Airplane Accident Avoidance

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A large portion of this discussion will involve what is known as the poor judgment (PJ) chain. No pilot intentionally sets himself or herself up for an accident or makes poor decisions with that intent in mind. But accidents do happen, and there are ways to minimize your chances of ending up in one. The PJ chain plays a role in these situations.

FAA publication FAA-P-8740-53, “Introduction to Pilot Judgment,” discusses the poor judgment chain in great detail. Essentially the FAA document states that most accidents are the result of a series of events. The example used in this document is a pilot that is noninstrument rated, has a schedule restraint, and is running late. This pilot has limited adverse weather experience but decides to fly through an area of possible thunderstorms at dusk. Due to his lack of instrument experience, combined with the darkness, turbulence, and heavy clouds, he becomes disoriented and loses control of the airplane.

As you read that little example, you probably identified several poor decisions the pilot made that got him into trouble. Time was a big motivator for the pilot, and his decision to press on when the weather conditions were questionable. He was behind schedule and had the classic case of “get-home-itis” that afflicts every pilot from time to time. He also had minimal instrument experience and made a conscious decision to fly into a known thunderstorm area at dusk. The pilot had several opportunities to avoid the accident that resulted from the series
of events and decisions that were made along the way.

First, the pilot could have decided to wait until conditions improved and the flight could have been made safely. This would have necessitated that the pilot overcome the pressure of meeting the schedule, but it is always better to arrive late than to never arrive. Second, the pilot could have altered the route of flight in order to fly around the area of thunderstorms. Like waiting, this would have resulted in arriving later than desired, but at least they would have arrived. Once the pilot encountered weather, he or she could have altered course to get out of that area, either turning back or in a direction away from the storm. Too often, though, pilots “lock on” to an idea and are hard pressed to consider other options as an alternative to the one they have decided on. Finally, once the pilot encountered inclement weather, he should have trusted the instruments and maintained control of the plane, as opposed to becoming disoriented and losing control of the aircraft.

Two major principles play a role in the poor judgment chain: Poor judgment increases the probability that another will follow, and judgments are based on information pilots have about themselves, the aircraft, and the environment. Pilots are less likely to make poor judgments if this information is accurate. Essentially, this means that one poor judgment increases the availability of false information, which might then negatively influence judgments that follow.

As a pilot continues further into a chain of bad judgments, alternatives for safe flight decrease. One bad decision might prevent other options that were available at that point from being open in the future. For example, if a pilot makes a poor judgment and flies into hazardous weather, the option to circumnavigate the weather is automatically lost. By interrupting the poor judgment chain early in the decision-making process, the pilot has more options available for a safe flight. Through delaying making a good decision, the pilot may reach a point at which there are no good alternatives available. Get into the habit of making the best decision you can based on the information available, and do not be afraid to change your mind as additional information becomes known.

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