Do Or Die?

Each flight involves assessing risk and making judgment calls. How does your decision-making ability stack up against other pilots?


by Paul Bertorelli

One mans piece-of-cake flight decision may be anothers palm-sweat-inducing nightmare. How can you tell when youre about to go too far?

If youre an instructor, you dont need much right-seat time to have made this observation: some pilots are more comfortable-indeed are eager-to confront what others consider beyond-the-fringe flight scenarios. A potent example is the freshly minted 175-hour Instrument pilot who thinks nothing of departing into a 200-foot overcast the day after his checkride. On the opposite extreme is the timid soul whose palms sweat at the mere thought of a 10-knot crosswind or a hint of mist and cloud in a forecast.

The notion that the correct judgment resides somewhere between these two extremes isnt quite right, either, thus illuminating a perennial dilemma in aviation training that defies an easy, one-size-fits-all solution: Given the infinite variables, how can you learn to recognize what good judgment is? How do you know when the risk youre about to confront-and any flight involves some risk-is reasonable and that youll not only survive the outcome but actually enjoy the trip?

Short of leaving the airplane buttoned up in the hangar, there are no guarantees and, in any case, no one can expect to make perfect risk judgments every time. Occasionally, any pilot who flies much will bite off more than he can comfortably chew and that becomes the stuff of the Learning Experiences column that appears elsewhere in this magazine.

But all of us can and should learn to recognize and avoid that judgment which is not just edgy but is so clearly beyond the pale that anyone would see it as untenable. Trickier yet is to overlay any flight decision with your own personal standards and experience such that youll know exactly why you say no when another pilot confronted with the same decision says yes.

Accident Stats
Unfortunately, the best tool for teaching judgment is also the most difficult to come by: experience. Theres harsh truth to the claim that experience is the best teacher but the tuition is sheer hell. The next best thing, however, is the vicarious experience of others and it is more accessible than ever in the form of a the NTSBs monthly accident summaries. Elsewhere in the pages of Aviation Safety, we present a detailed report on an accident each month and as valuable as this may be, theres a problem with it, too. You cant develop practical risk assessment from the single data point represented by one accident or even a handful of accidents or incidents.

Such events have to be viewed in context, against others of the same sort, to establish a spectrum of possible outcomes. You can then decide where your judgments fit on the spectrum and create your own decision grid. Its not so much a quest for good judgment-there may be many versions of good judgment that arent necessarily the same-so much as it is developing the ability to recognize when youre about to do something profoundly stupid.

At Aviation Safety, we read lots of accident reports, on the order of 100 a month, which constitutes most of the general aviation accidents during a typical year. Although such a constant diet of mayhem tends to numb the senses, we see patterns in the accident stats and, more important, accidents tend to sort themselves into broad categories not related to a specific cause but to a specific lack of judgment or inability to recognize a clear hazard.

The accidents seem to fall into four broad categories: lack of proficiency, lack of situational awareness, insufficient knowledge of aircraft capability and limitations and no-escape decisionmaking, in which pilots put themselves into do-or-die situations with no realistic alternatives. Some accidents seem to have an equal measure of all four, some are case histories for a single type of bad judgment.

Cant Land
For most types of aircraft, landing accidents lead the list of why pilots bend metal. They arent often fatal but are always embarrassing and expensive. Many landing accidents arent the result of bad judgment but are incidents of the moment, in which a pilots proficiency-his ability to yank the stick and stomp the rudder-proved inadequate to the momentary conditions at hand. The solution to this, obviously, is to maintain sharp landing skills by flying often or training often, especially if youre not confident in crosswinds or gusty conditions. Staying out of those conditions until you are proficient lowers the accident risk, too.

Yet even pilots who maintain proficiency can suffer momentary lapses. For example, consider the Cessna 182 owner who flew often, was current and trying to land a well-maintained airplane with a few knots of wind off the nose. In a moment of inattention, he slammed the nosewheel onto the pavement and lost control, taking a tour of a drainage ditch alongside the runway. What should have been a normal landing in daylight devolved into $10,000 in bent metal. An over-the-top judgment? Not unless you consider the inability to do everything to perfection every time a judgment lapse.

But what about the Bonanza pilot returning home to Wisconsin on a brisk winter evening? The runway was plowed but snow-covered and edged by four-foot, icy snow berms. With minimal fuel, the airplane was light and hence prone to a higher-than-ideal touchdown speed. There was a seven-knot crosswind component. The pilot touched down a bit too fast, tried to brake out of it and slid sideways into one of the berms. The right wing dug into a berm and pivoted the airplanes nose first into the snow, trashing the prop, nosegear and both wing leading edges.

