Decide to survive—the art of decision making


An old aviation saying states, ‘Superior pilots use their superior judgement to avoid situations that would require the use of their superior skills.’

Decisions … we’re faced with choices every day—what to eat, what to wear, which route to travel to work. Some decisions we make are unlikely to end badly but in a safety-critical environment, the wrong decision and subsequent action can kill you.

Flying is a dynamic activity, sometimes requiring quick decisions to ensure a safe and successful flight. Pilots must be vigilant and be prepared to take action to counter hazards and unexpected situations. It’s too simplistic to think that good decisions are those which produce good outcomes and that bad decisions produce negative outcomes. There’s a huge difference between deciding what to do in a non-threatening, low-risk, controlled environment and making decisions in an operational environment where there is little margin for error and time is limited.

Most of the time, pilots will be well practiced, and avoid errors in decisions making. However, unexpected circumstances such as the sudden onset of bad weather or a passenger falling seriously ill, will require non-routine decisions. Circumstances such as time constraints, tight deadlines and fatigue levels can also affect decision making.

Chief Executive Human and Systems Excellence, Ben Cook, says, ‘The one thing that really defines decision making is time, because if I give you enough time, you’ll make a good decision, you’ll get there eventually. The way you get there might vary. So, critical to good decision making is good time management and the ability to prioritise. It is understanding there are some responses and some checklist items that you need to know—you need to get these right first time. There are other scenarios where you need to ask yourself if you can buy more time. The more time you can actually buy and create to give you that little bit of extra space to take away some of that pressure is going to significantly enhance your ability to make good decisions and it’s a matter of getting exposure. It comes with experience. It’s got to be experiential learning.’

Put simply, decision making is that act of choosing between alternatives under conditions of uncertainty. We consider the circumstances and reach a judgment, or choose an option or action depending on the situation. Senior Safety Specialist Leading Edge Safety Systems, Captain Todd Mickleson, says ‘Good decisions are made based on a number of things. Firstly, good information processing. We can’t make a good decision without having good information to base that decision on. The second thing is building that picture in an accurate way. It requires a framework to follow. That might be a simple pneumonic that we keep in our mind. It might be a way of just working through what information we’re looking at, what we look at next and what we expect to see. As those decisions become more complex, we need to make sure that we articulate what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and check for that level of agreement on making that decision, putting in place the decision that we intend to do, following that through and then evaluating was that the right decision, or do I need to change it and make another decision?

Safety and Quality Manager, Helicopters, Toll Government and Defence, Adrian Park, says ‘What we try and do in our human factors program is build in a lot of scenario-based training, so that, at least, if they haven’t flown it themselves before, they have already seen it and so that, straight away, frees up some neurons. Anything that we can do on the ground will help us do that. That then frees up their capacity for when they’re actually out on the job, when new things are coming, to be able to make, hopefully, clear-headed decisions. So, whatever you can do to free up cognitive capacity is a precondition for good decision making.’

Decision making is the seventh booklet in the revised Safety behaviours: human factors for pilots’ kit. It looks at the decision-making process, tools to help pilots make good decisions and highlights common traps in decision making for both professional pilots and charter operators.

Safety behaviours: human factors for pilots’ kit is out now for free on the CASA website, or can be ordered in print and on USB from the CASA Online Store.


  1. I’ve found a new sleeping pill by way of these ‘feel good’ HF articles, I read one (struggle) and by the end of it my feet are asleep and I’m drifting off to far better places😉👍 Every time I/we have to do one of those annual HF class room courses you can look around half waynthru the day to see a sea of faces (mostly pilots) all yawning dreaming of a clock that said 1630, what does that tell us?
    I passed a house the other day in the back streets of my small town, the sign outside said “Wellness Centre” yep folks that about says it all! 😂
    Me takes me hat off to those that enjoy the hairy fairy world of HF etc, you are the future……sadly😉

  2. Hi Walter,

    I’m yet to read a positive comment from you in 3 years. I’m sorry you seem to regard anything since the sliderule as not worthy of consideration.

    • Thanks Doc, nice to see a few of you who follow my posts for years, (that’s a sad life you lead) appreciate it😉

  3. There is only one decision in aviation for pilots, Fly the plane!
    However management and money decisions are making this more difficult as automation takes over, training reduces, and company policies become more insistent.
    It seems incongruous that in commercial aviation the company-pilot is being trained with a load of passengers on board.

  4. Most of the regulars here can predetermine Walter’s responses in this forum . Occasionally W comes out with a few gems ..but you have to search very thoroughly.. ..

    I actually found the Human Factors module to be most helpful. I had to swat up and pass since it was not a requirement in the ‘slide rule days’.

  5. This was a very handy article, especially for those who’ve actually had to deal with an unexpected time critical emergency and otherwise for professional pilots who see the foley in ‘shooting from the hip flying’. Don’t worry Walter, it won’t hurt so much if you’re asleep! The mnemonic is good although at first glance it appears simplistic. Reason being that in addition to having something to train with and think about, it provides the pilot with a familiar, ie. more confident approach in analysing/ dealing with an emergency in what should be a time efficient manner. Time is of the essence so anything that helps a ‘personality’ avoid panic and ‘buy’ time will be justified by a better result.

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