Here’s one of the most poorly-kept secrets in aviation:
Pilots. Have. Egos. Big egos.
That’s because learning to fly takes money, and it takes time. It also takes dedication, hard work (lots of it), and plain ol’ stubborn determination to succeed. Individuals who persevere long enough to earn that first pilot certificate are understandably proud of this achievement. Most of us are also proud (okay, maybe even a little smug) to be members of a surprisingly small and thus “exclusive” group.
The problem is that pilot pride can sometimes interfere with good judgment and good decisions, especially if there is an audience of potential passengers involved. Pilots don’t want to appear dumb. We don’t want to be (or appear to be) cowards. We don’t want to disappoint partners and other passengers who have agreed – some grudgingly – to put their lives in our hands by occupying a seat in the airplane. We don’t want to be (or appear to be) incapable, unable, or unworthy.
Most of all, we don’t want to say “no.” Human nature being what it is, at least in the immediate timeframe, it is so much easier for a pilot with passengers to say “yes” regardless of weather and safety factors that make “no” the wiser choice. So here’s what I tell pilots who attend my safety seminars and pilot partners who come to right-seat courses: The day a pilot truly becomes pilot-in-command is the day that he or she says “no” to a flight that somebody in the group really, Really, REALLY wants to make.
So what can a GA pilot’s right seat companion do to help? Plenty! It starts with using a structured way to identify hazards, and reduce their ability to pose a risk to flight safety. In the next paragraph is the “PAVE” hazard and risk assessment framework that many pilots use to evaluate circumstances for a particular flight. By encouraging consistent use of such tools for both flight analysis and the so-called “go/no-go” and “continue/divert” decision-making processes, you can help your pilot save face – and, most importantly, you can help.
PAVE the Way to Safety
Pilot/People: The first item in the PAVE hazard and risk assessment tool is P, which can refer not just to the pilot, but also to passengers and other people involved in the flight. This item should remind the pilot to review his or her readiness for the flight on several dimensions. These include total experience, recent experience, proficiency, and legal requirements (e.g., currency requirements for night, instrument flight, passenger-carrying operations). Other dimensions include the pilot’s physical and emotional condition. A pilot’s spouse or significant other can be especially helpful in this area, because who is better situated to know when something just isn’t right?
Aircraft: The A element of PAVE reminds the pilot to evaluate hazards and risk factors associated with the aircraft. These include determining fuel and fuel reserve requirements, the mechanical condition of the aircraft and its equipment, and expected aircraft performance (e.g., takeoff and landing distances) for conditions on the day of the flight. The A also reminds the pilot to consider his or her level of experience in the specific type of aircraft and its equipment. Once a pilot companion is more comfortable flying around, he or she can help out with this by helping monitor gauges, running checklists, and annotating radio transmissions, if needed.
enVironment: PAVE’s V component reminds the pilot to assess hazards and risk associated with all elements of the flight environment. These include airport and runway conditions, airport lighting, terrain, obstacles, and airspace restrictions. But one of the most critical V elements is weather. Some pilots are qualified to fly only under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), when the weather is good. With more training and testing, a pilot can earn the privilege of operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), when the weather is not good enough for visual flight. An important thing to remember, though, is that even IFR-qualified pilots cannot, and should not, attempt to fly in all weather conditions. Much depends on the individual pilot’s level of training, skill, proficiency, and comfort with given weather conditions. The type of aircraft is also a factor, simply because some airplanes have more capability than others. But no GA airplane can safely penetrate thunderstorms or fly in severe icing conditions.
External Pressures: Passengers eager for a trip and people waiting at the destination are good examples of External Pressures that can profoundly and adversely impact a pilot’s judgment, in part for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion. Passengers who are cognizant of PAVE hazards (e.g., pilot illness or fatigue, unfamiliar aircraft, poor weather) can alleviate people-related external pressures in a couple of ways. One is to invite a conversation about hazards identified for this flight. Another is to suggest, and actively assist with plans in the event of a delay or diversion. Passengers who are prepared for these eventualities make it much easier for the pilot to make – and stick to – a “no” decision when conditions so require.
Personal Minimums – Decision Making In Advance
One of the most useful things a pilot can do in aviation safety risk management is to develop and write down personal minimums. In formal terms, personal minimums are an individual pilot’s set of procedures, rules, criteria, and guidelines for deciding whether, and under what conditions, to operate (or continue operating). While accurate, the formal definition does not really convey one of the core concepts: personal minimums as a “safety buffer” between the demands of the situation and the extent of both pilot skills and airplane performance.
I like to think of personal minimums as the human factors equivalent of reserve fuel. When the pilot plans a flight, the regulations require calculating fuel use in a way that leaves a specified amount of fuel in the tanks upon landing. Reserve fuel is intended to provide a safety buffer between fuel required for normal flight and fuel available to avoid total quiet in the engine compartment.
In the same way, a pilot should establish written personal minimums to provide a solid safety buffer between the skills and aircraft performance required for a specific flight, and the skills and aircraft performance available.
Does your pilot have written personal minimums? If not, one of the most helpful things you can do is to encourage him or her to invest the time in developing them. For one approach to this process, you can point your pilot to the “Getting the Maximum from Personal Minimums” article from the May/June 2006 of FAA Aviation News. The article provides a step-by-step approach and worksheets the pilot can use for this process.
If the pilot does have written personal minimums, you might ask whether the document is up-to-date. Personal minimums are very dynamic, because proficiency levels change (for better and for worse) in accordance with practice.
Once personal minimums have been established and updated, the right seat passenger can contribute to good risk management by asking the pilot to demonstrate that the proposed flight is consistent with those pre-established decisions. In addition to increasing the passenger’s level of comfort and confidence, this approach makes it easier for the pilot to make “disappointing” decisions when circumstances so require.
Using the Veto
A final suggestion for GA aircraft passengers seeking to help with decision making and risk management: Negotiate for “veto power,” and then use it when you need to. Veto power means that if any aspect of the flight makes the passenger uncomfortable, he or she can use the veto to request prompt diversion to a safe alternate destination. Once safely on the ground, there will be plenty of time to review conditions, discuss options, and decide – together – on next steps that will keep everyone safe and ready to fly again. (FAA Safety Briefing – JulAug 2014)