An over-the-top bad judgment? Theres nothing like the clarity of hindsight to illuminate a round of second guessing. But, even if the pilot was proficient-and well stipulate that he was-he stacked the odds against himself. With the crosswind and slippery surface, plus darkness, he had to do everything right to achieve a positive outcome. Remove any one of those factors-say the slippery pavement-and it might have been just another ho-hum landing.

The survival skill necessary to move a judgment like this back from the precipice is to recognize when too many negative variables have conspired to add up to a do-or-die situation. Another way of looking at that is to ask: if Plan A doesnt work, whats my out?

Stretching Fuel
Despite the advent of fuel totalizers and the incessant drumbeat of articles about how not to run out of gas, fuel exhaustion remains a distressingly common cause of GA accidents. Were sure that some, if not most, such accidents come as a surprise to the pilots involved. These are often classic lack-of-awareness accidents. The pilots werent familiar with how much fuel the airplane was actually burning, failed to accept the effect of headwinds on range or didnt know exactly how much gas was aboard.

Denial is a common thread in fuel exhaustion accidents and its usually preceded by a dose of carelessness. In one Florida accident, the pilot of a Cessna 182 ran out of gas 15 minutes after takeoff on what was to be about a 20-mile flight. The pilot told investigators that some 50 gallons of gas must have been siphoned from the airplane when it was parked. He offered no explanation of why he didnt notice the missing fuel during pre-flight.

Some fuel exhaustion accidents seem to be willful attempts to drive the airplane into a situation in which everything must go exactly right if the airplane is to land without fumes in the tanks. An outcome thats dependent on a number of uncontrollable variables going your way is a marker for a routine judgment that borders on the extreme.

An example: a Cessna 177 Cardinal pilot departed a Texas airport for a destination in New Mexico, with a flight planned time of 3:45 and 5 hours of fuel aboard, leaving a reasonable 1:15 of fuel reserve. The weather was good so, thus far, a good judgment. At 4.9 hours into the flight, the engine quit in the pattern at the destination airport and the Cardinal crashed, killing one and injuring another. What had begun as a carefully planned flight unraveled into an over-the-top judgment when the pilot ignored the all-controlling instrument for fuel management: the clock.

The markers for a pending extreme judgment on fuel management are hardly subtle and include max-range flights which depend on winds being as forecast, eating into planned reserves, taking off without being sure beyond a shadow of a doubt about how much fuel is aboard, and knowing and accepting what the airplanes burn rate really is. Last, without a reliable grasp of leaning technique, you expose yourself to a higher risk of fuel exhaustion.

Weather Judgments
In the overall scheme of things, weather as a cause of GA accidents is a mere bit player. According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundations annual Nall Report, weather accounts for only three percent of total GA accidents but about 12 percent of crashes involving fatalities. In weather-caused accidents, VFR-into-IMC is the leading killer, by far. Severe weather accidents-icing, thunderstorms, wind and turbulence, extreme low visibility-account for a tiny fraction of accidents. That suggests that either pilots dont confront severe weather much-not likely-or that the ones that do are confident and competent enough to survive it-more likely, in our view.

For a VFR-only pilot, the signs of a pending over-the-top judgment are departing into low ceilings and/or poor visibility. What low ceilings and poor visibility mean are examples of fuzzy definitions that get pilots into trouble year after year. In the middle of Texas, it may be perfectly plausible for a VFR-only pilot to fly a 200-mile trip under 2500-foot solid ceilings. Change the venue to, say, western North Carolina, and the same decision would be an extreme risk in anyones book.

From reviewing the accident patterns, the marker for plausibility in this scenario appears to be two-fold: VFR-only pilots need hard and definite limits on minimum weather conditions and if a pilot attempts a VFR-only flight in less than sparkling weather, having a realistic Plan B is an absolute.

In the Texas example, that might include airports to duck into along the way or a solid-gold forecast at the departure airport, making a U-turn a practical option.

If these dont exist, the trip may take on the kind of point-of-no-return desperation that too often ends in a smoking hole.

For an experienced IFR pilot, decision-making is more complex, involving variables such as icing, low visibility and convective weather. But the formula is the same. Seemingly high-risk flights can be undertaken without going over the top as long as reasonable backdoors are built into the planning.

For example, if ice is a possibility, do the tops and bases allow for escaping it? If not or if thats unknown, a go judgment may be pushing into the extreme. The same logic applies to low visibility IFR operations. They are not, of themselves, inherently hazardous if all goes as planned.

If you know your destination will be LIFR at arrival, can you lay the odds in your favor by having generous fuel reserves and one or more high-percentage alternate airports within realistic range? When those conditions cant be met, the saner decision may be to delay until they can. Waiting out weather is always an option and if it isnt, you should be driving or taking the airlines anyway.

Also With This Article
“Decisions, Decisions”
“Over The Top?”
“Common Judgment Errors”
“Aviation Safetys Risk Survey”

-Paul Bertorelli is editor of Aviation Consumer and editorial director for Aviation Safety.


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