Important Decision Making Skills!

Thanks to author Parvez Dara, SAFE Treasurer, Master CFI and ATP-rated pilot.

Consider this logic; “I think therefore I am.” Rene Descartes was the father of those words and yet everything we do seems to come from this simple phrase. Our thoughts become actions and then those become habits and they eventually develop our character.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.34.32 PMSo let us look at it in matters of aviation safety. Two pilots from the same household develop differing characteristics of behavior. One is judicious in thought and action, careful in planning and argues within himself all observable points of view with an eye towards flexibility due to changing environments, thus creating various scenarios and plans of action. The other pilot is laissez faire. He gets up, looks out the window at the sun peaking though the clouds and heads to the airport. He is our “kick the tire and light the fire, barnstormer.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.34.04 PMThe logic of decision making is based primarily on information. Asymmetry of information is the main reason for our first pilot to have deliberation over multiple plans of action. He deals with the Boolean logic of “If this then that.” The barnstormer cares not a wit about information per se. He believes he is the epitome of an aviator and the sky is his oyster. So to each, thought is his own way.

Both these pilots are borne of the discovery and justification process. The discovery of biases and the justification to do things. The careful pilot has turned information into knowledge and understanding, while the barnstormer is, shall we say more about his own fully developed sense of “greatness,” then any sense of reality.

While the former takes in all the available bits of data and compiles them into a cohesive sense of the environment, both past and future, the latter has built within himself the fire-walls of confidence rich in confirmatory bias.

Ah I am glad you asked about confirmatory bias. Basically if you do something repetitively and it works, you consider that as a successful and repeatable enterprise. Not withstanding Taleb’s “Black Swan” effect the barnstormer can go on for a finite period of time with that bias lingering within him, until one day the ailerons fly off the hinges. An example would be a pilot who scud runs. As he continues to press on while the cloud ceiling lowers the boom and confirmatory bias continues to ride the wave, until one day the pilot mangles himself on a cell tower or becomes a statistic of a CFIT (obscured mountain). This happens quite a few times a year unfortunately. Justification of actions are a human mechanism steeped in hubris and confirmed through the passage of time by similar acts of carelessness. Its like the teenager who after watching a video of an expert skateboarding champion decides he can go down the rails on flat concrete surface, only to break some young bones in the process, trying to up the ante down a steep staircase.

On the other hand the careful pilot looks at the weather briefing diligently, has acquired the instrument rating, is always instrument proficient and even then takes into consideration the weaknesses of his own skills with “what if scenarios.”

How do we make decisions?

Carefully with as many pieces of information as are available!

DecisionMaking

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has explored the idea that we have two internal systems in our brain that are often in conflict during the decision making process. System 1 is a knee-jerk type, quick on the pedal to the metal with little reverence for the condition of the equipment or the environment. System 2 is a more careful, slow, methodical and judiciously employed consideration of all available pieces of information that go in to making a decision.

While System 1 is more of the emergent nature that triggers the frontal lobe of the brain into quick-firing of electrical stimuli, System 2 is the careful process that takes into account from the temporal, visual, auditory and parietal lobes of the brain before committing the fire from the frontal lobe. So in essence with deliberate care.

Which is correct?

If you have to ask that question as a pilot then, I suggest, you take some classes to govern your impulsive, hazardous attitude.

The old story about that, “there are no old, bold pilots!” is a truism. There are only the methodical careful ones that define the risks, mitigate as many known hazards as possible and only then undertake an action.

Conquering space did not happen because someone decided to tie a rocket on their back and lit the fuse. It happened because of hundreds of scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and a few brave astronauts took on the arduous task of understanding space.

Pilots are not all pioneers in space. Most of us are just pilots. There are a few aviators among us, not mere technicians in flight, who understand completely each motion as they are strapped into the seats of an aircraft flying at many hundreds of miles per hour across space.

Understanding natural science and the design of science that are created to embark through that nature is as important as knowing when to apply the force on the rudder to prevent a slip and when to create a slip in flight.

