Its a terrible feeling to be in an aircraft when something goes wrong and all you can see are your options narrowing. Although aviation psychologists have suggested a number of techniques for decision making, some seem too complicated for the cockpit.
When forced to make multiple decisions, navigate, communicate, and control the aircraft in a stressful environment, the KISS method – keep it simple, stupid – is probably best. There is a simple concept pilots should employ in their decision making, and it boils down to five words: Keep a safe way out.
This begins with flight planning. Most people would agree that a good flight begins with a good plan, and keeping a safe way out should be part of the picture. By having in advance a mental notion of where youll go if fuel runs short or weather deteriorates, it will be a lot easier to actually execute that decision. The out will already be rehearsed in your mind. Another benefit of planning your way out is that you can organize your charts and other flight information before the flight even starts.
While flight planning, consider your ways out. Plan the route considering the accessibility to good alternates, terrain and airport facilities. Also factor in the weather, your aircraft and your capabilities so that you always have a way out. Cockpit management is really important, too. Having the right information at your fingertips and being at least passingly familiar with your options can greatly reduce the workload – and stress – when things start going wrong.
Fuel for Thought
In the big picture, two of the most important weapons in the arsenal are time and distance, and one easy way to get those is to carry fuel.
Extra fuel buys you time, gives you more options, and allows you to fly to other airports in case the original alternate has gone below mins or someone has landed gear up. In fact, some of the FARs basically direct you to have two options in mind, and thats also good.
During IFR flights in low weather conditions, you are required to have enough fuel to go to the primary airport, shoot an approach, then fly to the alternate, shoot an approach at the first alternate, then fly for another 45 minutes to a second alternate.
It only takes a few unanticipated delays, long vectors, or a few turns in holding to quickly start using the fuel reserve that you had stored for just in case. One of the most famous examples of how small delays in a flight can narrow your options at your destination is the fateful flight of the Avianca Boeing 707 that ran out of fuel after holding for more than an hour and then missing the approach to JFK Airport in 1990.
Having extra fuel also does something else to decision making. It lowers stress, and its no secret that trying to make important decisions under stress is not a good situation to be in.
Have Alternates Accessible
Plan your flight considering accessibility to good alternates. While a well-maintained airplane and its equipment are generally reliable, you still want to have a way out. Equally important, it would be nice if that way out was an easy one. An easy solution will look much better to you when your original plan starts falling apart.
Simply put, if you are flying along and you can see rapidly developing hazardous weather in front of you, wouldnt it be nice to opt for a cozy airport with a nice restaurant in clear weather nearby rather than scud running at low altitude or flying IFR through a band of building thunderstorms?
A friend of mine owns an airplane because his ranch is way out in the middle of nowhere and driving to civilization can take an entire day. However, flying a direct route from his ranch to one of the bigger cities takes him over some very forbidding terrain. If he has a malfunction, he is faced with severely limited options.
The terrain would make deciding on an emergency landing site very stressful because it is so hostile, opening the chance of serious injury during a forced landing. Since it is so remote, help would be a long time in coming even under the best of circumstances.
Choose Airport Facilities Carefully
If you are having a mechanical problem or faced with deteriorating weather or true in-flight emergency, you might prefer going to an airport that is easy to find. Select one thats situated near a prominent geographic feature, such as along the edge of a large lake or a prominent bend in a big river. Better yet, try one that has a VOR on the field, making it a relatively simple task to tune in the VOR and track to it (unless your equipment failure is electrical).
If the airport is served by an approach control with radar services, that will make dealing with any emergency even easier. The controllers can help to lower your workload by giving you vectors to the airport. This can lower the stress level considerably, especially if you are flying in those hazy summer days when the visibility is perfectly VFR but you really cant see forward that well. If the airport is in rugged terrain, the radar track will help them keep you at a self altitude and away from obstructions while youre descending.
If the weather tanks and you need to shoot and approach, consider the type of approaches available. Most pilots would be looking for an airport with a full ILS and approach lighting. A study by the Flight Safety Foundation examined the relative risk of accidents during approach and landing, and determined that the risk increased with non-precision approaches, and increased even more with runways not served by approach lighting.
Other features on the wish list include long, wide runways.
Face it, if your safety margin is shrinking and you are under pressure to land now, do you really want to raise the stakes by trying to land on a short narrow runway?
