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.