The Decision-Making Process
An understanding of the decision-making process provides a pilot with a foundation for developing ADM skills. Some situations, such as engine failures, require a pilot to respond immediately using established procedures with little time for detailed analysis. Called automatic decision-making, it is based upon training, experience, and recognition. Traditionally, pilots have been well trained to react to emergencies, but are not as well prepared to make decisions that require a more reflective response when greater analysis is necessary. They often overlook the phase of decision-making that is accomplished on the ground: the preflight, flight planning, performance planning, weather briefing, and weight/center of gravity configurations. Thorough and proper completion of these tasks provides increased awareness and a base of knowledge available to the pilot prior to departure and once airborne. Typically during a flight, a pilot has time to examine any changes that occur, gather information, and assess risk before reaching a decision. The steps leading to this conclusion constitute the decision-making process.
Defining the Problem
Defining the problem is the first step in the decision-making process and begins with recognizing that a change has occurred or that an expected change did not occur. A problem is perceived first by the senses, then is distinguished through insight (self-awareness) and experience. Insight, experience, and objective analysis of all available information are used to determine the exact nature and severity of the problem. One critical error that can be made during the decision-making process is incorrectly defining the problem.
While going through the following example, keep in mind what errors lead up to the event. What planning could have been completed prior to departing that may have led to avoiding this situation? What instruction could the pilot have had during training that may have better prepared the pilot for this scenario? Could the pilot have assessed potential problems based on what the aircraft “felt like” at a hover? All these factors go into recognizing a change and the timely response.
While doing a hover check after picking up firefighters at the bottom of a canyon, a pilot realized that she was only 20 pounds under maximum gross weight. What she failed to realize was that the firefighters had stowed some of their heaviest gear in the baggage compartment, which shifted the center of gravity (CG) slightly behind the aft limits. Since weight and balance had never created any problems for her in the past, she did not bother to calculate CG and power required. She did try to estimate it by remembering the figures from earlier in the morning at the base camp. At a 5,000-foot density altitude (DA) and maximum gross weight, the performance charts indicated the helicopter had plenty of excess power. Unfortunately, the temperature was 93 °F and the pressure altitude at the pickup point was 6,200 feet (DA = 9,600 feet). Since there was enough power for the hover check, the pilot decided there was sufficient power to takeoff.
Even though the helicopter accelerated slowly during the takeoff, the distance between the helicopter and the ground continued to increase. However, when the pilot attempted to establish the best rate of climb speed, the nose tended to pitch up to a higher-than-normal attitude, and the pilot noticed that the helicopter was not gaining enough altitude in relation to the canyon wall approximately 200 yards ahead.
Choosing a Course of Action
After the problem has been identified, a pilot must evaluate the need to react to it and determine the actions to take to resolve the situation in the time available. The expected outcome of each possible action should be considered and the risks assessed before a pilot decides on a response to the situation.
The pilot’s first thought was to pull up on the collective and pull back on the cyclic. After weighing the consequences of possibly losing rotor revolutions per minute (rpm) and not being able to maintain the climb rate sufficiently to clear the canyon wall, which was then only a hundred yards away, she realized the only course was to try to turn back to the landing zone on the canyon floor.
Implementing the Decision and Evaluating the Outcome
Although a decision may be reached and a course of action implemented, the decision-making process is not complete. It is important to think ahead and determine how the decision could affect other phases of the flight. As the flight progresses, a pilot must continue to evaluate the outcome of the decision to ensure that it is producing the desired result.
As the pilot made the turn to the downwind, the airspeed dropped nearly to zero, and the helicopter became very difficult to control. (At this point, the pilot must increase airspeed in order to maintain translational lift.) Since the CG was aft of limits, she needed to apply more forward cyclic than usual. As she approached the landing zone with a high rate of descent, she realized that she would be in a potential vortex ring state situation if she tried to trade airspeed for altitude and lost effective translational lift (ETL). Therefore, it did not appear that she would be able to terminate the approach in a hover. The pilot decided to make the shallowest approach possible and perform a run-on landing.
Pilots sometimes have trouble not because of deficient basic skills or system knowledge, but because of faulty decisionmaking skills. Although aeronautical decisions may appear to be simple or routine, each individual decision in aviation often defines the options available for the next decision the pilot must make, and the options (good or bad) it provides.
Therefore, a poor decision early in a flight can compromise the safety of the flight at a later time. It is important to make appropriate and decisive choices because good decisionmaking early in an emergency provide greater latitude for later options.
The decision-making process normally consists of several steps before a pilot chooses a course of action. A variety of structured frameworks for decision-making provide assistance in organizing the decision process. These models include but are not limited to the 5P (Plan, Plane, Pilot, Passengers, Programming), the OODA Loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action), and the DECIDE (Detect, Estimate, Choose, Identify, Do, and Evaluate) models. [Figure 13-2] All these models and their variations are discussed in detail in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge section covering aeronautical decision-making.
Whichever model is used, the pilot learns how to define the problem, choose a course of action, implement the decision, and evaluate the outcome. Remember, there is no one right answer in this process: a pilot analyzes the situation in light of experience level, personal minimums, and current physical and mental readiness levels, and then makes a decision.