by Noah Mirosch
It was a routine training flight like any other—Archerfield to Lismore via an overfly at Gold Coast, Lismore to Stanthorpe, and Stanthorpe back to Archerfield. The weather was good—three oktas at 5000, and light wind from the south. But all that was out of my mind, I was too focused on my first solo entry into the class C airspace at the Gold Coast. My instructors told me to make a ‘go-no-go’ point—a point where I would not be able to safely clear the ranges between Queensland and New South Wales. I rotated at 10:00 local and headed south; I contacted Brisbane centre 12 minutes later while over Logan Village. I could see rotor clouds forming over the ranges—‘nothing I hadn’t prepared for’ I thought. I’ll press on. Brisbane centre cleared me to pass overhead the Gold Coast at 3000—500 ft below the now overcast sky. Still, I pressed on. The controllers at Gold Coast cleared me back onto the area frequency. I tuned into it; the frequency was silent.
‘Brisbane Centre, Cessna 172, WSA. Request.’ I said, slightly stressed by the newly formed weather.
‘WSA, go ahead.’
‘Request local area weather for WSA.’
‘WSA, copy. Squawk 3487.’
‘Squawk 3847, WSA’
‘WSA identified 10 mile north of the border ranges. Local weather is overcast at 2000, with tops at Flight Level 130.’
This was the ‘Situation’ phase of the decision-making process. Some experts say that this is the most crucial stage in an effective decision-making process. It is to receive and process all the information available to the pilot. I had a very poor weather forecast available to me.
There were a number of questions to ask at this stage:
How accurate was this forecast?
I could still make it through safely under VMC minimums, but did I want to?
Would the weather continue to moderate?
If so, how much worse was it going to get?
At that moment, I knew that I had a decision to make—one that could mean life or death. Do I push on, descend and fly through a small valley up ahead, or turn around and try to make Archerfield? I had already been in the air for 45 minutes; every minute was costing me money. Could I really afford to turn around? But could I really afford to fly through it?
This was the second part of the decision-making process—options. I knew that I should have as many options as possible. One reason why having options is so important is that choices are a product of the cerebral cortex—the higher brain. This part of the brain shuts down and gives way to the lower, instinct brain in times of panic. I knew that if I kept focused on my options I wouldn’t succumb to this adrenaline-fuelled lower brain.
I flew the aircraft towards this wall of dark clouds for what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably only 10 seconds. I didn’t know what my CFI would say. As if a guardian angel was looking down on me, a light pattering of rain started to fall on my windscreen. That was it; I pushed the aircraft into a 30-degree angle of bank turn towards Archerfield.
‘WSA, flight-plan amendment.’
‘WSA, go ahead.’
‘Diverting to Archerfield due weather.’
‘Copy that WSA. Do you require a special VFR clearance?’
‘Not at this time, thanks, WSA.’
Act and evaluate
I had made my decision. There was no going back now. I looked at my maps and estimated a track back to Archerfield. It was almost a direct tailwind. I was relieved but focused. I tuned into the Archerfield ADF and lined up the needle. I was heading home.
This was the act phase of the decision-making strategy. The act phase is all about monitoring and controlling all aspects of the flight. There are a number of key factors to consider while flying a decision. They are not only the initial factors of the flight, but also the reasons behind the last decision—in my case the looming weather. However, you should never let your upper brain turn off—start thinking about ‘what-ifs’. What will I do if the cloud ceiling drops? Where will I go if anything major happens to my aircraft? The answers to both of these was to divert to the Gold Coast. Here the process repeats; a new decision is made. My heavy concentration was broken by a radio call containing my call sign.
All over again
‘WSA, Archerfield information Echo is now current, and the airfield is now IFR only.’
The whole cycle started again, however, this time I already had my situation and options. I could skip straight to choose. Should I continue onto Archerfield and wait for the airport to reopen for VFR aircraft? This would mean risking flying into IMC conditions—one of the biggest killers of VFR pilots. The only other option would be to divert to the Gold Coast and wait out the storm, potentially costing me money. I remember the class on human factors in aviation I had taken only two weeks earlier. I remembered what I had been told about ‘get-there-itis’. I chose to divert to the Gold Coast. That decision was likely the reason that I am able to sit here and write this article.
‘Copy that. Diverting into Coolangatta. Request airways clearance, WSA.’
‘WSA contact Gold Coast tower and expect a left downwind runway 14, altitude at your discretion.’
I landed and taxied into the apron without any issues. I thanked the controllers for all their help. After shutting down, I opened my phone only to find seven missed calls from my flight instructor. I called him back and could hear the relief in his voice. He explained that I had made the right decision to go to the Gold Coast as every airport in the area, including the Gold Coast, was now IFR only.
What I learnt that day was not only about the volatility of the weather, but I also learnt a lot about the human decision-making process. What is that process? We’ve talked about it in the context of this event but in a more general sense, what does this process look like?
The human brain is a very complex organ. It has multiple layers of thought and reason. When making a decision in the air, the brain must analyse the best options and yet continue flying the aircraft. This requires the frontal cortex as well as the rear part of the brain to be working in unison. This is similar to completing a maths test in another language. Both the deeper thought and higher brain are active and functioning. This is in essence why most crashes occur during take-off and landing (Orasanu and Martin, 2008), as the lower brain is working full tilt in order to actually control the aircraft, and the upper brain is also working hard to plan out and complete the approach and landing. This state is called full load.
Therefore, the human decision-making process must be an effective dual utilisation of full load. If the upper brain lags behind the lower brain it will result in decisions not being fully considered and the actions to be ‘reckless’. However, if the lower brain cannot keep up, then the resulting actions will often occur long after they are necessary, putting the flight crew at risk of terrain and other aircraft. (Orasanu and Martin, 2008)
Orasanu, J. and Martin, L. (2008) Errors in Aviation Decision Making: A Factor in Accidents and Incidents, NASA-Ames Research Center.