What pilots can teach the world about managing risk

When talk around the dinner table turns to Covid-19 these days (and it seems to quite often), I find myself increasingly using the language of risk management, as if I were evaluating a tricky go/no-go decision in an airplane. If any pilots are around, they usually nod quietly, while non-pilots look mystified or just roll their eyes. I’m certainly not suggesting pilots are experts on infectious diseases or the right people to manage a public health crisis, but I do believe the lessons learned by the aviation industry over the last 50 years have something to offer as we think about life in a world of risk.

But first, let me be clear what I mean by risk management, because that term has become such a buzzword recently that it has lost almost all meaning. In previous articles, I have lamented the “risk management-industrial complex” that has emerged to promote expensive and complicated solutions to non-existent problems. What I’m talking about here is not a document or an app, but a way of thinking, one that most pilots develop during flight training and their initial experience as a private pilot. While you may not realize it, you probably think about potential problems, the probability of those problems occurring, what options you have for avoiding them, and if the end goal is worth it.

That sounds a lot like the decision-making process we are all using right now, whether it’s how to open up a restaurant or whether to go on a vacation. In aviation as in public health, information is never complete and the stakes are high, so decisions are rarely easy. And yet doing nothing is not a long term strategy—staying in bed all day is no way to live life. So how do we balance our impulsive nature and the tendency to fall into analysis paralysis? When making difficult aviation decisions, I think it’s helpful to lean on some core principles of a risk management mindset.

1. Life is not risk-free. This one is obviously true but many people pretend it’s not. The reality is that all of life has risk, even in America in 2020. The chance of being killed by a saber tooth tiger or starving because of a bad harvest are much lower than they were in the past, but you can still get hit by a drunk driver or drown in a bathtub (yes, it happens every year). For pilots, GPS navigators and datalink weather make it very hard to get lost or stumble into a thunderstorm, but flying is certainly not completely safe.

This isn’t a sign of failure. Trying to eliminate all risk is time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, and ultimately impossible. Past a certain point, it’s counterproductive. That doesn’t mean we should all be fatalists and take up BASE jumping, but it does mean we should recognize what success looks like: low risk or managed risk, not zero risk.

2. You can’t reduce risk if you don’t quantify it. Given that life is inherently risky, the key is to think systematically about your exposure, then try to quantify the risks involved. This is much easier said than done, because intuition quickly takes over—we notice headline-making tragedies more than the everyday threats that really kill. You don’t have to spend weeks buried in NTSB reports (or medical journals), but you should try to be specific. “That sounds bad” or “that’s scary” are statements about emotion, not risk. How bad or how scary? For example, your chance of stalling on initial climb may not be exactly 74% higher than losing your engine on takeoff, but it’s worth the effort to calculate a range of probabilities. Which one is really more likely?

Thunderstorm
You don’t need a formula to know that cloud is trouble.

Just don’t get carried away with the math. In spite of what a Flight Risk Assessment Tool might suggest, risk isn’t an exact science that can be boiled down to an algorithm or a score. As psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has observed, there’s a difference between risk (“If risks are known, good decisions require logic and statistical thinking”) and uncertainty (“If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb”). Usually it takes both of these approaches to make the best decision.

I think this model works for pilots just as well as it does for doctors or insurance underwriters. Consider which threats are knowable and which ones deserve your attention: the FAA’s well known PAVE checklist is a start but it’s only a start. You know your airplane and your experience level best, so think honestly about what risks might be part of your next flight and remember that the probability of an event happening matters much more than the number of possible events. That is, a high chance of problem happening should count for far more than an extremely low chance of 20 different ones happening.

Having quantified those risks, it’s then much easier to make a game plan to mitigate the ones that matter. Start with the most likely or the most lethal risks, then walk through your available options for avoiding the problem altogether or at least building in some safety margins. This can mean canceling of course, but also altering the route, changing the departure time, reducing the passenger load, or even bringing along another pilot.

3. Habits and systems catch errors. Humans almost never perform flawlessly, so safe pilots (and airlines) expect errors to happen. Likewise, there is no single safety tool that can prevent accidents, so the right answer is an array of procedures and tools to catch those errors before they become a major threat. Belt and suspenders? Yes please.