Murphys Law dictates that as soon as you plan to land at a short and narrow airstrip the adverse winds will pick up. If poor weather is involved, you might also prefer a runway that has grooves to help drain off the rain and prevent standing puddles of rainwater. If its winter time, you want to make certain that the airport has acceptable snow removal equipment available for your time of arrival.
If youre truly the type who cant stand to leave any bases uncovered, you might want to consider the accessibility of crash, fire and rescue services on the field, particularly if your aircraft is experiencing mechanical difficulties.
When I flew air ambulance, I had the opportunity to meet several airport firefighting crews, though not for the reason that you might assume. In several instances, we had to load heavy or large patients though the relatively narrow door of a King Air and it was beyond the capability of an ambulance driver and pilot to do so. We would ask for assistance from the airport fire department and, without exception, working with these crews was very positive.
Believe me, if you are having any sort of mechanical difficulty with your aircraft, the CFR crews really want to help. If all other factors are equal, I prefer having an airport with CFR services available. Its just another factor in my favor.
Terrain Vs. Distance
During your flight planning, consider the terrain and distance to your alternate. You would prefer flying over easy terrain for a number of reasons. If your engine does fail, youd rather have big farmfields for emergency landing fields rather than the Colorado Rockies.
In addition, terrain tends to magnify the weather. If the wind is flowing over rugged terrain, you will have to contend with mechanical turbulence. If incoming weather is flowing over rising terrain, the increased lifting will magnify the severity of the weather.
Add urban congestion to the equation, too. If all other factors are equal, its probably better to approach an airport that sits on the outskirts of a city rather than an airport buried deep within suburbia or in the city itself. If you have an engine failure or have to put the aircraft down immediately, the option of open fields is much better than a narrow city street surrounded by homes, vehicles and power lines. And if you ever think of making an emergency landing on a public road, remember the June 1999 accident in which a Cessna 402 struck two school buses loaded with children in Van Nuys, Calif., and govern yourself accordingly.
Consider When as Well as Where
Planning your flight for the time of day has some real strategic considerations. For example, it you plan the flight for night, you will usually experience smoother air and less traffic. VFR navigation can be trickier at night because land features are harder to see. However, during the hazy months of the year, it is sometimes easier to see distant cities at night that are otherwise obscured in the daytime haze.
One of the drawbacks of flying at night is the lack of back-up facilities. Most FBOs close at night. Besides restricting your availability of fuel, it also means that no one at the FBO is listening to Unicom to give you information about the airport and other help.
Landing options also become more limited at night. Not all airports have suitable lighting for night landings, and in the event of a precautionary landing at night, its impossible telling farmfields from woods in the blackness.
Landing approaches are trickier at night, too. Without the preponderance of visual information you get during the day, even simple night landings are more difficult to execute safely. Furthermore, in the nighttime environment, you cant see obstructions such as power lines and hills that sit in the aircrafts path.
At night, the loss of electrical equipment also means that you wont be able to turn on the runway lights at an airport. Although some pilots practice landing without a landing light, landing without runway lights is another matter entirely. In that case, you would like to know which runways have lights that remain lit all night.
If its winter time and the runways might have snow, then arrivals slightly after mid-afternoon are best because the sun has had the most amount of time to heat the runway and help remove residual snow on the runway.
Also, during daytime approaches, you can accurately assess the condition of the runway prior to landing. At night, the condition of the runway is just a guess. You wont be able to tell if the snow plows have really been able to remove all of the snow, or if the snow has become packed on the surface. Braking action on packed snow cant compare to dry pavement, and its best to know that ahead of time.
The Joy of Familiarity
Face it, if and when you have an aircraft emergency, you would rather have that emergency occur at your home airport. You know the pattern altitude, the communication frequencies, the general flow of traffic, where to enter the traffic pattern, the presence of local winds and thermals that might complicate your landing approach, the terrain surrounding the airport and many other features. Plus you probably have a ride home.
Recall, if you can, your first trips as a pilot to an unfamiliar airport. It seemed complicated then trying to figure out how and where to enter the pattern.
Although most pilots develop simple tricks to orient themselves to the pattern and the runway, remember what happened to the workload and decision making during such confusions. The mental flow really hits a standstill. You can become mesmerized by the problem and forget basic stuff that you know you know.
