Aeronautical Decision-Making (ADM) (Part Two)

in Aeronautical Decision Making

Trescott Tips

Max Trescott, Master CFI and Master Ground Instructor and winner of the 2008 CFI of the year, has published numerous safety tips that every pilot should heed. He believes that the word “probably” should be purged from our flying vocabulary. Mr. Trescott contends that “probably” means we’ve done an informal assessment of the likelihood of an event occurring and have assigned a probability to it. He believes the term implies that we believe things are likely to work out, but there’s some reasonable doubt in our mind. He further explains that if you ever think that your course of action will “probably work out,” you need to choose a new option that you know will work out.


Another safety tip details the importance of accumulating flight hours in one specific airframe type. He explains that “statistics have shown that accidents are correlated more with the number of hours of experience a pilot has in a particular aircraft model and not with his or her total number of flight hours. Accidents tend to decrease after a pilot accumulates at least 100 hours of experience in the aircraft he or she is flying. Thus when learning to fly or transitioning into a new model, your goal should be to concentrate your flying hours in that model.” He suggests waiting until you reach 100 hours of experience in one particular model before attempting a dual rating with another model. In addition, if you only fly a few hours per year, maximize your safety by concentrating those hours in just one aircraft model.

The third safety tip that is well worth mentioning is what Mr. Trescott calls “building experience from the armchair”. Armchair flying is simply closing your eyes and mentally practicing exactly what you do in the aircraft. This is an excellent way to practice making radio calls, departures, approaches and even visualizing the parts and pieces of the aircraft. This type of flying does not cost a dime and will make you a better prepared and more proficient pilot.

All three of Max Trescott’s safety tips incorporate the ADM process and emphasize the importance of how safety and good decision-making is essential to aviation.

The Decision-Making Process

An understanding of the decision-making process provides a pilot with a foundation for developing ADM skills. Some situations, such as engine failures, require a pilot to respond immediately using established procedures with little time for detailed analysis. Called automatic decision-making, it is based upon training, experience, and recognition. Traditionally, pilots have been well trained to react to emergencies, but are not as well prepared to make decisions that require a more reflective response when greater analysis is necessary. They often overlook the phase of decision making that is accomplished on the ground: the preflight, flight planning, performance planning, weather briefing, and weight/center of gravity configurations. Thorough and proper completion of these tasks provides increased awareness and a base of knowledge available to the pilot prior to departure and once airborne. Typically during a flight, a pilot has time to examine any changes that occur, gather information, and assess risk before reaching a decision. The steps leading to this conclusion constitute the decision-making process.

Defining the Problem

Defining the problem is the first step in the decision-making process and begins with recognizing that a change has occurred or that an expected change did not occur. A problem is perceived first by the senses, then is distinguished through insight (self-awareness) and experience. Insight, experience, and objective analysis of all available information are used to determine the exact nature and severity of the problem. One critical error that can be made during the decision-making process is incorrectly defining the problem.

While going through the following example, keep in mind what errors lead up to the event. What planning could have been completed prior to departing that may have led to avoiding this situation? What instruction could the pilot have had during training that may have better prepared the pilot for this scenario? Could the pilot have assessed potential problems based on what the aircraft “felt like” at a hover? All these factors go into recognizing a change and the timely response.

While doing a hover check after picking up firefighters at the bottom of a canyon, a pilot realized that she was only 20 pounds under maximum gross weight. What she failed to realize was that the firefighters had stowed some of their heaviest gear in the baggage compartment, which shifted the center of gravity (CG) slightly behind the aft limits. Since weight and balance had never created any problems for her in the past, she did not bother to calculate CG and power required. She did try to estimate it by remembering the figures from earlier in the morning at the base camp. At a 5,000-foot density altitude (DA) and maximum gross weight, the performance charts indicated the helicopter had plenty of excess power. Unfortunately, the temperature was 93 °F and the pressure altitude at the pickup point was 6,200 feet (DA = 9,600 feet). Since there was enough power for the hover check, the pilot decided there was sufficient power to take off.

Even though the helicopter accelerated slowly during the takeoff, the distance between the helicopter and the ground continued to increase. However, when the pilot attempted to establish the best rate of climb speed, the nose tended to pitch up to a higher-than-normal attitude, and the pilot noticed that the helicopter was not gaining enough altitude in relation to the canyon wall approximately 200 yards ahead.

Choosing a Course of Action

After the problem has been identified, a pilot must evaluate the need to react to it and determine the actions to take to resolve the situation in the time available. The expected outcome of each possible action should be considered and the risks assessed before a pilot decides on a response to the situation.

The pilot’s first thought was to pull up on the collective and pull back on the cyclic. After weighing the consequences of possibly losing rotor revolutions per minute (rpm) and not being able to maintain the climb rate sufficiently to clear the canyon wall, which is now only a hundred yards away, she realized the only course was to try to turn back to the landing zone on the canyon floor.

Implementing the Decision and Evaluating the Outcome

Although a decision may be reached and a course of action implemented, the decision-making process is not complete. It is important to think ahead and determine how the decision could affect other phases of the flight. As the flight progresses, a pilot must continue to evaluate the outcome of the decision to ensure that it is producing the desired result.

As the pilot made the turn to the downwind, the airspeed dropped nearly to zero, and the helicopter became very difficult to control. At this point, the pilot must increase airspeed in order to maintain translational lift, but since the CG was aft of limits, she needed to apply more forward cyclic than usual. As she approached the landing zone with a high rate of descent, she realized that she would be in a potential settling-with-power situation if she tried to trade airspeed for altitude and lost effective translational lift (ETL). Therefore, it did not appear that she would be able to terminate the approach in a hover. The pilot decided to make the shallowest approach possible and perform a run-on landing.

Pilots sometimes have trouble not because of deficient basic skills or system knowledge, but because of faulty decision making skills. Although aeronautical decisions may appear to be simple or routine, each individual decision in aviation often defines the options available for the next decision the pilot must make and the options (good or bad) it provides. Therefore, a poor decision early in a flight can compromise the safety of the flight at a later time. It is important to make accurate and decisive choices because good decision making early in an emergency provide greater latitude for later options.

Figure 14-2. Various models of decision-making are used in problem solving.

Figure 14-2. Various models of decision-making are used in problem solving.

Decision-Making Models

The decision-making process normally consists of several steps before a pilot chooses a course of action. A variety of structured frameworks for decision-making provide assistance in organizing the decision process. These models include but are not limited to the 5P (Plan, Plane, Pilot, Passengers, Programming), the OODA Loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action), and the DECIDE (Detect, Estimate, Choose, Identify, Do, and Evaluate) models. [Figure 14-2] All these models and their variations are discussed in detail in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge section covering aeronautical decision-making.

Whatever model is used, the pilot learns how to define the problem, choose a course of action, implement the decision, and evaluate the outcome. Remember, there is no one right answer in this process; a pilot analyzes the situation in light of experience level, personal minimums, and current physical and mental readiness levels, and makes a decision.

51l0aN891BL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Are you ready to start your journey learning to fly helicopters? Learning to Fly Helicopters, Second Edition, provides details on the technical and practical aspects of rotarywing flight. Written in a conversational style, the book demystifies the art and science of helicopter flying.


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