Article appeared in Flying Magazine February, 2014 by Martha King – Most pilots who have been flying for awhile know pilots who scare them. My husband, John, and I were two of those pilots. We were so wrapped up in using our airplane as a personal, fun, travelling machine that we wouldn’t let anything—inexperience, nighttime, bad weather, even a rough-running engine—get in our way. We had one close call after another until we had our inevitable accident.
It’s not like well-meaning pilots didn’t try to counsel us—like the guy in Albuquerque who suggested to us that rather than taking off for a night trip over the mountains in a snowstorm, it might be wiser to wait until the morning. Or the multiple pilots, including John’s uncle, who felt we should have more time before we moved from our Cherokee to the higher-powered and complex Comanche, or that at least we should get some more time in it before we set off on a one-day trip from California to Indiana. In each case we not only ignored them, we were offended. What seemed to annoy us was that they told us what we were doing wasn’t “safe.” They even said that we were exercising poor “decision-making” and “judgment.”
The interesting thing is that these pilots were right. What we were doing, in fact, wasn’t wise. But why didn’t we listen? I think the answer is that as well-meaning as these pilots were, they didn’t use a vocabulary that would evoke a positive result from us.
For instance, even the word “safe,” which is of course is used by nearly everybody, didn’t get a good reaction from us. We had been following our pattern of behavior for some time and had not had an accident. We saw the interference from other people as disapproval and an attempt to stop us from doing what we wanted to do.
The problem with the word “safe” is that it is an absolute. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “safe” means “free from harm or risk.” Well, nothing in aviation is free from harm or risk. You can’t start an engine without risk, and you certainly can’t take off without risk. So our reaction was, if your goal is to be “safe” you can’t do anything. We considered talk about safety as being pompous and prissy. Talk about safety certainly didn’t get anywhere with us.
We were equally unaccepting of talk about “decision-making” and “judgment.” We were blessed with fine self-images, and considered ourselves successful business people. We weren’t willing to entertain any thought that we weren’t good at decision-making or didn’t have good judgment.
So what would have gotten a good response from us? I am not sure anything would have. But using a different vocabulary might have helped. If the people who were concerned about us had said something like, “There are risks in everything you do in aviation, but the key to consistently successful outcomes is managing those risks,” this might have resonated with us. We, like everyone else, knew we were taking risks. We just thought we could get away with them. We just weren’t good yet at identifying all the risks, assessing them, and coming up with a mitigation strategy.
The reason we weren’t good at risk management is that we hadn’t been taught to do it. The way we learned risk management is that, like many other pilots, we got our certificates and then went out and tried stuff. If we got away with something, we put that into the acceptable category. The more times we got away with it the more acceptable it became. In fact, we may have just been lucky.
On the other hand, if we tried something and scared ourselves we’d say, “Wow, we’ll never do that again,” and we’d place that on our growing list of things we’d decided we’d never do again. That’s what is known as learning by experience. But experience is a hard teacher. She gives the test first, and the lesson comes afterward. We were very fortunate to have survived the tests so far in order to get the lessons.
So how could we have been taught differently? Well, some schools and instructors are training pilots how to manage risks by incorporating a risk-management exercise in every pre-flight briefing. They set aside a little time with the learning pilot to have a discussion in which they together identify the potential risks of the up-coming flight. Some risks are obvious to a learning pilot, but some are not.
For example, if the lesson is to be ground reference maneuvers, an instructor might help the learning pilot identify the insidious and counter-intuitive risk of flying too fast while trying to maneuver around a point on the ground. The higher speed requires steeper bank angles to stay near the point, and the increased load factor increases the stall speed.
Once a risk is identified the instructor might help the learning pilot assess the probabilities and consequences of harm caused by the risk. In the case of high load factor while maneuvering, the instructor could point out that stall/spin accidents while maneuvering are the most common type of fatal accidents.
The instructor and learning pilot could then discuss mitigation strategies, including selecting a reasonable speed during the maneuvers and a maximum bank angle.
A pilot who has gone through a similar risk-management exercise on every training flight stands a much higher chance of having a habit of practicing good risk management after they are out flying on their own. If John and I had been trained this way, and then been approached by a concerned pilot who used this same vocabulary with us, we most likely would have been much more accepting of their input.
So, based on John’s and my experience, I think we in the aviation community can do a far better job of thinking about risk and expressing ourselves. I suggest that we need to change our vocabulary, including banning the words “safe” and “safety”—for two reasons. First, when we use them we usually don’t mean them. And second, they don’t give us any guidance.
We say things like, “Safety is our number one priority.” If safety were our number one priority, we’d never fly. Or we say, “We will never compromise safety.” Getting into any moving vehicle, especially an airplane, is a compromise with safety. Absolute safety is unattainable. So when we say these things they cannot literally be true.
All of this clichéd talk about “safety” comes across as insincere hypocrisy. Plus, it is bad management, because we are setting unattainable goals. Telling someone to have a “safe” trip is a nice, courteous expression of good will, but it is lousy advice. It is literally impossible, and gives no advice that can be acted on. Better advice would be to suggest doing a good job of managing the risks of their flight.
Of course, the other two words that were used with us that I believe were not helpful were “judgment” and “decision-making.” Although they refer to components of risk management, I don’t think using these terms will be helpful with other pilots either.
The reason is that I believe these words will not be well received by the recipient, and are not likely to produce positive results. Aviation tends to attract competent, achieving individuals who naturally believe they already employ good judgment and decision-making. They are unlikely to pay heed to an (often younger) instructor who tells them they will teach them “judgment” and “decision-making.” Their reaction is more likely to be, “I don’t think so, kid.” Additionally, the term “decision-making” tends to imply that you get to a fork in the road and make a decision. I would like to see us be far more proactive than that, and anticipate that fork before we ever get there.
Well, you might say, if you don’t like the terms “safe,” “safety,” “judgment,” and “decision-making,” what can we say? I like focusing on “risk management” because it describes the process necessary to get good results. Risk management involves anticipating risks, assessing them, and developing an ongoing strategy for mitigating them. And that is exactly what we need to do to get better outcomes.
When we have converted the culture of our aviation community to focusing on risk management, pilots won’t have to gain their seasoning by putting themselves repeatedly at risk, and accumulating a long list of things they won’t ever do again—like John and I did.