Putting safety first isn’t as hard as it looks.
One of the worst parts about reading accident reports is seeing how the accident chain was forged, link by link, especially as you know what the final result will be. If it were a horror movie, you would yell at the screen, “Stop scud running!” or, “Find a landing site now!”
I recently witnessed the opposite, where an accident chain unraveled before my eyes. I saw an aviator gather facts and then make an informed decision to not go flying that day—despite his own desire to fly, and a little joshing and peer pressure from an airport comrade.
Aeronautical decision-making is the cornerstone to safe flight operations. There are many components to it, but it’s ultimately where the pilot in command measures his or her ability and confidence to successfully complete a safe flight against the risks of that flight. Although we talk about the go/no-go decision, there are actually many decisions involved, because a pilot is always evaluating current conditions and considering options or adjustments to the flight plan.
Changing flight conditions can be mechanical items such as a sudden drop in oil pressure or loss of electrical power. Pilots also have to evaluate adjustments to their environment, such as changing weather conditions or transitioning from day to night. To help determine the risks involved in continued flight, we use tools such as experience, airman ratings, aircraft capability and equipment, and weather forecasts. And there are additional safety tools that we sometimes don’t use enough, such as ATC assistance, PIREPs, and preflight risk assessments.
One of the most challenging decisions for a pilot is to accept current local weather conditions as they are—not as we would like them to be, not as they are 5 miles away, and not as they will be in one hour’s time. I don’t know why that is. It should be an easy decision.
When I was a new helicopter air ambulance pilot, I was eager to prove my worth to the company. On my first day shift after completing company-required training, I was relieving the base lead pilot who was coming off the night shift. We discussed the night’s activities, and he passed me the handheld radio and told me to have fun.
Not long after, I received a flight request for a hospital transfer patient. I answered that radio call, “Stand by, I’m checking wx.” However, having recently reviewed the weather as part of the shift change, I already knew what conditions were: absolute crap, with summer fog in Virginia along the Potomac River.
The lead pilot, who was still in the room, walked over, took the radio from me, and said, “This is how you do this.” He responded, “[Call sign] declined for weather.”
It really is that simple. It’s hard to say no, but it doesn’t have to be.
Back to my good aeronautical decision-making moment a few weeks ago: The weather from the AWOS was 1,400 feet overcast and greater than 6 miles visibility, with a light breeze. By all accounts, it was OK weather, although probably not what you want for a long cross-country trip.
I wanted to fly my aircraft because I had upgraded some avionics and was eager to try them out. My machine is IFR certified and nicely equipped with all kinds of pilot information systems and a fully coupled autopilot. I am IFR trained, current, and proficient.
My airport comrade didn’t feel as confident as I did. His aircraft is a nice machine also and well equipped, but he doesn’t have an autopilot. He is IFR trained but not current or proficient.
I told him I’d send a PIREP when I got airborne to confirm or deny the AWOS report. The numbers were accurate as reported.
My pilot friend declined to fly that day. After considering all the data he put into his decision-making machine (his brain), he came up with a solution that recommended not flying.
When I returned from flying, we discussed his decision. I did rib him a little over it because that’s what we army and marine vets do. But in the end, I made a point to tell him, “Good job on sticking to your decision and what’s right for you.”
On that day, my faith in how the aeronautical decision-making process can work was restored. My airport comrade had made his go/no-go decision by taking into consideration the weather, his machine, his ratings, his ability, and mostly, his confidence in a safe outcome. He wasn’t afraid to say the conditions weren’t right for him to fly that day. It really is that simple.