Top Ten Aviation Risk Reduction Steps
Manage risk wisely by developing a set of policies to implement when results are too threatening.
By Dave Higdon
How’s this for an aviation truism? "The best pilots possess the superior judgment to avoid situations requiring their superior skills to survive." While arguably more true than a whole wealth of aeronautical truisms, it doesn’t provide much guidance in our quest to become one of those wiser and more-capable aviators. Which raises an obvious question: How does one develop such profound judgment?
Aviation Risk Reduction Steps
Old, no-longer-bold, aviators (another truism) generally know the answer: by
surviving unwanted experiences. Which reminds us that experience is hands-down the best teacher, something we hear repeatedly. We’re not saying that experience is the safest teacher; obviously, the learning pilot faces elevated risks in the course of gaining the experience from which wisdom grows.
A safer approach, of course, is absorbing tribal knowledge from those sobering hangar-flying tales of others’ experiences we hear and read. Another approach is to sample risky situations from safely within the confines of a full-motion cockpit simulator capable of providing exposure to palm-sweating situations without the, you know, danger. In the end, however, we have to emerge from the sim, leave the comfort of our fellow hangar flyers, and actually put on an airplane and fly it.
Regardless of our degree of skill and experience, the trick to safely nudging the envelope comes in knowing as much about what we don’t know as what we think we know and weighing those factors wisely before we venture forth. And the process of weighing those elements before making the call is a process known as "risk management."
Risk Management Basics
First off, what exactly is risk? Borrowing a widely used formula, we can describe risk as the product of a known threat weighed against the probability of that threat occurring. Another way to express it would be something like Risk = Probability x Consequences.
Our risk-managed learning process begins the first time we venture out alone. Our maiden solo is just the first of such envelope-expanding experiences we’ll face.
What’s the threat in a first solo? The student crashing, of course, or freezing at the controls, or running the plane off the runway, or.... Since it’s our CFIs who urge us into that first solo flight, we can reasonably infer that the CFI has made that risk assessment for us, and gave us the nod when the instructor gauges as low the probability of a bad result.
But the confidence shown by our CFI, who did the heavy lifting in risk-management for our first solo, is the first of a very few times in which we can acceptably cede judgment to another. By the time we embark on our CFI-approved solo cross-country, we’re at the point where all further in-flight decision making is all ours.
Let’s presume you’re a fresh private pilot and you’re about to nudge your experience by launching a long flight for which conditions are forecast to be mostly good. And you really want to make this trip.
The first step in managing the unexpected, according to Kathleen Sutcliffe, an authority in performance management who presented her views at the 2007 Bombardier Safety Standdown, is to expect failure. And manage accordingly. It sounds simple in its philosophy; it’s the execution, though, that divides those who do well from those who don’t.
What if you get en route and the weather heads below VFR minima? The hazard stays the same—an accident—but the probability has gone up. Your risk increases. Can you assure yourself an out? And what outcome can you expect in the event of these bad turns?
Just check the statistics on continuing VFR flight into IMC conditions. You’ll see that they are bad—quite bad. So it’s reasonable to believe that launching VFR into marginal weather is highly risky because of the high probability for conditions to deteriorate around the VMC-only pilot.
Applying our simple formula from above, we easily see the risk of a bad outcome—a crash—increases when multiplied by the greater potential for a situation to go from marginal to bad. In this situation, examining the options in the event of weather taking a turn for the worse is a first step in managing risk.