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Cockpit Courage and Preflight Pragmatism - Letting discretion be the better part of valor

by Michael W. Brown, Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Here's a question you may not have heard in a while''If (fill in the blank) jumped off abridge, would you do it too? 'While such queries typically end with passing of adolescence, the sentiment still has a place in the very adult business of aviation safety. The inquisitor could have been a parent, a shop teacher, or your first flight instructor, but the conclusion at which they wanted you to arrive was the same. Good judgment is an individual exercise, and one that must never be abdicated, regardless of the circumstances. Of course, the consequences of hurling oneself from a bridge are readily apparent. However, the decision to defer an aircraft squawk, launch in the face of uncertain weather, or fly while suffering through illness, is often mired in uncertainty. These matters are further complicated when they involve two rated pilots, each of whom has drawn different conclusions from a given set of facts. Because all of us will eventually share the cockpit with another pilot, if only to complete our obligatory flight review, it is important to consider how best to resolve differences in aeronautical decision-making prior to every flight.

In the scenario outlined above, what we are really discussing is the critical role conflict resolution can play in cockpit resource management. Unfortunately, there is little guidance concerning how best to handle such matters. What's worse, other segments of the aviation community have even less insight to offer. Airline and military operations are heavily regulated, and the pilot in command is established long before crews reach the flight line. In these cases, go/no-go decisions are determined by strict operational guidelines, and an individual's initiative, personality, or agenda plays a diminished role in the process. This is not so for the general aviation (GA) pilot, who has a burden and a luxury unique in aviation. Unlike the military or air carrier communities, the decision if and when to fly lies solely with you. Sure there are external (and perhaps internal) pressures, but these must be weighed against the greater moral obligation to protect others (and yourself) from the consequences of a poor decision or a lapse in good judgment.

Of course, all of this is a moot point when standing on a ramp at any-airport U.S.A. debating the weather outlook with your fellow pilot. When attempting to resolve such issues, there are two critical forces conspiring against you'perception and risk aversion. While it is best to look at these as opposite sides of the same coin, each carries with it unique challenges. Learning to identify the traits that accompany each may be helpful in recognizing and avoiding potential conflicts.

First, let's look at perception. Perception is focused largely on the hazard side of the coin. For example, one pilot may perceive level-2 storm activity as a hazard. A second pilot may look upon it as simply another factor to be considered, no more or less significant than weight and balance calculations or runway length. An effective way to determine if perceptive differences will be an issue is to discuss a series of typical flight scenarios with the other pilot. What factors do they consider most important when planning and conducting a particular flight? Understanding an individual's operational philosophy can be most helpful in determining when and if you wish to fly with them.

On the other hand, the dynamics completely change when risk aversion enters the equation. In this case, both pilots may perceive a hazard exists, but one pilot may be willing (for a myriad of reasons) to accept the risk, while a second pilot simply will not. As a practical matter, the disconnect brought on by risk aversion is the most difficult to resolve. While it is possible to modify perceptions based on rational discussion, risk aversion tends to be more central to a person's psychological construction. As a result, it is nearly impossible to change. Thankfully, these differences are also the easiest to identify. Just remember, be prepared to stand your ground (no pun intended) when flying with someone 'braver' than yourself.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that not everyone views hazards or risks in the same manner. Let's use an obvious example to illustrate this point. A 17-knot crosswind is a hazard in that it poses an element of risk. On the other hand, the degree of risk varies with a multitude of factors, such as pilot experience, aircraft type, etc. A seasoned aviator, flying a familiar aircraft, may not perceive a great risk. On the other hand, a student pilot flying a Cessna 152 is likely to consider this a very risky undertaking'same condition, two different responses. Who is correct? Realistically, both may be. Each pilot has exercised aeronautical decision-making and risk management. The more experienced pilot has decided to conduct the flight because it is within his or her ability to do so safely. The risk can be mitigated through a careful review of weather, the planning of an alternate, etc. The student, on the other hand, chose to eliminate the risk completely by staying on the ground.

