We often talk about safety only in terms of pilot operator skills and capability; very objectifiable attributes. But regardless of how proficient and talented a pilot might be, we all have limitations. Challenges that exceed the skill/knowledge capability of a pilot lead to accidents or death. This “safety equation” of skill vs challenge is unforgiving. For safety assurance, there must be an honest match between the pilot’s capabilities and the challenge of the day. Weather, terrain, A/C performance, and pilot endurance continuously present ways to get in trouble. Regardless of the level of challenge, there must be a “margin of safety” between pilot capability and task requirements to come home safely. The major problem is we don’t honestly assess our personal capabilities.
In our modern technological world, most challenges are painfully obvious; a nasty cold front ahead, gusty winds or some lurking convective. The accident results when the (usually overconfident) pilot takes off and assumes too much challenge! Basic honesty is the lacking safety ingredient. Watch a few AOPA accident case studies – very therapeutic – where the dead pilot ignored the “known threat” or believed they could overcome it (“magical thinking”). These accident recreations play like horror movies where the audience is screaming; “don’t go into that dark and scary house ” – we all know the hero is going to die. The threat is obvious to everyone except the overconfident pilot, to whom this seems like a good idea. Not so much…
So brutal honesty is the tool we need to start out with: “Do I have the skill, knowledge, and endurance to handle this challenge?” Unfortunately, for the average pilot, an honest personal assessment is amazingly difficult. I think this is one (seldom-stated) reason why the safety record for two-crew operations is statistically 7X safer than solo flights. An honest arbiter provides an independent assessment of the challenges vs the skills and enforces good judgment. If every pilot just called a trusted friend before departing on a challenging flight, we might immediately be 7x safer.
This honesty goes beyond just the decision to initiate a flight. The common “just take a look” technique is often a lie that creates another set of hazards. Newton’s fourth law is “a pilot in motion tends to stay in motion!” It is amazingly difficult to turn back or land short once a flight has begun. The only antidote to this kind of stupidity is setting absolutely objective “hard stops” before starting (again honesty). “If the ceiling drops below XXX or the wind is more than XXX I will divert or land.” Personal minimums are essential safety tools. Maintaining the “3 Ds” (Delay, Divert, Drive) is the viable option for safety.
The second major requirement (again psychological) of safety is building flexibility into the original plan. A rigid, unchanging “mission mentality” in the face of the dynamic challenges of aviation (weather, fatigue, and malfunctions) creates the second threat that is well represented in accident data. Pilots continue with an original plan into overwhelming circumstances once in motion and end up dead. In accident recreations, the “view from the balcony” makes these threats obvious. This objective skill is called “metacognition.“ It is the essential ability to remove yourself from the action and objectively analyze the threats (thinking about thinking). I have diverted and landed short many times when my mind says (wisely) “This situation is starting to read like an NTSB report!” Another way to build this safety awareness is to ask yourself how you would explain your potential outcome to the friendly aviation inspector after the crash…
The mandate of a good CFI is to embed these critical “soft skills” into every pilot. These are the most critical and difficult skills to teach (or test). And this is where scenarios are the essential toolkit. Watching other pilots taking the wrong path (AOPA recreations) or allowing (leading) a learner to a wrong decision, demonstrates our human weakness for inaccurate self-assessment and “continuation bias“. The goal is to deliver this learning during dual training, *before* a future accident happens. The AOPA “Do The Right Thing” is also a highly recommended teaching tool. Building the habit of reflective analysis into every pilot is a lifetime learning tool to build awareness and save lives. This is similar to the instructional debrief and should become a habit in every pilot’s toolkit. “What went right, what went wrong; was my success luck or skill?” This is a critical question to answer after every flight. It turbocharges learning and helps keep you safe (and humble). Please fly safely out there (and often)!
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