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Factors Affecting Pilot’s Ability To Fly Safely

Factors Affecting Pilot’s Ability To Fly SafelyThe Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) literature defines five hazardous attitudes that can undermine a pilot’s aeronautical decision making. They are antiauthority, impulsivity, invulnerability, macho, and resignation. While these terms all have negative connotations, each really represents a trait or characteristic embodied in the psyche of every human mind. The key to maintaining a safe attitude is understanding the factors that influence each of these traits and recognizing situations when these traits may become prevalent enough to compromise our decision-making ability.

The Decision-Making Process

The decision-making process involves awareness of our situation. We use judgment to evaluate various risk factors, then choose a course of action to produce a desired result. One representation of this process is called the DECIDE model. In this model, we first detect a change or deviation from our planned action. We then estimate the correction required. We choose a desirable outcome, initiate change by doing something, and evaluate the effect of this action on correcting the deviation.

Throughout this process, a pilot is called upon to evaluate five important elements: himself, the aircraft, the environment, the type of operation or flight (sightseeing, training, charter, etc.), and the situation of the other four elements.

Under normal circumstances, our decision-making process operates effectively. But when stressors are present, the decision-making process can become strained or fail altogether as the pilot fails to properly evaluate any of the five flight elements.

Stressors can be broadly categorized as physical, physiological, and psychological. Physical stressors relate to our environment and include such factors as cockpit temperature, noise, vibration and turbulence, hypoxia, and carbon monoxide. Any of these stressors can alter our perceptions to the point that we are no longer able to make realistic evaluations.

Physiological stressors are those that affect the functioning of our bodies and minds. They include such common factors as fatigue and proper nutrition.

When stressors mount, the attitudes that we normally keep in check may begin to adversely influence our decision-making ability. Our judgment becomes compromised, and we begin to slide down a slippery slope toward disaster. What’s important is that we recognize the traits within us, understand how these traits can develop into hazardous attitudes, and develop mechanisms to readjust our thought processes as we enter the zone of hazardous attitudes and dangerous decision making.


While most of us don’t like to admit it, at times we all act as if the rules don’t apply to us. If you’ve ever found yourself cruising down the highway above the posted speed limit, hurrying to make it through a yellow traffic light, or rolling past a stop sign, then you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes it seems that the rules just don’t apply in the particular circumstances, that they aren’t that important, or that we can get away with disregarding them.

When we find ourselves breaking the rules like this, we usually have ways to rationalize our behavior. “There was no traffic, and I was in a hurry…nobody was coming…conditions were perfect…you know these roads were really designed for traveling at 70 miles an hour….” Occasionally, such lapses in judgment result in an accident, but even then we are likely to find extenuating circumstances that relieve us of responsibility, such as, “That guy just came out of nowhere,” or, “There was a patch of ice on the road,” or, “He wasn’t using his turn signals.”

The same thing can happen in an airplane. To save a few seconds of time, pilots sometimes abbreviate the traffic pattern or use non-standard entries, skip checklists, or fly closer to the clouds and in poorer weather conditions than legally allowed. They rationalize these deviations with similar arguments, including, “There was nobody else in the pattern,” or, “I know the checklist by heart,” or, “I’ve done this hundreds of times.”

Psychological stressors are probably the most common cause of allowing antiauthority traits to run amuck. When we feel a strong need to get somewhere, we can feel justified in bending the rules. When our antiauthority attitude overwhelms our good judgment, we’re squarely in the danger zone.


Throughout our training, the need to react quickly-to take prompt action in response to a changing situation-is emphasized. When we hear the stall warning, we lower the nose, apply power, and level the wings. On landing, we make rapid corrections to compensate for the effects of gusty winds. When an engine fails or a fire breaks out, we respond immediately with carefully programmed actions.

A person with a hazardous impulsivity attitude may feel the need to do something-anything-quickly. But there are times when reacting too quickly can get us into trouble. Rush through a checklist, and you might miss an item. Hurry to feather a failed engine in a light twin, and you might inadvertently feather the wrong one. There are very few times when lightning-quick responses are essential to safety and survival. In most situations, including many emergencies, it’s better to take time to sort things out before committing to a course of action.


