Risk management: it’s a personal thing

What are you willing to risk? It’s a question at the heart of everything we do as pilots. Obviously, we’re willing to take a few risks or we wouldn’t be flying at all. Fact is that flying is a gazillion times safer than many other activities. It’s also a fact that it can be terribly unforgiving of errors or carelessness compared to other hobbies.

Flying is perhaps unique in that we pilots have a tremendous amount of control over choosing the risks we face. Compare it to driving where there are so many others in close proximity who can, and do, cause us great danger on a regular basis. Pilots can avert risk, for example, by staying on the ground in bad weather, or avoiding flights for which we or our planes are not equipped.

Each of us forms our own risk matrix. We’ll look at a goal we want to achieve, decide what options exist to achieve it, and normally choose the safest, most efficient means to do so. Or, we’ll decide that all the available options present too much risk, too high a chance of losing too much, and we’ll avoid the activity all together.

Flying over city
Flying over urban areas, like Calgary, presents a different set of risks than mountains do. I’m always looking for forced landing spots over places like this, though emergency response would be almost immediate.

We can actually calculate some risks pretty accurately. In fact, there are entire industries built on doing just that, the insurance business being one of them. Some risks, though, can’t be computed with a calculator. Some risks we assess on an intensely personal and subjective level, and after the assessment we usually decide to stay well within our risk management comfort zone. Every one of us does this.

I’ll give you an aeronautical example. I’m terrified of flying over water. I’m not a good swimmer, I don’t float worth a damn in fresh water and I don’t like being cold. In 2013, I flew my Cavalier, which I’d owned less than a year, to Oshkosh. Our route took my wingmen and me through northern Minnesota. We departed on one leg from the airport at Brainerd Lakes and turned southeast for our next stop.

This leg travelled directly over a lake that’s about 18 miles wide, less than nine minutes travel time in the Cav. I had a good, reliable engine in my plane, good weather and no real excuses, but I wouldn’t fly over that lake. I went around it, instead.

By contrast, one of my wingmen was flying a plane that was also fairly new to him, and with an engine of unknown total time and overall condition. The logs had been lost somewhere along the way, and it was burning a lot of oil, too. But he didn’t have any trouble heading out over the lake. I very much envied him for that confidence in his engine.

Was he being foolhardy in taking that chance? I don’t think so. He was simply much more sure of his engine. He’s also a vastly more experienced pilot and felt that the engine would give lots of warning before something catastrophic occurred.

His risk assessment was completely different than mine. He was willing to take the chance that I wasn’t. The outcome, for all that it mattered, is that my detour cost me about ten minutes more flying time, something I was happily willing to accept to stay in my risk management comfort zone.

Two years later, I found myself sitting in the Cav a few feet away from Bob Kirkby’s Cherokee over the Great Salt Lake in Utah. That stretch of our route was about 20 minutes of flying over water where I was almost certain to be swimming should the unthinkable happen.

Cherokee flying over lake
Setting out over the Great Salt Lake with Kirkby and his Cherokee. It was a risk, but I felt it was a manageable one.

So why fly over the Great Salt Lake and not a northern Minnesota one? First, I float well in salt water, and that lake is really salty. Second, we were under flight following from Salt Lake terminal control, and thus, much closer to emergency response if needed. And third, I simply had more confidence in my engine and airplane with a couple more years’ experience flying it. This was a leg that was within my risk management comfort zone, though right on the edge of it.

Based in Calgary, I do a lot of flying in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. Some pilots fear mountain flying, feeling that it’s far too risky. They worry about the desolation, the lack of emergency landing places, or too much turbulence. I understand those fears because I share them myself. The Rocks can be desolate in places. They are high. They’re jagged, massive, intimidating, and sometimes turbulent.

So why fly there? There are as many different reasons as there are pilots. For me, it’s because my folks live in Castlegar, deep in the mountains of southern British Colombia. I won’t get to see them much if I don’t fly to see them. Since I can be there in about two hours, have lunch with them and still be home for supper, it becomes a pretty appealing flight for me.

There are plenty of other good reasons for mountain flying, of course, and the mind-blowing scenery is just one of them. Mountain flying is challenging and opens up the left half of the map for us if we head that way.

So, is flying in the Rockies riskier than over the prairies? I think so. But I also think the risk is eminently manageable. I’ll explain.

In all honesty, our airplane engines are incredibly reliable. Lycoming, Continental, or Rotax – it doesn’t matter; the odds of a properly maintained motor quitting are low. Sadly, some folks think that reliable means infallible. I think otherwise.

When I fly in the mountains, I’m continually planning for my engine to fail. It’s a product of all my years flying two-stroke powered airplanes. I suppose it’s that fear habit that keeps me away from water, too.

In the Rocks, I’m always looking for a place to put the Cav if the engine quits.

Valley in Banff
This valley in Banff National Park is one that I’d normally avoid; a dead end with no roads or easy access for rescuers in a worst-case scenario.

Any pilot I’ve spoken to about this has agreed this is a good idea. But lots of them have also said so with the blatant unspoken attitude that such thinking is wholly unnecessary, that I’m being over-cautious. Some have even said openly that the engine’s not going to quit. I hope they’re right, and so far, so good, but I’m not willing to bet everything on it.

I manage mountain flying risks several ways. First, I manage the operational risk. I ensure my airplane is well maintained via regular and thorough inspections, repairs and service. I listen to my engine and airframe and investigate anything anomalous. Thus, I’ve got great confidence in the Cav. Obviously, this translates to safer flying all the time.