All this aside, if you often fly with other pilots, you will eventually encounter a difference of opinion involving a critical go/no-go decision. You may be the advocate of launching or remaining earth-bound, but in either case, the matter must be addressed. While it sounds elementary, the best way to avoid such difficulties is to adopt an unwavering operational philosophy. If you fly with another pilot, regardless of his or her experience level, make sure it is understood that each pilot has veto authority over the flight. If your aeronautical cohort is unwilling to exercise his or her authority, or is unwilling to recognize yours, it's best to find a new partner.

But how can you recognize the makings of a potentially tragic disagreement? If you tend to be the voice of restraint, you may hear comments such as:

'It will be fine.'

This phrase is most likely the result of a perceptual disconnect between you and your flying partner. If you hear this, ask yourself (and your fellow pilot) why will it be fine? Will it be fine because it's always been fine? Will it be fine because we need to get home? Will it be fine because you've witnessed similar conditions in other aircraft? Frankly none of these provide a compelling case for risking one's life. There's only one good response to the question, and that is it will be fine because we have manageable options that may be exercised. If you don't have an out, than all you truly have is the aeronautical equivalent of a coin toss.

'I've been flying for (insert a suitably inflated number of years)''

Here's a disconnect brought about by differences in risk aversion. This argument will usually arise when flying with a more experienced pilot, and it should immediately raise a red flag. Your concerns have been dismissed, and what your fellow pilot is actually telling you is that in the absence of a compelling argument to support his or her position, you should risk your life simply because he or she is willing to risk his or her life. Again, if someone jumps off the bridge, would you do it too? While I would never discount the value of practical experience, the thickness of a pilot's logbook provides no absolution once a poor decision is made. Is it possible the person has never encountered this situation before? You bet! Is it possible the pilot encountered a similar situation, made a poor decision, yet suffered no ill consequences? Absolutely. Remember, as a pilot, you are only as good as the decision you make right now'and the decisions you make are only as good as the options they provide.

'The forecast is always wrong' or 'Flight Service always preaches gloom and doom'

This is yet another perception issue. No one can dispute that weather forecasting is an inexact science. We've all cancelled flights, only to have the clouds miraculously part, leaving behind a clear, beautiful day. Similarly, pilots have launched expecting blue skies, only to encounter unforeseen adverse weather conditions. With every flight, we are at the mercy of shortcomings inherent to meteorological science. However, we must not become dismissive or complacent when preparing to make go/no-go decisions. To the best of your ability, identify all potential hazards and assign each of them a strategy to reduce risk. If the risk cannot be mitigated to an acceptable level, then you must seek an alternative. The price of a rental car or hotel room is insignificant when compared to the value of your life.

'How will you ever expand your operational envelope if you are unwilling to take risks?'

A query such as this indicates a differing level of risk aversion. The real question is, 'How do you expand your operational envelope without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks?' You do it through sound aeronautical decision- making and risk management. Remember, a hazard only becomes a risk (and thus a danger) if it is handled incorrectly. When you train, do so with experienced instructors who can help you safely broaden your aeronautical horizons.

Thus far, all of the guidance provided has been tailored to the more conservative pilot. This most likely results from personal bias. However, if you find yourself flying with someone who is more risk averse, I have two pieces of advice to offer. First, avoid dismissing the concerns expressed by others. They may have experience you lack, or they may just offer a point of view you failed to consider. They may also be the voice of reason trying to keep you from falling victim to 'get home-itis.' Second, if the person with whom you fly is more conservative and you are not willing to adopt their personal minima, simply find another partner. It will help you avoid frustration, and your fellow pilot to avoid undue anxiety.

Now I don't want to leave the impression that a second pilot's involvement only serves to potentially complicate matters'quite the contrary. Unlike other segments of aviation, GA doesn't benefit from an integrated, multidisciplinary support system, such as meteorologists, dispatchers, crewmembers, flight department, etc. As a result, the ability to openly discuss safety-of-flight issues with another pilot is often very beneficial. It serves to reinforce or challenge your notion of what is and is not safe. This is why determining the philosophical compatibility of your cockpit companion is so important.

In short, we've all heard it said that we should never let an aircraft take us some place we don't want to be. To that I would add it's just as important not to let another pilot take us somewhere we don't want to be. There's simply no reason to jump from a perfectly good bridge, even if someone else is willing to do it first.

Michael W. Brown is an Aviation Safety Analyst in Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division.