Thats why its important to have a mental image of the airport ahead of time. Whatever tricks you use to help you develop a quick and accurate mental image of the airport are valuable in saving time and mental effort. Needless to say, your most accurate and easiest-to-remember mental image will be of airports you frequent.
Contingencies and Backups
You can dream up all kinds of scenarios that will bring your flight to grief, but lets get down to reality. Powerplant malfunctions are one form of contingency that we really should consider, and electrical malfunctions are another.
You never know when an engine will malfunction, which goes back to the earlier argument in favor of overflying the most forgiving terrain available. If that means changing the route of flight so that it zigzags closer to other airports along the route of flight, so be it.
Electrical malfunctions create a different set of problems. Electrical problems are not likely to prevent the engine from running, so at least you can keep the airplane aloft. However, the ability to navigate and communicate can be severely compromised.
During daylight conditions in good weather, an electrical failure isnt that big of a problem even if youre in relatively congested airspace. But adding darkness or bad weather and you really pile on the risk.
Some pilots decide to install an extra alternator on their aircraft. Handheld radios and cell phones are great back-ups for this event. Thats excellent planning that can really lower a persons stress and keep options open in the event of electrical malfunction.
You can also get backup batteries that will help run the radios a bit longer in the event of an alternator failure, and you most certainly should not take off on an IFR flight if your battery was so weak you required external power or hand propping to get the aircraft started.
If you dont have back-ups available, then plan some safety margins into the flight.
For example, consider an IFR flight out of a California coastal airport obscured by fog, with a planned destination along the coast to another airport that is also obscured by coastal fog. If the electrical system fails, do you have a safe way out?
In most cases, the fog layer will be confined to within a thousand feet of the ground. It is easy to climb above that into VFR conditions. usually the coastal fog doesnt proceed inland that far. Hopping over the coastal mountains into the VFR conditions of the drier inland valleys may be the best option. In a case such as this with plenty of easy ways out, there are few causes of concern.
Now consider flying through a slow-moving warm front in the mid-east. Marginal VFR and IFR conditions will likely exist for a widespread area. The availability of a nice alternate will be reduced and you may not have the option of punching into good VFR weather. This is definitely a case where a back-up nav/com would be handy.
Without the proper back-ups, you wont be able to navigate. If its daytime VFR, that might be something you can handle. At night its a bit more problematic and if its IFR, you could be in for a world of hurt.
Warning Points and Trigger Points
At one of the first conferences on crew resource management, a training captain from Japan Air Lines presented an interesting study of accidents, which reported several observations common to most of the accidents. That study concluded that delays in making decisions and taking action was one of the most common occurrences.
When the Avianca Boeing 707 ran out of fuel and crashed short of JFK in New York, I modified my CRM workshop to include the idea of warning points and trigger points. During the course of the Avianca flight, the warning signals should have gone up on several occasions.
Analysis of the flight shows that the crew had several opportunities in which they should have opted for a safer way out. In any endeavor, there are warning points at which you should realize that something is going wrong and trigger points at which you should stop monitoring the situation and take action.
A warning point can be something as simple as I will have XX amount of fuel remaining when I pass YY. Now, if the situation continues to deteriorate, perhaps because of winds that are stronger than forecast or other adverse weather, the situation might proceed to a trigger point.
A trigger point is a go, no-go point. As you monitor the situation after the warning point, formulate a plan for dealing with the problem and decide what event will force you to choose. If the situation reaches the trigger point, you have automatically prepared yourself to go to the alternate.
Not Just for Cross Countries
Although most of these techniques are focused on cross country flying, these concepts apply equally well to all aspects of aviation. For example, glider pilots should always have in mind what they are going to do when the thermal starts weakening, or if the sink in between thermals is stronger than they thought.
Decide that if you reach a certain altitude and the aircraft is still descending, you will abandon that task and go to an alternate option. Decision-making in soaring can be much more difficult, simply because the aircraft lacks the ability to go around.
Good decision-making in aviation means you have prepared yourself for the surprises that are most likely to crop up and have given some thought to how youre going to cope with them. Just as important, you know what criteria youll use to pull the trigger, rather than just letting things go a little bit longer.
Thats called good judgment, and thats the true mark of an aviation professional.
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-by Patrick R. Veillette
Patrick R. Veillette is an ATP with more than 11,000 hours. He directs a research program studying human behavior in high-risk environments.