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A Pilot’s Guide to Self-Assessing Risk

Source:, By Tom Hoffmann

In the grand scheme of aviation risk management, it is easy to focus on the more tangible and black-and-white realities of flying. For example, will my airplane clear that 50-foot obstacle at the end of the runway with full fuel? Or, is my aircraft properly equipped for night flight in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)? A few performance calculations, handbook references, and preflight checks can usually affirm a clear go, or no-go, decision.

Where it can get fuzzy and gray is assessing the level of risk that you, as the pilot, bring to the equation. Instead of relying on calculations and hard numbers to measure risk, it requires a more internal assessment of your readiness to fly, as well as being honest with yourself and your abilities. It boils down to three basic questions you should ask yourself before any flight: Am I healthy? Am I legal? And am I proficient? This article will explore how to assess and address pilot risk in each of these areas.

i am safe checklist

Am I Healthy?

I’m a visual person. The more of something I can visualize, the better I can understand it and tuck it away in my memory banks. I’m also a firm believer in the power of acronyms and mnemonics, those memory-jogging abbreviations that are engrained in aviators’ everyday operations. While some aviation acronyms don’t always give us a good sight picture of what we’re expected to do, the “I’MSAFE” acronym is one that I believe hits the proverbial nail on the head. It offers a simple and easy-to-remember way of checking your health before every flight. Let’s break it down.

Illness — Am I Sick?

While the average 9-to-5er may bristle at the thought of calling in sick from a simple case of the sniffles, that same act of fortitude can prove problematic when deciding to fly. In addition to dealing with the distraction of pain and/or discomfort, even common maladies like a cold are often accompanied by a regiment of over-the-counter (OTC) medications that can wreak havoc on a pilot’s ability to stay focused and clear-headed during flight. We’ll cover more on meds next, but the bottom line here is quite simple: if you’re not well, don’t fly.

Let’s say you knew in advance that your engine was only going to give you 80 percent of its best possible performance on a given day. Would you still fly? It’s the same expectation you should have for yourself — nothing less than running on all cylinders should be acceptable.

The regulations have something to say about this as well. Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) section 61.53 outlines operational prohibitions for pilots when they know, or have reason to know, of any medical condition (whether it’s a chronic disease, or a 24-hour bug) that would make them unable to meet the requirements for the medical certificate necessary for the pilot operation, or — for those not requiring medical certification — make them unable to operate an aircraft in a safe manner. Although vague in design, the rule prompts pilots to use good judgment and voluntarily ground themselves when they’re not feeling up to the task of aviating.

Medication — Have I Taken Any Prescription/OTC Meds?

As we noted earlier, medications can have a clear impact on a pilot’s ability to perform. While some effects are obvious, others can be deceivingly detrimental and may vary according to an individual’s tolerance level. Among the top offenders are sedating antihistamines, in particular, diphenhydramine (aka Benadryl). In addition to being an active ingredient in many cold medications, diphenhydramine is also used as an OTC sedative and is the sedating agent in most PM pain meds.

Evidence of rising antihistamine use (as well as other OTC medications) was at the forefront of a 2014 NTSB study, in which the percentage of pilots with potentially impairing drugs found in their system after an accident was greater than 20 percent in 2012. That was more than double the rate found at the outset of the study in 1990. The most common potentially impairing drug found in this study of nearly 6,600 aviation accidents: you guessed it, diphenhydramine.

A good way to ensure the medications you use don’t impair your flying is to first check the labels. Thankfully, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict labeling standards for all OTC medications so it’s easy to make comparisons and spot any potential side effects. The FDA also has a handy, online label checker you can use too ( For medications that have a warning about using caution when driving a vehicle, the FAA recommends using the “Rule of 5” — waiting at least five times the longest recommended interval between doses before flying.

Labels won’t always answer all your questions so contact your Aviation Medical Examiner if you’re unsure about a particular drug or would like to know more about safer alternatives. For more information, go to

Stress — Do I Have Any Job, Money, Family, or Health Issues?

We may not always think about it, but we’re under some level of stress with almost everything we do — whether on the job, with family, or even during what’s supposed to be a relaxing backcountry camping trip. Stress can affect people differently, so it’s really important for you to have a way of gauging a clear head and a sound state of mind before taking that flight.

A brief quarrel with your spouse, while seemingly insignificant, can easily cloud your thoughts and cause you to be distracted during flight. (Been there, done that, and learned a valuable lesson!) A more severe event, like the loss of a job, or a loved one, requires even more attention and self-examination to assess whether or not you’ve been able to properly come to terms with your situation and your emotions. It may not always be the easiest thing to do — especially if others are counting on you to fly them somewhere — but delaying or postponing a flight due to stress is always a good call.

There are several ways to help manage stress and prevent it from accumulating. For starters, try maintaining a regular exercise regime and make relaxation a priority in your daily schedule; have you actually ever tried yoga? It’s a great way to combine the two. Sharpening your time management skills can also help reduce stress by meeting deadlines and keeping those honey-do lists from growing too large. Finally, an FAA study in 2000 on the impact of stress in aviation found that the top ranked stress coping strategy among participants was a stable relationship with a partner, so don’t be afraid to bend your spouse’s ear!

To learn more about how stress can affect your performance, watch this FAA video ( and check out the article “Stress in Flight” in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of FAA Safety Briefing.