Decisions are made continuously in life. We decide what to buy or sell, to go to a movie or read a book, to cook a meal or dine out. All these decisions have a precedent of understanding and need to fulfill. Similarly flying has a precedent and need. The need however must be met with an equal tincture of understanding of the surrounding space and its vagaries.

All flights are possibilities and as they proceed in space and time, they become probabilities and then are added to the ledger of understanding based on the information gleaned from those flights after they become certainties. These flights then become the justification for future ones. It is equally easy to fall into the trap of hubris as it is into the comforts of a carefully crafted methodology. Therefore it is important to learn about good habits from others and discern about bad habits. Accident cases abound in the aviation literature, most (80%+) point to the pilot actions as the cause of aircraft accidents. One would even consider the number higher. But then I digress.

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How do we avoid falling into the Kahneman’s System 1, knee-jerk, barnstorming trap?

  1. Develop good safe habits through practice.
  2. Employ careful and methodical instructors to give skill and sound procedures.
  3. Create a log of all flights outside of those in the logbook, detailing each flight and reflecting on errors for future correction.
  4. Critique every flight and what was learned from each.
  5. Gently point out to other’s bad habits (you might save their lives one day).
  6. Rash car drivers make bad pilots.
  7. Egocentric machoism is dangerous to a pilot’s health.
  8. Keep learning. Get all that aviation certification has to offer. Get an instrument rating if you are a private pilot, a commercial ticket and go all the way to the Airline Transport rating. Then consider sea pilot rating, Soaring, Upset training, etc.. All these fill your bag of tricks when one day, you might need them. Never stop learning!
  9. Always emulate good behavior.
  10. Do not drink and fly (Consider more than 8 hours from bottle to throttle, because you as pilot might be a slow metabolizer of alcohol).
  11. Consider the FAA’s IMSAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Eating) before each flight.
  12. Have fun, fly safe…then you live to fly another day (the important part!)

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Understanding Pilot Fatigue

Be mindful of fatigue; this slow insidious dread that has caused many a pilot to lose their way.

Fatigue, is the final frontier in our modern too-busy lives. No, seriously, from that threshold nothing is achieved, nothing improved and nothing is gained. Only problems ensue.

Definition: “Fatigue is a condition characterized by increased discomfort with lessened capacity for work, reduced efficiency of accomplishment, loss of power or capacity to respond to stimulation, and is usually accompanied by a feeling of weariness and tiredness.”

It is a burnout, or feeling tired…minor change in mood, energy, or sleep; the lowest reaches of wellness. Fatigue is a symptom of your brain reaching a point of dysfunction…a large spectrum of dysfunction. The spectrum ranges from momentary blips on the radar of simply needing a break, a catnap for instance, or needing to eat lunch, to more severe, devastating, life-altering, neurodegenerative disorders of complete exhaustion…Yikes!

There are two kinds of Fatigue:  Acute (short-term) and Chronic (long-term).  Short term acute fatigue is easily cured by a sound sleep and is a normal daily occurrence. The chronic fatigue however has deeper psychological roots and causes significant psychosomatic ailments, which can lead to long term disability from debilitation. Some of these include: tiredness, heart palpitations, breathlessness, headaches, or irritability. Sometimes chronic fatigue even creates stomach or intestinal problems and generalized aches and pains throughout the body and even depression. Self-help cures in these circumstances are rare.

Above all, when in the throes of chronic stress, don’t fly!

Let’s look at some of the common issues encountered: sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, apathy, feelings of isolation, annoyance, increased reaction time to stimulus, slowing of higher-level mental functioning, decreased vigilance, memory problems, task fixation, and increased errors while performing tasks. Fatigued individuals consistently underreport how tired they are, as measured by physiologic parameters. No degree of experience, motivation, medication, coffee, other stimulants, or will power can overcome fatigue. Nine hours into his 33-hour flight, Charles Lindbergh wrote in his journal that, “…nothing life can attain, is quite so desirable as sleep.”

