Pointers for good decision-making in aviation

Donald Anders Talleur


Everyone agrees that good decisions are necessary to the safety of flight, but what is the process involved in making a good decision? This month we consider the aspects of decision making, and what both good and bad decisions might look like.

Decision-making is the act of choosing between alternatives under conditions of uncertainty.What goes wrong during the decision-making process is a function of all sorts of factors, some of which I’ll talk about here, and others you may already be aware of, having made a bad decision or two during your flying career.

The characteristics of a good decision are debatable to be sure, but some people say good decisions are those that produce good outcomes and bad decisions are those that produce bad outcomes. Brilliant!

Far be it for me to challenge such lofty thinking, but I’m going to go out on a limb and propose that there’s more to it than that. After all, most bad decisions are not determined to be bad until they are made and it’s too late to change course; and that’s not good in the flying business. And sometimes you’re just lucky that the bad decision doesn’t end in disaster.

Hindsight is sometimes useful for learning good decision- making skills.In general it is true that when a decision, if made, gives the best results most of the time, then we can say that it’s a good decision.

It’s impossible to say that a decision will always lead to good outcomes however.For example, a decision that is good (always works for me) may not work for you. There are all kinds of factors to consider when deciding to copy someone else’s decision-making philosophies.On the other hand, most bad decisions made by others will usually be bad for you too, so I suggest not copying those.

In any case, a couple of factors that affect decision making with some amount of certainty would be experience, and the time frame for making the decision.

We usually think that experienced (high-time) pilots make better decisions than low-time pilots. This is sometimes true. If circumstances in which a decision is to be made are familiar, (as they may be to the experienced pilot) decisions can be made quite rapidly and accurately.Experienced pilots, in theory, have a greater knowledge of possible outcomes for situation assessment (as an aside, they also have greater knowledge of the bad outcomes as the result of previous poor decisions).

Expertise also helps when making critical decisions such as during rejected takeoffs, or emergencies. But experience aside, with every decision comes uncertainty, as one choice can have multiple outcomes. As a result, decision-making involves a certain amount of risk. Mitigating that risk is the name of the game.

Two other factors in the decision- making game are time and speed. It is true that in most tasks in life there’s a tradeoff between speed and accuracy.The more time, and hence less speed required to make a decision, the better that decision is likely to be. This is especially true when there are multiple outcomes to consider.

Likewise, the faster a decision is made, the less likely it will be done so correctly. Conceptually, this boils down to: if you’re rushed, you might not always make the best decisions; take time to do it right!

I realize that sometimes the pilot is under pressure to make a fast decision, but this is also usually when the decision has to be made accurately. Remember that the speed vs. accuracy tradeoff really does exist, so keep it in mind when making decisions.

One hallmark of a good decision is in how it is framed. By this I mean whether the decision is framed to minimize the loss or to maximize a gain. Good decisions in flying should generally be framed positively as maximizing a gain.

For instance, consider a flight to bumbleweed regional airport. If the weather is bad, a decision must be made, and it can be framed in at least two ways: Do I leave now and get there on time (minimizing the loss of not getting there), or do I wait it out and arrive safely (maximizing the gain of arriving safely)?

Interestingly, gamblers often continue to bet down to the very last dollar trying to win back the money they’ve lost (minimizing the loss), as opposed to maximizing the gain by stopping altogether and not losing any more money. I know this to be true to human nature as Las Vegas is still in business! So to be safe, frame your decisions in a way that leads to the gain.

Sometimes good decisionmaking is a function of prior planning. Since the cockpit is a poor place to be doing much of anything other than flying, think about the eventualities prior to takeoff.

Taking time to consider possible problems ahead of time will reduce the time pressure for an in-flight decision. Part of the preflight planning should include an analysis of the current conditions and your personal minimums. Let your personal minimums help you make some good decisions. Write down those minimums and objectively compare them to the current conditions. If the conditions are not within your minimums, the decision is easy; don’t go! Avoid the lure of lowering personal minimums to meet the current weather conditions.

Good decision-making in action is usually harder to identify in action than bad decision-making. Bad-decision making typically stands out. For example, yesterday a Cirrus SR-22 landed at my airport in the middle of coldfront rain event, with temperatures hovering near freezing.The aircraft was clearly not deicing/ anti-icing approved. I was giving a flight instructor oral examination at the time and was strongly motivated to us this transient pilot as an example.

An example of what, you might ask? I interrupted my candidate and asked him, “Do you know what stupid looks like?” He fumbled around for a few seconds thinking I was asking some sort of exam question that he had failed to prepare for.I then pointed out the window as the Cirrus taxied to the ramp and said, “That is what stupid looks like. Remember it well and make sure that you are never the pilot that other people spot flying around in dangerous weather!”

I Hope he got the message.Either way, it was easy to spot that pilot’s bad-decision making.It was even easier to spot when, about 45 minutes later, he blasted back off into that mess! The good decision would have been hard to spot, since in this case the pilot would not likely have shown up in the first place.

Other bad decisions make for interesting reading in the accident reports. We know pilots make bad decisions. I even make bad decisions once in a while.However, there are apparently levels of badness judging by the statistics on the topic.

For example, some encounters with thunderstorms ended with, “…in-flight separation of the left wing and ruddervator…” “…impact with terrain while attempting exit from thunderstorms…” “…overload failure and separation of the left wing…” “impacted terrain in a nose-down, inverted attitude and exploded….[!]”

Really, I’m not making this stuff up! How about some turbulence/ wind bad decision-making?“….positive overload of the wing and horizontal stabilators… right outboard wing panel [from] station 110 outboard was missing…” Eighty knots of wind plus gusts equals, “…upper left wing skin had separated…found three-quarter of a mile away from wreckage…”

But bad decisions are not reserved just for weather-related events. Plenty of pilots screw up on perfectly good weather days.

There’s the guy who thought it’d be a good idea to transport a lawnmower full of gas in his new airplane, along with an electronic device plugged in and sitting nearby in the back of the plane.

The device gave up the ghost during flight, lit off the lawnmower, and… scratch one perfectly good (and new) aircraft.

Or how about the pilot who managed to hit a cow during cruise flight? A guy from the FAA told me about that one. I’m still not sure whether the cow was up at altitude for some reason, or the airplane was a tad too low. Either way it should be written up as controlled flight into bovine!

The decision-making process is not an exact science (regardless of what the decision-making experts say!). We see all kinds of evidence that individual differences play a large part in whether a decision will produce a good outcome or not. In most cases, hindsight being close to 20/20, we can learn from others’ decision mistakes and try not to repeat history.

In those other cases, a little proactive common sense, taking time to think things through, and a little luck may be the best we can do!

This month’s Pilot’s Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor and Researcher at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 200 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.