the confidence shown by our CFI, who did the heavy lifting in risk-management for our first solo, is the first of a very few times in which we can acceptably cede judgment to another. By the time we embark on our CFI-approved solo cross-country, we're at the point where all further in-flight decision making is all ours.

Murphy's Law

Let's presume you're a fresh private pilot and you're about to nudge your experience by launching a long flight for which conditions are forecast to be mostly good. And you really want to make this trip.

The first step in managing the unexpected, according to Kathleen Sutcliffe, an authority in performance management who presented her views at the 2007 Bombardier Safety Standdown, is to expect failure. And manage accordingly. It sounds simple in its philosophy; it's the execution, though, that divides those who do well from those who don't.

What if you get en route and the weather heads below VFR minima? The hazard stays the same—an accident—but the probability has gone up. Your risk increases. Can you assure yourself an out? And what outcome can you expect in the event of these bad turns?

Just check the statistics on continuing VFR flight into IMC conditions. You'll see that they are bad—quite bad. So it's reasonable to believe that launching VFR into marginal weather is highly risky because of the high probability for conditions to deteriorate around the VMC-only pilot.

Applying our simple formula from above, we easily see the risk of a bad outcome—a crash—increases when multiplied by the greater potential for a situation to go from marginal to bad. In this situation, examining the options in the event of weather taking a turn for the worse is a first step in managing risk.


When the degree of damage times the likelihood of an instigating event is high, maybe going another day—one with a slam-dunk VMC forecast—is the only way to lower the risk.

Plan "Outs" Ahead Of Time

Under common risk-management thinking, no one should face an identified risk without first formulating an escape plan. In the case of our pilot discarding the go-another-day option, he'd be well-served to weigh escape options should that weather change occur.

For the VFR pilot who has yet to learn better, where would you turn should conditions ahead deteriorate? If the weather forces you back after a certain point, will terrain allow you to safely maintain VFR or force you into an unsafe, illegal VFR into IMC situation? Absent a favorable answer, you're exposing yourself to increased risk.

Plan the No-Go Decision

Another element in planning for failure comes in considering at what point you will make a new decision. Do you, as our blossoming VFR pilot, make the turnaround decision upon learning that conditions are slowly deteriorating to marginal—or even full IFR—or do you instead decide to wait until you actually encounter those inclement conditions? Does that difference allow an out? Or, again, will the delay force you into a flight for which you're neither trained nor competent?

Looking again at our equation, you've increased your risk with the latter solutions by raising the odds of a problem occurring. The pilot can mitigate risks by deciding in advance at what point to plan to make a new decision—and then making the predetermined escape maneuver when the no-go conditions are ahead.

Recognize your competence, Improve your deficiency

If you are our adventuresome VFR pilot, how well did you handle hood time and flying on the gauges? Well enough to make a 180-degree turn out of a deteriorating sky and back toward where you again feel competent?

These and other valid questions should help our mythical VFR pilot —and you—recognize when experience is being stretched to embrace new ones. This is just one more demonstration of another truism: You can manage risk but never completely eliminate it.

For example, just by the simple act of flying the pattern, you've put yourself at risk; you're high off the ground—higher than needed to hurt yourself in a fall. That's because in the grand scheme of things, the probability of a bad outcome is tiny while the hazard from that outcome gone bad is also relatively small. We're close to the airport should the engine fail.

In this instance, with a perceived low probability and minimal consequences if that probability actually occurs—after all, we're in the pattern, close to a runway—we usually evaluate our overall risk as being small.

Conversely, on a longer trip, the probability may rise only a little. The likelihood of an engine failure, while still small, increases with greater exposure. Meanwhile, the hazard an engine failure poses may grow much higher after trees, mountains, night, weather and the reduced proximity to a familiar runway all introduce conditions more hazardous than that trip around the pattern.

Reinforcing the point, consider a long over-water flight. As is so often said in hangar-flying sessions, for example, the airplane and its engine doesn't know where it is—and it doesn't really care—day or night, land or water. But the pilot knows, and knows that while the raw probability of a problem is still small, the degree of hazard itself is higher—equaling a higher overall risk.

Again, however, preparation can offset some of the hazard factor: Ditching training, a life raft and personal flotation devices all serve to reduce overall risk by trimming the actual hazard element of the equation.

Since the airplane knows not where it's flying—only how high and how hot—the probability of an engine failure is no different than it is for an over-land flight.

We know an engine failure anywhere is a hazardous situation. But recognizing the relative rarity of this hazard, we fly onward. And in doing so, we get smarter by the flight and, hopefully, smart enough to keep managing our flight risk wisely.

Dave Higdon is a professional aviation writer/photographer with several thousand hours of flight time, including hang gliders, ultralights and airplanes. So far, he's survived them all.

Also With This Article
Top Ten Ways To Reduce Risk
Remembering Dirty Harry: Know Your Limitations


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