Alcohol — Have I Had a Drink in the Last 8 Hours? 24 Hours?

For many, “throwing back a few” can be an effective way to relax and unwind after a tough day. But if flying is on your horizon, you’ll want to reconsider your actions. Like beer and wine, the two just don’t go together. The regulations (14 CFR section 91.17) say you may not operate an aircraft within eight hours of having consumed alcohol. Given the lingering effects alcohol can have on the human body, it’s best to pad that time and wait 24 hours before flying. And if you were really in a “celebratory mood,” keep in mind that the damaging effects of booze can last 48 to 72 hours following your last drink in the form of a hangover and well after your body has eliminated all alcohol. Add in night conditions or bad weather to any of these scenarios, and the negative effects on flying can be magnified greatly.

For more information, have a look at the FAA’s brochure “Alcohol and Flying — A Deadly Combination” at

Fatigue — Am I Properly Rested?

The impact of fatigue in the aviation industry is an all-too-common phenomenon. Although it’s rarely the singular cause of a fatal accident, the term pilot fatigue is riddled throughout NTSB probable cause reports in all segments of aviation. It’s more commonly the ugly precursor to many poor last decisions (or indecisions). As to why a simple lack of rest is not mitigated more often, some might say it’s because it can be easily remedied with coffee or an energy drink, or that it’s just something they feel is a nuisance they can power through. Both are false narratives that gravely underestimate fatigue’s disastrous potential.

In order to manage fatigue, it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you. Do you feel yourself uncontrollably yawning? Are your eyes bloodshot and bleary? Are you feeling sluggish or slow to react? Keep in mind that fatigue isn’t limited to just these more obvious signs. It’s often a more insidious problem fueled by a creeping accumulation of inadequate rest (e.g., long nights at the office, a new baby in the house, etc.) Fatigue can also be caused by physical exertion. Those first few great-weather flying days we look forward to in the spring are usually accompanied by a mountain of strenuous yard work. And while you may not typically be exposed to the long duty days and time zone shifts that a commercial pilot might have, you do have to deal with the stress of a single-pilot workload with no one to catch your mistakes.

Regardless of what causes fatigue, the important thing to know is how it can affect your performance in the cockpit and how to prevent it in the first place. The antidote here is simple: get more sleep. You may have heard it a thousand times before, but strive for eight hours of sleep per night. Easier said than done, I know. But one thing that I find helpful in measuring the quantity and quality of sleep, is wearing a wristwatch activity tracker to bed. Many are able to provide a full report of your sleep cycles, including periods of restlessness and time awake. Arming yourself with this kind of data can go a long way to more accurately assessing your fatigue level before a flight.

For more tips on combatting fatigue, see the FAA brochure at

Eating — Have I Had Enough to Eat or Drink?

Now, I know many versions of I’MSAFE use Emotion for “E,” but I think that is something we covered adequately under our discussion about Stress. Instead, we’ll use “E” to cover a subject more near and dear to my heart: eating. Eating healthy, well-balanced meals is the best way to achieve your body’s peak performance levels. Unfortunately, not every airport has a Joe’s Diner conveniently nearby. In fact, GA pilots can often go several hours past their normal mealtimes without eating thanks to weather delays or unexpected diversions. It’s always a good idea to pack a lunch just in case, or at the very least, a few healthy snacks that will tide you over. The same goes for hydrating. Drink whenever you get the chance. Dehydration can cause dizziness, confusion, and weakness and can seriously impair your ability to fly. I never fly without at least one bottle of water in my flight bag, and I always hit the water fountain anytime I see one.

Am I Legal/Proficient?

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the physical and mental hurdles an airman can face, it’s time to cover some of the legal and experiential aspects of completing a pilot risk assessment. Let’s start by addressing the fact that being legal or current is by no means an indication of being proficient when it comes to flying. The FAA sets clear standards when it comes to what’s required in your logbook before you can fly as pilot in command, within a certain time period. For a complete list of these requirements, see 14 CFR section 61.57 ( as well as 14 CFR section 61.56 ( for flight review requirements. However, just meeting these requirements alone is unlikely to make you a fully competent and proficient pilot. That takes additional effort.

A good start towards fine-tuning proficiency is to use a flight review as an opportunity to go outside your comfort zone. Weak on crosswind landings? Been a while since you did a short field grass takeoff or simulated an onboard fire? Then make these priority items to work on with an instructor and/or during a flight review. A review that just substantiates all the things you already have a good grasp on is not exactly time (or money) well spent. The key to proficiency is practice. And then more practice.

There’s lots of resources, and the FAA can help you become proficient. If you haven’t already signed up to be a part of the FAA Safety Team’s WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program, I highly encourage you to do so. The program is specifically designed to help pilots become more proficient by attending safety seminars, completing training courses, and performing various flight activities. Go to for complete details.

It’s Personal

Flying is an inherently risky business. However, learning how to identify and mitigate the potential risks that a pilot brings to a flight is a significant step towards improving your odds of a safe outcome. I hope the information presented here can give you a better understanding of what to look out for and what to question before each and every flight. It can be difficult, as assessing pilot risk is a very personal process and one that requires intimate awareness of your limitations. You have to be upfront with yourself mentally, physically, and experientially. Here, honesty is not the best policy — it’s the only policy.

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.

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