Despite what science fiction movies may show us, we are still several years away from true AI-autonomous flight. This means that we will have to stick with human pilots for a while longer.
For all the skill and problem-solving abilities of human pilots, humans are still prone to emotional reactions and irrational decisions. This can be quite problematic in aviation where every single decision is critical to aircraft safety. To help avoid errors in decision-making, here are the five attitudes that need to be identified and corrected.
What’s the point of identifying hazardous attitudes?
Decision-making is one of the skills that pilots need to learn during their training. Under normal circumstances, pilots are capable of analyzing a situation and coming up with a sound, rational decision based on their expertise. It is for this reason that air travel remains the safest form of travel until today.
However, pilots are also human. They are vulnerable to emotional outbursts, especially when faced with stressors. Whether it’s because of a physical, psychological, or physiological stressor, there are circumstances that can compromise a pilot’s ability to make good decisions. This is the point where hazardous attitudes start to come up.
The value of knowing these hazardous attitudes is that pilots can identify them early and avoid letting them snowball into a full-blown crisis. Pilots can also develop methods to avoid falling into the psychological pit that breeds these attitudes.
The 5 hazardous attitudes and their tell-tale signs
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
There are two sides to an anti-authority attitude. The first has to do with an outright resentment of having someone tell them what to do or brushing the rules off as unnecessary. The second is a manner of justifying not following the rules, given exceptional circumstances.
It is worth noting that pilots are allowed to question authority if they believe that they are in a justified position. However, questioning the rules is not something that can be done on-the-fly or in the heat of the moment.
The other form of anti-authority behavior comes when the pilot finds a way to rationalize not following the rules. The common justifications are “I’ve done this hundreds of times before” or “We’re on the clock and it’s getting late.” In most cases, these involve skipping standard safety practices.
Pilots need to remember that rules were reviewed for a very long time before they were implemented and were developed with the input of all concerned parties. There is also no excuse for bending the rules, regardless of how much you need to hurry or how skilled you are as a pilot. After all, it only takes one slip-up for an aircraft-related accident to happen.
“Do it quickly!”
The common stressor for people who display impulsivity is time – or rather, a lack thereof. Impulsivity is exhibited by hurrying through decisions or situations without taking stock of all available information. This is dangerous as it makes it more likely for pilots to commit to a wrong course of action.
Although there are times when decisions have to be made lightning-quick, pilots are still trained to assess the situation with a calm and clear head. This ability to maintain composure is even more important in an emergency. Take note that the first decision that comes to mind isn’t always the right one.
“Think first” – that’s the common advice for pilots whenever they are caught in an emergency. Take a deep breath, gather all the necessary information, and come up with the best decision. A correct decision is infinitely better than a quick one.
“It won’t happen to me.”
People tend to think that accidents happen to other people simply because they are careless or are not fit for the job that they are doing. In the case of pilots, they need this psychological shield of invulnerability, lest they get paralyzed with the fear of a crash whenever they climb into a cockpit.
However, a firm belief that an accident will never happen to them also empowers pilots to take more risks than necessary. This tends to go hand-in-hand with other hazardous attitudes, such as impulsivity and acting macho.
Instead, pilots are encouraged to adopt the mindset of “It could happen to me.” Any pilot, no matter how skilled or how much they stick to safety measures, is prone to aviation accidents. With this mindset, pilots will not take shortcuts on safety checks and reduce risk as much as possible. Pilots will also avoid rushing through decision-making, recognizing that one wrong decision may be the trigger to a full-fledged disaster.
“Let me show you what I can do!”
As with any professional field, there is inherent competitiveness in aviation. This is usually not a problem unless pilots start taking unnecessary risks just to prove that they are better than the others. Despite the macho attitude commonly attributed to male pilots, female pilots are also prone to exhibiting it.