I’ve never been more shocked than the day I broke my leg skiing. I was 12 years old and way over my head on an icy slope. I lost control and slammed into an innocent bystander. My leg snapped like a frozen twig. I was dumb-founded. It was simply impossible that such a thing could happen to me. Accidents like this were only supposed to happen to other people.

Perhaps our built-in sense of invulnerability is a survival mechanism that allows us to cope with the prospect of injury or death. If we truly believed that we would be injured or killed each time we climbed into the cockpit of an airplane, we’d never turn the starter. Of course we don’t think we’re going to crash. We tend to believe that accidents happen to other pilots; besides, virtually all the factors that affect safety are under our direct control. We know that as long as we make good decisions, we should never have an accident.

However, this feeling of invulnerability should always be tempered by an equally strong sense of caution. Otherwise, this important survival mechanism becomes a serious safety liability. We may fail to stop and consider the very real risks that are involved in the actions we take.


Pilots must have a high degree of confidence in their ability to operate an airplane. Aviation is full of challenges: flight planning, decision making, computing, and navigating. Our training is designed to foster our self-image as competent, capable pilots. As aviation pioneer Beryl Markham wrote, “Success breeds confidence….” Each time we succeed in our flying, we have more confidence that we can do it again.

Sometimes our confidence outstrips our ability to safely fly the airplane. Especially when we have a strong desire to accomplish a goal, we can fool ourselves into believing that we can do something that is actually stretching the limits of our abilities.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, people with a hazardous macho attitude will feel a need to continually prove that they are better pilots than others and will take foolish chances to demonstrate their superior ability. Individuals who normally keep their macho attitude in check can be tripped up when certain psychological factors color their perception. Stresses that lead to the hurry-up syndrome or get-home-itis can cause pilots to overestimate their abilities.

Physiological stressors can also in-fluence our macho attitude. We all know that alcohol and drugs affect our decision-making abilities, but even the air we breathe can affect our perceptions. Flying high without supplemental oxygen can lead to hypoxia, which can induce feelings of elation, well-being, or belligerence. In this state, a pilot may feel secure and justified in taking unnecessary risks.


Everyone has a limit, and at some point, each of us will recognize that we have reached it and resign ourselves to the consequences. We say, “There’s nothing more I can do,” or “I can’t do that.” This resignation becomes hazardous when a pilot gives up when faced with difficult situations. Those with a hazardous resignation attitude believe that they have little control over their own destiny-that fate or bad luck is the cause of their misfortune.

Our perception of our limits can change from year to year or even minute to minute as our environment changes and physiological, psychological, and physical factors come into play.

Physical and physiological stressors probably have the greatest influence on our perceived limits. When we’re tired or feeling sick, we may become overwhelmed.

Changing Bad Attitudes

Once we recognize that our decision making might be compromised by a hazardous attitude, we can apply a corrective mechanism to our thinking. When the antiauthority attitude strikes, we need to remind ourselves that the rules are usually right. The regulations we fly by have literally been written in blood and exist for our protection.
When we find ourselves tempted to react impulsively, we can remind ourselves to think first. By reflecting briefly on a situation, we often choose a better course of action than simple reaction.

When we find ourselves thinking that bad things only happen to other pilots (invulnerability), we need to think again. Take mental note of all the factors influencing the safety of the flight. If we put these factors in the context of an accident report-our own-we can make better, more objective evaluations of our situation.

The same goes for the macho attitude. If we find ourselves about to take a chance, we need to reflect on the significance of our decision to fly. Ask yourself how important this flight will be five days or five years from now. Chances are it won’t be that important.

Finally, we need to watch out for those times when our abilities become compromised by tunnel vision. When the resignation attitude develops, we must realize that we are not helpless and force ourselves to continue thinking and flying the airplane.

It may have been a harsh step to sell that motorcycle, but the experience reinforced a valuable lesson about human nature. Nobody wants an accident, but they happen all the time. To avoid them, we must constantly make the painstakingly difficult assessment of our own mental condition. source

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