This is where Gigerenzer’s concept of uncertainty comes in. Hopefully you’ve considered all the obvious risks. But what if you encounter an unforecast gray cloud an hour into your flight? What if your airspeed indicator shows 10 knots fast on final approach, even though everything “feels” normal? You don’t have time to run probabilities and there are no FARs that tell you what to do, but hopefully your own personal rules of thumb kick in: we avoid ugly clouds and we go around if the approach isn’t stabilized on one mile final.

This mindset applies to technology too. Every few years, a new miracle cure is proposed for aviation accidents. Medicine had its hydroxychloroquine moment recently; aviation has had its moments too, from moving map GPS navigators to sophisticated autopilots with a level button to angle of attack indicators. These are wonderful tools (I fly with all of them!) but individually they are merely pieces of the puzzle. Only when combined with good training, thoughtful safety habits, and good maintenance can they can create a safer way to fly.

4. Complacency kills. Richard Collins always said that, no matter how many hours were in your logbook, it was the next hour that counted. That was his way of staying vigilant, because Mother Nature and Murphy’s Law do not care whether you’re a student pilot or an ATP. A threat is a threat.

Experience is certainly valuable for a pilot, but only if you learn the right lessons from your logbook. If you took off 300 lbs. overweight and made it over the fence at the end of the runway, does that mean you can do it again or that you got lucky? Likewise, if you haven’t caught Covid-19 by now, does that mean you never will? Be careful about phrases like, “it worked last time” and “it hasn’t happened yet.”

This brings to mind a great line from the 1995 movie La Haine: “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”

Checklist use
Part of being a professional pilot means having the discipline to use the checklist, every time.

The antidote to this dangerous attitude is a combination of perspective and discipline. The perspective part means staying focused on the ultimate goal. As pilots, our goal isn’t just to fill in the blanks of a weight and balance form or perform a preflight walk around; it’s to complete a flight safely. Going through the motions should be a red flag.

The discipline part means following the rules, even if you’ve done it 1,000 times already. A great example is the near religious use of checklists by pilots (admit it: you use them around the house too). Airline captains most definitely know how to start the engine or configure the airplane for takeoff, but they follow the checklist anyway. They know that routines, while occasionally inconvenient, also keep you safe. After all, those habits and systems mentioned above only work if they are in place for every flight.

5. It’s all about the risk-reward tradeoff. Some people are horrified at the idea of willingly accepting additional risk in life, but we do it every day when we decide to speed by 10 mph or eat sushi. If the reward is valuable enough to offset the increase in risk, the tradeoff is perfectly rational.

The same goes for general aviation. When I fly my family on vacation in a four-seat piston airplane, I am taking on more risk than the same trip on Delta. The numbers show this quite clearly. But I’m hardly a thrill-seeker by nature: I have never been skydiving, I don’t drive motorcycles, and I don’t even like to gamble. I fly myself not because I think I’m invincible but because I believe I can drive down the risk (with good training, equipment, maintenance, and procedures) and maximize the reward (land closer to our destination, have a more flexible schedule, and simply have more fun).

These tradeoffs are what general aviation risk management is all about. Scud running under an 800 foot overcast at night just so I can get a $100 hamburger? That’s a terrible risk-reward equation. Flying to visit family on a clear day over familiar terrain? That’s worth it. We all make these decisions every time we fly; the best pilots are explicit about them.

Humans are not naturally gifted at this type of thinking; most of us hate talk of unknown risks and potentially deadly tradeoffs. That’s because our minds are, in evolutionary terms, still optimized for an agrarian lifestyle of 5,000 years ago. We are well suited to distinguishing a predator from a plant, but none of our human hardware is made for flying airplanes in the clouds at 170 knots. That doesn’t mean our job is hopeless, only that we need to train ourselves to think the right way and then consistently apply this mindset. Gut instincts just aren’t enough.

20 Comments

  • Great article as usual,John. I wish I could encapsulate it and run TV commercials to promote this wisdom. Unfortunately, we have many people in our society who actually profit from “scaring “ others. It’s an effort to push back against such knowledge. Emotional messages seem to carry the day. Keep the faith

    • As Robert Keith Leavitt noted in his 1939 work, “Voyages and Discoveries,”

      “People don’t ask for facts in making up their minds. They would rather have one good, soul-satisfying emotion than a dozen facts.”

