Maintaining Our Vital “Safety Margin!”

Every properly prepared pilot can fly safely, even with a minimum level of skill, *IF* they accurately match their skills to the real demands of each mission. (That’s why CFIs can impose “limitations” on solo endorsements). In the vernacular, we are safe if we “don’t write checks we can’t cash.” The central problem, however, is the impossibility of accurately and objectively determining the two sides of this equation (see graphic above). Just about every pilot overrates their own skills and also underappreciates the threats they face. We inadvertently close that safety margin with our flawed analysis of both risks and skills. This is something I call “magical thinking.

To be safe we must accurately assess our real pilot skills and compare those to an equally accurate analysis of the demands of the flight. If an objective and honest analysis were actually available, maintaining safety becomes a simple physics problem; just maintain a margin of safety. Unfortunately, we are usually only capable of honest assessment during “20/20 hindsight.” (The “error correction” only arrives by virtue of a crash). Most often when we examine accidents in retrospect we end up puzzling “what were they thinking?”

The real culprit of failed safety is our numerous cognitive biases. As a funny example, 93% of American drivers think they are “better than average.” This impossible statistic is humorous in “Lake Wobegone” where “all the children are above average,”  but very dangerous when we assess our personal capabilities in a high-consequence activity like flying. Most pilots rate their abilities much too highly. They look in the mirror and see Chuck Yaeger staring back at them.

Similarly, when we assess the seemingly objective flight risks of weather, terrain, and workload, we exhibit confirmation bias; we “see what we want to see.” Another side of this problem is erroneously assuming the challenges are fixed and linear. But the weather, wind, and workload change continuously and require different levels of skill throughout each flight. Some of the highest workload requirements occur just when fatigue is diminishing our skill and knowledge capabilities; narrowing the safety margin.

To accurately analyze “the safety margin” and maintain a comfortable “gap” of residual capability, every pilot should assume the worst level of weather; the highest challenge. Assuming minimal pilot capability is also wise since self-assessments are usually optimistic. In short, don’t try to be a hero and over-commit to a flight at the limits of your perceived capability; these walls are permeable. Flight planning with past successes (which may be only luck) can put any pilot in an unworkable “coffin corner.”

There are four essential elements to human learning: attention, engagement, error correction, and consolidation. Error correction only comes from an honest reflection of our flight in an accurate “after-action review” (was my success due to skill or just luck?) If we fail to catch our “lucky survival” and squash our errors, the next “wake-up call” might be an accident or incident (too late)!

External forces like time pressure and perhaps “having too much fun” are the most pernicious external pressures that push us all toward failure. Analyzed in the “perfect worldview,” the “flight risk assessment tool” can, unfortunately, be an Ouiji board more than a guarantee unless we are diligently honest; we expect “results” but we get “consequences.” There are really no EZ-PZ flights. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Enjoy the new courses available to members on the new safe website. And please download and use the (free) SAFE Toolkit App. This contains all the references a working CFI needs plus provides continuously new safety content.

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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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