Editor's Log

December 2004 Issue




Risky Business

We constantly assess the risks of our everyday activities. When climbing out of the shower, we decide whether to step on wet tile or a dry bath mat. When approaching an intersection in a car, we may choose to accelerate when the light turns yellow. About to take off again after a quick fuel stop, we might conduct a cursory preflight inspection, instead of something more detailed.

In all of life’s activities—major and minor—we’re constantly performing risk-based calculations. Most of them—especially those not involving an aircraft—we perform every day.

When it comes to aviation, other decisions can involve using a set of skills and knowledge we may not have exercised frequently.

Just as recency of experience factors into how well we handle a gusty crosswind after an ILS approach to minimums, the extent to which we are regularly confronted with tough aeronautical decisions can weigh heavily on whether we make the right ones.

The decision-making process is generally thought to involve situational awareness. We evaluate various risks using our judgment and experience and then make a decision designed to produce a desired result. That’s the normal process. Unfortunately, personal characteristics sometimes color this process, leading to poor decisions.

Much has been written about these characteristics and their impact on how pilots and others make decisions. They’ve generally been distilled down to five separate factors which include:

• Antiauthority: The normal rules don’t apply to me.
• Impulsivity: Do something—anything—quickly.
• Invulnerability: Bad things can’t happen to me.
• Overconfidence: There’s no aviation challenge I can’t handle.
• Resignation: Whatever happens will happen; there’s nothing I can do about it.

Yes, flying increases our exposure to potential accidents. So does riding a motorcycle, skiing, Scuba diving or deer hunting. About the only thing that doesn’t pose an immediate risk is to stay in bed with the covers pulled up snugly over our heads. But, of course, doing so exposes us to other, long-term risks.

At the heart of it all is the question of how much risk you’re willing to accept. This magazine’s pages are filled each month with detailed discussions of how to manage the risks posed by aviating and what can happen if you make a bad choice. We try to explain what these risks can be, what their consequences are, how to minimize them and what you can do to make a bad situation better. This month, an article by Paul Bertorelli ("Do Or Die?") highlights some of these decisions.

Woven throughout these discussions is the concept of making the right decision and how that decision stacks up against other pilots. Taking these discussions to the next level, Aviation Safety is conducting an online survey starting this month on our Web site and on AVweb, our all-electronic sister publication. The survey poses several specific operational challenges for pilots of all skill and experience levels, asks how you would handle the challenge and then rates your response on a sliding scale and against other respondents.

The results are completely confidential—no FAA inspector will be knocking on your door—and will form the basis of a future summary article. Take the survey; find out how you stack up.


—Jeb Burnside