The macho attitude can also snowball from an unchecked and misplaced sense of confidence. To be clear, pilots need to have a certain level of confidence. After all, they take the welfare of an entire aircraft full of people every time they get into the cockpit. However, this sense of confidence must not develop into risk-taking behavior.
There is also a physiological aspect to exhibiting a macho attitude. The lack of oxygen, medically known as hypoxia, may induce feelings of unfounded well-being – a feeling that “everything is going to be alright.” This can lead pilots to overestimate their abilities and do things without recognition of the risks involved.
The macho attitude can be dissipated by the recognition that taking unnecessary risks is foolish for any pilot and contradicts every bit of their training. Risking the aircraft and the lives of the people onboard does not make you a better pilot.
“What’s the use?”
A dangerous attitude for a pilot faced by a difficult situation is to just give up and wait for the situation to resolve itself. They may feel that they are not good enough to come up with a solution or are just experiencing bad luck.
Resignation is dangerous because it compels the pilot to simply accept an undesired outcome instead of continuing to find a solution. As you can imagine, this is very problematic when there are lives on the line. Resignation can also happen when a pilot is on the receiving end of criticism and does not take it well.
The common antidote to resignation is to firmly believe that you can make a difference, no matter how challenging the situation is. In the face of an emergency, a pilot needs to push through and realize that they are not helpless.
Self- assessment with the IM SAFE checklist
Under normal circumstances, a trained pilot is expected to not exhibit these hazardous attitudes and exercise good decision-making. However, this can change in the presence of stressors. This means that it is imperative for pilots to avoid these stressors as much as possible.
The IM SAFE checklist provides an early detection tool for pilots to determine if their decision-making capabilities have been compromised. These are the items to be considered when doing a self-assessment using the IM SAFE checklist:
Feeling under the weather to any degree (even a slight cold) can severely affect how a pilot operates an aircraft. According to FAR 91.3, the pilot alone is responsible for assessing whether they are physically fit before taking control of an aircraft. Should a pilot feel that they are not in good condition to fly, it is always prudent to pick the safer option and not fly at all.
In some cases, pilots may opt to take medication so that they can continue to fly even with an illness. It is important to ensure that these medications do not, in turn, affect the ability of the pilot to make decisions or operate an aircraft. The best course of action would be to consult with a medical practitioner or examiner who has an understanding of the situation and can prescribe the appropriate medicine.
Stress can come in many forms, but it almost always causes a decrease in performance and composure. Whether it’s physical or psychological, a pilot must recognize when they are under extreme stress and seek ways to alleviate this stress or to ask for assistance. Even stress in their personal lives can lead pilots to make errors in the cockpit.
Operating an aircraft within eight hours of drinking alcohol or with blood alcohol levels above 0.4 percent is prohibited under federal aviation regulations. This is a simple matter that all pilots are expected to know. Even outside the 8-hour window, pilots are advised not to fly if they are still feeling common effects of being drunk including nausea, lack of focus, or vomiting.
Fatigue is difficult to assess because the acceptable tolerance for fatigue can vary widely from one person to another. Again, it is up to the pilot to determine if they can function well considering how much sleep or rest they have had before a flight. Pilots should also be wary of aggravating circumstances such as jet lag or drastic shifts in day to night schedules.
Just as important as a pilot’s physical health is their emotional state. Despite any level of training, pilots are still human and can still be compromised by a heavy emotional toll. Although emotions can be subdued temporarily, they can resurface unpredictably and lead to poor decision-making. It is up to the pilot to determine if they are emotionally stable enough to operate an aircraft.
Despite our flaws, humans are still the best aircraft pilots available today. Part of the training of pilots is identifying these behavioral flaws and making sure that they do not compromise their ability to make good decisions.
The five hazardous attitudes and the IM SAFE checklist are tools that aviation professionals can use to spot any behaviors or stressors that can lead to poor decision-making. Whether you’re a private pilot, recreational pilot, or a drone pilot, these are things you need to know by heart so you can spot them before they lead to bigger problems.