A special kind of fatigue that can afflict a pilot with profound ramifications is “Skill Fatigue.” Skill Fatigue involves two main disruptions:

  • Timing disruption – Performing a task as usual, but with the timing of each component is slightly off, makes the pattern of the operation less smooth and fluid. There is a higher chance of disruption in finishing the task.
  • Disruption of the perceptual field – You concentrate your attention upon movements or objects in the center of your vision and neglect those in the periphery. This leads to loss of accuracy and smoothness in control movements. The effects are magnified in high task saturated environments eg. turbulent weather in instrument conditions.

Other symptoms include: memory fog (where did I leave my keys), difficulty following instructions, lowered retention, lack of motivation, tire easily, poor focus, emotional meltdown and psychosomatic pains and digestive complaints. And while it is felt in the peripheral muscles as weakness it is a central dogma arising in the brain; Brain (Central Governance Model-CGM) generates the sensations of fatigue during exercise (MIND OVER MATTER) – Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis. ( Timothy David Noakes,* Front Physiol. 2012; 3: 8)  While initially fatigue causes a reduction in muscular force, the brain executes a second phenomenon of fatigue as a sensation. The central psychical station influencing the peripheral muscular network might appear as an imperfection, yet it is an extraordinary perfection of support and self-preservation.

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Imaging brain fatigue from sustained mental workload: An ASL perfusion study of the time-on-task effect. Julian Lim et.al. NeuroImage 49 (2010) 3426–3435

Fatigue as a phenomenon has been extensively studied by the FAA in Commercial Pilots flying over multiple time zones and the Rules require mandatory rests crossing over 4 time zones and 8/9 accumulated flight hours. (Prevalence of fatigue among commercial pilots Craig A. Jackson 1 and Laurie Earl 2 Occup Med (Lond) (June 2006) 56(4): 263-268.)

The current regulations are:

“The new regulations, which don’t apply to cargo pilots, require that pilots get at least 10 hours of rest between shifts. Eight of those hours must involve uninterrupted sleep. In the past, pilots could spend those eight hours getting to and from the hotel, showering and eating. Pilots will be limited to flying eight or nine hours, depending on their start times. They must also have 30 consecutive hours of rest each week, a 25% increase over previous requirements.”

We must remember that the ultimate risk of pilot fatigue is an aircraft accident and potential fatalities, such as the Colgan Air Crash that occurred in early 2009 (http://aviation.about.com/od/Accidents/a/Accident-Profile-Colgan-Air-Continental-Connection-Flight-3407.htm)

What is the ultimate antidote to Fatigue?  Answer: SLEEP.

Here are some Dos and Don’ts for pilots and surely-bonded- land-lubbers to live by:

Do…

  1. Be mindful of the side effects of certain medications, even over-the-counter medications – where drowsiness or impaired alertness is a concern.
  2. Consult a physician to diagnose and treat any medical conditions causing sleep problems.
  3. Create a comfortable sleep environment at home. Adjust heating and cooling as needed. Get a comfortable mattress.
  4. When traveling, select hotels that provide a comfortable environment.
  5. Get into the habit of sleeping eight hours per night. When needed, and if possible, nap during the day, but limit the nap to less than 30 minutes. Longer naps produce sleep inertia, which is counterproductive. 6. Try to turn in at the same time each day. This establishes a routine and helps you fall asleep quicker.
  6. If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, get up and try an activity that helps induce sleep (watch non-violent TV, read, listen to relaxing music, etc).
  7. Get plenty of rest and minimize stress before a flight. If problems preclude a good night’s sleep, rethink the flight and postpone it accordingly.

Don’t…

  1. Consume alcohol or caffeine 3-4 hours before going to bed.
  2. Eat a heavy meal just before bedtime.
  3. Take work to bed.
  4. Exercise 2-3 hours before bedtime. While working out promotes a healthy lifestyle, it shouldn’t be done too close to bedtime.
  5. Use sleeping pills (prescription or otherwise).

Fatigue is a slow inebriation of senses and its harm lies menacingly in the wings. Early recognition and prevention is the key to flight safety!

“Follow” our blog to receive notification of new articles and write us a comment please if you see a problem or want to contribute. Write us also if you have an article to contribute on aviation excellence or flight safety. Most importantly, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment painless and fun.