I then manage what I call the emergency risk. I file a flight plan, and I stick to it. I don’t deviate without notifying Flight Service via an RCO. Sometimes I’ll fly with a wingman. We have emergency procedures in place and we rely on each other. I have a functioning ELT, though I won’t rely on it much. I also have a SPOT locator that is up to date and working well.

Here’s a debatable point. Some mountain flying experts maintain that you should only fly in the mountains with as much fuel as you need to complete your mission, plus a small reserve. Others say to carry as much fuel as you can safely lift. I like the latter approach since it gives me options and buys me time. The Cav’s performance allows it, and I stay out of areas where I’ll suddenly need all that performance.

Next, I manage the route risk. I choose carefully where I fly in the mountains, basically just following roads or staying within easy gliding distance to them. It’s startling how much open terrain, and how many airports exist in Canada’s southern Rockies, especially near major roadways or population centres. There are logging roads, of course, and just plain old back roads. The places with the fewest roads are national and provincial parks. Fortunately, the parks over which I’ve flown have at least one major road traversing them.

There have been times I’ve been beyond gliding distance to a road. Before I make such a choice, I assess how long I’ll be flying away from road accessibility. Invariably, the answer is mere minutes, such as five minutes or less. I deem that to be acceptable for my personal risk management strategy.

But in general, if I can’t glide to a road, there’s an excellent chance I’m not going there.

Here’s why. I spent my career in emergency response, and I’ve flown search and rescue in the past. If I go down in the mountains, my training and experience tells me that if I’m on a road, or in an easily road-accessible spot, my chances of survival and rescue rise exponentially. That’s because emergency responders can get to me easily.

Some guys think that if they go down in the mountains rescuers will just send a helicopter. Maybe, but not likely. There simply may not be a helicopter available, nor a properly trained helicopter rescue crew. If it’s dark, those guys are staying on the ground. If the weather is bad, same thing. But if you’re on or near a road, darkness doesn’t matter as much, nor does bad weather. Ground vehicles and first responders can reach you so much more easily. Cell phone coverage is usually better near major roads in the mountains, too.

Kootenay National Park from air
This mountain in BC’s Kootenay National Park, known as The Monarch, peaks at 9500 ft. and would present great hazards for rescuers.

And here’s something else I consider. If I go down in the mountains, I want to make things as safe as possible for any rescuers who are coming to my aid. I don’t want them to have to fly or hike into a box canyon, or to try to snag me from a dangerous glacier or a steep slope prone to slides or dangerous weather. Civilian, military and other SAR personnel already risk enough for others. I refuse to make their jobs more dangerous.

I’m pretty picky about when I fly the mountains. The weather has to be pretty good, with higher clouds and low winds. I never push the daylight, either. I’ve only flown in the mountains twice in winter conditions, both times were actually during mid-spring. Forestry roads and other backwoods roads are usually snowed in during winter months. Like most planes, mine is white and would be near impossible to see against the snow. With my survival gear, I carry a can of fluorescent orange paint and a large reflector to make me more easily spotted.

I guess I break risk management into two distinct phases: the preventative phase and the response phase. I avoid problems in the first place with proper maintenance and by staying knowledgeable about all aspects of the Cav and how to operate it. I prepare well for each flight, whether it’s for a 20-minute trip for pie and coffee, or to the east coast of the continent. I set limits for weather, terrain and season, and I make safe decisions. I stay within my limits and my airplane’s

I also plan for my response to an emergency and how to steer the odds in my favour. That means planning how to best react if the prevention stuff doesn’t work. My airplane may not survive, but I’m going to.

I urge you to build your own risk management matrix. Decide what your limits are and be comfortable with them. If you want to push the limits, do so legally and safely. Get some extra help from those who are knowledgeable, or seek additional training.

What works best for me is to nibble away at increasing risk, rather than taking large bites. Thus, my comfort level grows more steadily. I might also find I don’t want to go any further with a given activity, such as flying over water or more desolate mountain ranges. I’ll be quite happy to fly around some mountains, instead of over them. And if I get a little more flying time because of it, I’ll be happy with that, too. After all, I do this for fun.

1 Comment

  • Stu,

    Good summary of how to do risk management as private, non-professional pilots.

    I believe that most pilots instinctively do risk management without really thinking about it as such, or being systematic about RM. Most of us were taught, and probably continue to practice, systematic checklists for matters such as preflight inspection of the aircraft, and running through our pre-takeoff checklist items, and pre-landing checklists. But when it comes to risk management, few of us non-pros follow a written checklist in evaluating flight risks and coming up with mitigation strategies before going wheels up.

    The problem with “freestyle” risk management, as opposed to taking a systematic, affirmative written approach to RM is that going freestyle makes it too easy to blast past and thereby ignore or minimize our perception of the risks that happen to be inconvenient to our intended flight plans. It’s easier to ignore what isn’t staring at you from a sheet of paper or the computer screen.

    By sitting down, either on the computer (AOPA offers a risk management calculation tool online) or on a pad of paper with a RM checklist in front of us, and going point by point through the RM process, one has to make a conscious choice to disregard the risks that are staring us in the face. One can still choose to go that route, but it’s harder to fool ourselves that way.

    The biggest risk in most flights is the pilot, and the pilot’s attitude toward managing risk. If that risk is not controlled, then the pilot is down to relying on good luck.

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