      Is it possible to change this, apparently hard-coded, predilection? Probably not 100 percent, but we can try to make inroads.

  • This is a good article. I am sorry to read that you have “never been skydiving”. You don’t know what you are missing, and I am NOT talking about tandem rides where folks are strapped onto an instructor. I am talking about going out the door at 14,000 MSL wearing your own rig. Modern equipment is VERY safe when used by mature and intelligent folks.

    The modern-day world of skydiving is strongly safety-oriented and there is Checklist Mentality present in great detail. It’s never too late to start the AFF (accelerated free-fall training) curriculum if your personal physician has no rational objections. I know this because I started and completed my USPA training long after I became a licensed pilot in 1971. I am now 77 years old, retired surgeon, and I find it joy-producing to go out the Caravan door and fly formation with some man or woman 50 years my junior. It is a religious experience every single time you do it. If that offends church-going folks, then so be it.

    Here is a mighty useful tip: Do a fair amount of wind-tunnel training first to get a “feel” of what being in free-fall entails. I highly recommend iFLY. Bring money. Lots of it. Beware because tunnel-flying itself is highly addicting.

  • Good article but ended before it got to the point. Shutting down the country for months, prior to most areas even seeing their first covid case, was an emotional reaction to fear – not a response based in risk analysis. If you agree with this, you have to say it directly and accept the social shame that comes from your blasphemy.

    • Thanks for reading Bill, but I don’t think that was the point I was making. As I said, pilots have a good risk mindset to share but I’m certainly not signing up to manage public health issues. I will say that, at least early on, officials were probably in the realm of uncertainty, not risk: “If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb.” As more and more risks become defined and statistics become available, plans can adapt.

      For now, I’m focused on reducing the risk of my flying. There’s plenty of work to be done there!

  • Great article, John. As a 47 year old student pilot, I’m very thankful for all of the wisdom shared among fellow aviators.

  • I had the same discussion regarding skydiving with Paul Bertorelli. I understand that the statistics show it to be safer than I intuitively believed. However, the upside of the risk / reward equation is lacking for me personally. I understand that some consider it thrilling but at 68 years old my thrill seeking is perhaps more prosaic. I’m thrilled to be able to continue flying a high performance turboprop as a corporate pilot and deliver my passengers safely and quickly to their destinations. My job is mostly as a risk reduction specialist and I really appreciate John’s article.

  • Great article. You touched on the fact that risk reduction has a cost. Corporations make calculated decisions on cost of risk reduction on their products versus the liability cost of failure to protect.

    I think that is the real dilemma right now with Covid-19. People are losing their livelihoods and retirement savings. Others are barely affected. The various authorities are trying to develop one size fits all risk management policies.

    Perhaps there needs to be more personal freedom to let people do their own risk reward assessment.

  • Excellent article! These are the same principles I use when training companies on risk management/mitigation. It is the same mindset. Rewards/Risk equation. Well done!

  • An interesting article but missing “zero risk bias” or the tendency to focus on relatively improbable risks that can be managed while ignoring more probable risks. This seems to be rare in aviation as all risks are considered and we regularly assess the probably of those risks. However bureaucracies are different. “We could get sued for that” is their mantra, even though they have never been sued for that. Such bureaucracies have something to learn from aviation.

  • Good article, thank you!
    On motorcycles though, the fatality based on hours or km approximately the same as GA flying: 98% of survival in 15 years span, assuming one flies 100..200h per year or rides 15,000km.
    I prefer to do both 🙂

  • As usual John, this another VERY fine, professional, easy to understand about. ‘What ALL Pilots can Teach the World about Managing Risk’. As a pilot with 50+ years flying experience in the U.S. Air Force, Mass. Air National Guard, and Civilian Sector; I think EVERY person that wants to become/continue to be a Pilot should read, understand, use, and review periodically ALL five (5) of your ‘bits of Pilot “To-Dos”. Amen, AMEN…. AMEN!

  • John,

    Great article! I appreciate when we humans write articles to protect ourselves from our own premortal instincts to become adamant of what real risks are. Even the best of the mountain ridge skiers will ensure they have at least two escape routes from an ensuing avalanche ….the ones that do not make great customers for the wheel chair manufacturers. Nicely written for making us eat our peas before our potatoes !

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