Rationalise your way out of trouble

Most accidents are caused by a series of poor decisions at some stage before or during a flight. These poor decisions lead to other poor decisions which lead to…
One of the best job descriptions I have heard to describe an airline pilot – or any pilot for that matter – is: “a risk manager with time constraints.” How’s that for a fact! Almost everything in aviation involves a risk of some degree and it is a certainty you will not have all day to arrive at a decision when things go wrong. The lawyers are bound to forget this fact when they take two weeks to analyze the decision it took you only two seconds to make in the aircraft.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is if the legal profession wants to nail you, they probably will. Consequently, these words from my, mentor still ring true: “Don’t do anything in and around an aircraft that you cannot defend in a court of law!”
With words like these you can be forgiven for being reluctant to make any decisions at all.

So then how do we go about making the right decisions? And how do we manage the enormous risks we as pilots are willing to shoulder for our passengers” Consider first how we think – particularly when under pressure. The first thought is normally intuitive and as such not always the best option – like the time I nearly dived into the ground on short finals at Maun trying to avoid a flock of Finches that had risen up as a cloud in front of me. Instead of going through them or over them – I ducked beneath them!

The little Seneca nearly ended up in a heap a hundred metres short of the runway. That would have been an interesting decision to defend in court – assuming I survived!

Decisions like these are difficult to explain because in my case, analyzing it in hindsight, it was probably more of a ‘reflex reaction’ than a ‘thought process.’ In most other scenarios there is a little more time involved – even if only a few seconds.
And it is in these critical moments that another thought process needs to exert itself. Rational thought!

Most often this is not the first notion that comes to mind – but it normally is the best one. Just think back to an argument with the wife or girlfriend. Things that you’ve said in the heat of the moment – which you seriously regretted later! That was intuitive. Off-the-cuff comments that got you into a whole heap of trouble! Not such a good idea was it?

Likewise, you will have a better chance of survival in both the aircraft and the courtroom if you can train yourself to make critical decisions ‘rationally.’ Never forget that flying skill alone is no guarantee for survival in an aircraft. In recognizing this, South African Airways’ training is based on ‘three pillars’ of expertise, the philosophy of which may benefit the general aviation training industry as well.

First is TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE: Know your aircraft well. Most general aviation pilots only know their aircraft superficially. They are not always aware of what can and cannot be done in their aircraft and consequently find themselves in trouble when they are least prepared for it.

Second is FLYING SKILL: Practice, practice, practice! Not much point in knowing the aircraft technically if you don’t have the handling skills to pull off the maneuvers the book says can easily be done. Practice those crosswind and short-field takeoff and landing techniques. You never know when you’ll need them most. Then thirdly – and most importantly – is ATTITUDE: Not the kind that is found on the artificial horizon, but the kind that is found in the head!

It’s a one-word explanation for how you approach life’s little problems – both in the cockpit and outside of it. The first two pillars are relatively easy to fix. The last is not. In fact, sometimes it cannot be fixed at all! In such cases the person shouldn’t be flying anything more challenging than a paper jet.

Unfortunately, aviation seems to attract some of the strangest of characters and this is one of the reasons airlines use psychometric tests in their selection procedure. Maybe it is a test the CAA should consider introducing before issuing a pilot license of any kind.

Think back. We have all seen them. The Rambo gait of the wise-guy who has just beaten-up the airfield at 20 feet. The swaggering halfwit on an ego mission to impress the babes.

Remember the story of old pilots and bold pilots? Think of these gung-ho characters and where they are today. If by some miracle they aren’t already dead then it is because they have had a major ATTITUDE CHANGE.

Paradoxically though, it becomes a fine line to tread, because confidence in yourself and your abilities is a vital requirement in commanding an aircraft. But OVER confidence in an aircraft is as bad as UNDER confidence. They are both dangerous extremes of the spectrum.

And importantly, both these extremes will cause you to think ‘intuitively.’ The first because of bravado, the second because of fear. Both will get you killed. Worse – both will get your innocent passengers killed! Try explaining that to your victim’s family if you are unlucky enough to survive the accident. Poor Judgment Chain.

Most accidents are caused by one or more poor decisions at some stage during or before the flight. (Like deciding to fly when the weather is marginal and you do not have an instrument rating!) Often these poor decisions lead to other poor decisions (like pressing on instead of doing a precautionary landing!) And before you know it, you have what is termed in the industry as, “a poor judgment chain.” Unless you can force yourself to recognize what is happening and ‘rationally’ break the chain – you are definitely going to have an accident!

To combat the possibility of this train of thought developing, SAA and most major airlines worldwide run CRM courses (Crew Resource Management) to help their pilots develop the skills to analyze the way they think. Techniques are developed to utilize all the resources available to them. Then they are taught how to apply these processes in synergy to resolve the problem.

In the cockpit, you may not be as isolated as you imagine. There is a myriad of information coming in. The weather briefing, Notams, the aircraft instruments, the radio chatter, the crew’s perceptions based on their experience – your experience and perceptions. All this information needs to be processed by your brain to formulate a rational course of action.

This is not to say that intuitive decisions are always wrong – but if experience and knowledge do not back them up, they can be darn right deadly! Communication skills then need to be applied in such a way that while you are ‘seeking information’ for your decision; no one is ‘blocked out’ from the process. Should someone have a better idea, you need the ability to humbly accept that your way may not necessarily be the best way.

The flight deck is not a democracy but only a fool commander would disregard the advice of his crew; likewise the single crew operator who disregards the information that goes against his better judgment. If you are not sure whether to undertake the flight – seek the advice of someone more experienced than you are. Forget pride. Every pilot out there has made mistakes – learn from them. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself!

In helping to simplify this decision making process, Captain Frank Edwards, an icon at SAA, formulated what has become renowned as the ‘Risk Management Model’ (RMM). Briefly, the model encompasses three elements, namely: Assess, Action and Manage.

  • Assess the problem correctly! Take a few seconds to ‘take stock’ of what has really happened. Do not rush into an incorrect assessment. (Remember the British Midlands 737 accident? They shut down the wrong engine on final approach!)
  • Action the correct checklist for the problem. On some aircraft types the recall and checklist items are similar for different failures. Make sure you have the correct one and do what it calls for properly.
  • Manage the consequences of the problem. Even after the emergency is under control there are bound to be repercussions that will effect you later.

A case to illustrate this point happened a few years ago when a 747-400 had an engine failure en-route from Cape Town to Miami. (This is not a dire emergency in a 747.) The first (intuitive) reaction was to return to Cape Town. Then someone in the crew piped up. “Hold on guys – if we land back in Cape Town we won’t have the spares to fix the engine. The aircraft will be stranded for days!” Suddenly everyone on the flight deck began thinking ‘rationally.’ “Not only that – most of our passengers climbed on in Johannesburg! They’ll want to go home until the engine is fixed – maybe even connect on another flight.” By considering the company, passenger and crew needs the decision to land in Johannesburg that night saved the company a truck load of money in unnecessary hotel bills and aircraft downtime.

These same principles can be used in general aviation as well. For instance; if you ever have to perform a precautionary landing, choose a field close to a farmhouse or major road. Subsequently you can summon help quickly once you are safely on the ground.

So remember – the next time you have a major decision to make (in the air or on the ground), think TWICE! Your insurance company and your family will love you for it. (Even though the lawyers probably won’t!)

The author is a Senior A340 Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College in George.

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