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Are We There Yet?

Exploring External Pressures

Source:, By Paul Cianciolo

Pilot and passenger

Photo by Paul Cianciolo

If you won’t put up with a backseat driver, then why would you be influenced by a backseat flyer? The external or social pressures associated with completing a flight have been associated with a number of general aviation (GA) accidents. There is almost always pressure on the pilot to launch, and pressure to continue. Even the drive to the airport itself can create pressure to avoid wasted time.

The “E” in PAVE

When you fly with non-pilot passengers, prepare yourself; they may not say it, but they are thinking it. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? If you just rolled your eyes at those words, you were affected by the “E” in PAVE (the risk assessment checklist of Pilot, Aircraft, EnVironment, External Pressures). The “E” here is the external pressure of “get-there-itis” — or “get-home-itis” depending on the destination.

“Simply put, get-there-itis is a pilot killer!” observes Allan Kash, an aviation safety inspector (ASI) in the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division. “It’s a classic behavioral trap, which is an accident-inducing, operational pitfall a pilot may encounter as a result of poor decision making.” (For more about this topic, check out “Get-Home-Itis” in the March/April 2013 issue of FAA Safety Briefing.)

Get-there-itis is often a result of the influence of your passengers. They tend not to understand the intricacies of GA flying.

“The biggest external pressures that I’ve experienced are non-pilot passengers,” notes Kevin Clover, an ASI and FAA’s national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) operations lead. “Their general expectation is that an airplane ride is going to go like a car ride. They can become irritated and even bored by all the things that have to be done or considered to get the airplane in the air.”

What else is one to do without cell service or WiFi, right? Some people cannot handle the pressure of being away from their Internet connection, so that pressure can migrate to the pilot while in the air. This doesn’t just apply to kids or spouses either. Those high-powered business types used to making decisions and taking risks can create a pressure on the pilot to complete the flight.

“When you tell them there is a safety issue, they still want to make the decision to go,” explains Clover, who is a former part 135 charter pilot. “They can’t seem to separate making a business decision that involves the loss of money to that of a flight decision that could involve the loss of life.”

You’re the pilot-in-command, so the responsibility of a safe flight rests with you, not your passengers. Motivation to meet a set schedule not under the pilot’s control will cause pressure on the pilot, even if flying solo. Significant family events like family reunions, weddings, funerals, graduations, athletic events, connecting travel arrangements, and vacations can cause the perfect internal storm that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

“In this scenario, pilots can be compelled to take unnecessary flight risks when making the go, no-go, decision for that particular flight,” states Marcel Bernard, an ASI and FAA’s aviation training device national program manager. “An example would be departing on a flight in marginal, or forecast marginal weather conditions when they would otherwise not go.” Bernard has personally experienced pressure from his family (passengers) to get home that day. “I resisted and found a hotel room for the night. Making the no-go decision was the right thing to do.”

Mission Mentality

Family is easier to say “it’s a no-go” to because it’s not your job to get to the destination. Your clear job is to keep your family safe. However, helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) pilots have a unique external pressure due to the critical nature of their overall mission. The pilot is driven by the goal — to get a critically ill patient to the hospital. In order to reduce the effect of this pressure, HEMS operators do not notify the pilot of the patient’s condition. This narrows the pilot’s decision making role to one question: “Can the pickup and transportation to the medical care center be made safely?” Risking the life of the entire HEMS aircrew in an attempt to save one life is not a safe practice.

If you have made the technology leap and are using a new skysharing app to legally rideshare in the skies, you have another external pressure to think about. The goal here is to complete the flight to make money, which is why a commercial pilot certificate is required. It provides an added level of safety to counter external pressures among other things. (For more about this topic, check out “Why Can’t I Uber My Airplane?” in the November/December 2016 issue of FAA Safety Briefing.)

Flying for nonprofits can also influence your risk-based decision making. Flying to save a dog, transport a veteran, or search for a missing person puts the pilot in a mission-first mentality. Civil Air Patrol (CAP) has recognized this risk to pilots, which is why the organization requires the completion of an “Operational Risk Management Matrix” worksheet before every mission flight. This paper-based flight risk analysis tool, or FRAT worksheet, assigns a point value for each hazard that corresponds to its risk factor. A low risk flight has a worksheet total of 75 points or less. As the risk value increases, the flight can be released only by a higher-level officer in the chain-of-command, which is a valuable control to prevent accidents.

The CAP worksheet doesn’t strictly follow the PAVE checklist — the external pressures are the Mission broken down into two hazards.

1. Operations Tempo: The more aircraft involved, the greater the chance for collision.

2. Search Complexity: High workload caused by unfamiliar tasks can add to distractions.

More than four aircraft in the search area is considered high risk with a 20 point value. The combination of complex tasks for the aircrew to perform and the use of technology not routinely used by the aircrew are considered high risk with a 20 point value.

If everything else on the worksheet is low risk and these two high risk items are at 40 points, the flight is still within the low risk threshold of 75 points.

Pressure Popping Principles

Now that you understand what can cause external pressures and influence a pilot’s decision making skills, let’s look at how to mitigate those risks. The use of personal standard operating procedures (SOPs) is a way to manage it whereas a FRAT worksheet helps you make the go, no-go decision. According to the FAA’s Risk Management Handbook(, the goal with an SOP is to supply a release for the external pressures with procedures that can include, but are not limited to:

  • Allow time on a trip for an extra fuel stop or to make an unexpected landing because of weather.
  • Have alternate plans for a late arrival or make backup airline reservations for the must-be-there trips.
  • For really important trips, plan to leave early enough so that there would still be time to drive to the destination.
  • Advise those who are waiting at the destination that the arrival may be delayed. Know how to notify them when delays are encountered.
  • Manage passenger expectations. Ensure passengers know that they might not arrive on a firm schedule, and if they must arrive by a certain time, they should make alternate plans.
  • Eliminate pressure to return home, even on a casual day flight, by carrying a small overnight kit containing prescriptions, contact lens solutions, toiletries, or other necessities on every flight.

The key to managing external pressure is to be ready to accept delays. As Bernard puts it: “What good is it if you die trying to get there?” Clover notes that the “key is to reset your passengers’ expectations early.” Let them know it will take some time to get the preflight done. Let them know that you may not get to your intended destination today if the weather changes.

“I mitigate the pressure from my family and friends through education,” explains Bernard. “I explain the limitations of flights accomplished in GA aircraft in advance. — I’m not the airlines, and the aircraft I fly have significant limitations compared to the major air carriers using turbojet aircraft. — By educating potential passengers, in advance, much of the pressure disappears.”

Remember this: management of external pressure is the single most important key to risk management, because it is the one risk factor that can cause a pilot to ignore all others. It places time-related pressure on the pilot and figures into a majority of loss of control accidents, especially on base to final. So manage your “E” before you take off.

Paul Cianciolo is an assistant editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member and public affairs officer with Civil Air Patrol.

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