Maintaining the “Maybe” for Safety!

For safety, it is critical to remember that no flight is ever a “done deal,” a “slam-dunk” or “EZ-PZ” until the chocks are in the wheels at the end of a flight. Every planned flight is a “maybe” and we need to avoid falling victim to all those human biases that might put us into an unsafe situation (sunk cost, completion bias, optimism bias, mission mentality…) Humans are by nature overly optimistic – “all systems go!” We tend to push forward with a plan even when good sense would dictate “Delay, Divert, Drive.” And the standard pilot personality is equipped with even more hubris than ground-based humans. Safety requires “maintaining MAYBE.”

The NASA Artemis One “attempt” at launch last week was a perfect example of proper “safety mindset.” And today, NASA is carefully controlling expectations by saying we “might” have a launch *if* everything works according to plan. If a couple of minor things go wrong, perhaps delay and pivot to mitigate the risks. Pressing on with a plan in the face of obvious risks and dramatic environmental changes is just dangerous. We should always regard any planned aviation event as a *MAYBE* for safety; cultivate a stoic attitude for safety.


Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
(General/President Eisenhower)

Exaggerated planning constrains your freedom of action and leaves you less time to get things done. Complicated planning paralyses. So let simplicity and common sense guide your planning. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad 

There are lots of useful quotes pertaining to planning but the important caution is not letting your plans get a life of their own and dictate your actions in the face of changing circumstances. The process of planning is essential to gather data and analyze risks, but “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.” Regard your plans like those made in the football huddle. They are immediately subject to change as soon as the ball is snapped.

Persist (GRIT)

How long should we continue to push on and persist? This is one of the hardest questions to answer. Hold the stock or sell, stay the course or divert? A personality trait which can be important to success like “grit/perseverance” can become a liability if carried to far. As long as a safe “Plan B” is in place and safety margins are maintained, we can afford a bit of “grit” and determination. But there is a point where it is also wise to “cut and run.” Three tries on an instrument approach is my personal limit (and that is only with changing weather or other objective justification) then it is time to go to the alternate.

DOn’t be afraid to “Pivot!”

“Only a fool never changes his mind.” As Desmond Ford said: “To change your mind is the best evidence you have one.” Richard Branson

Every good pilot has a Plan B (and maybe even C?) so we are not “painted into a corner.” It takes courage to pivot. But boy is that a lonely place to be when you run out of options while airborne! Maintain the margins and don’t count on luck as a planning tool. Time to execute the Plan B option.

John Boyd (Again)

The master of maneuver warfare, Col. John Boyd constructed the famous “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act cycle” for fast action in threatening, changeable environments. This mental model is taught in every major business school and also every branch of the military. We have to remain flexible  and “maintain maybe” as we face complex tasks…it is never a “done deal” until the chocks are in the wheels. It is not only necessary to fly with this important caution, it is also critical to teach dynamic decision-making. Fly safely out there (and often). Fingers crossed for Artemis One.

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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