Defining Elements of Risk Management (Part One)

Risk management, a formalized way of dealing with hazards, is the logical process of weighing the potential costs of risks against the possible benefits of allowing those risks to stand uncontrolled. In order to better understand risk management, the terms “hazard” and “risk” need to be understood.


Defining Hazard

By definition, a hazard is a present condition, event, object, or circumstance that could lead to or contribute to an unplanned or undesired event such as an accident. It is a source of danger. Four common aviation hazards are:

  1. A nick in the propeller blade
  2. Improper refueling of an aircraft
  3. Pilot fatigue
  4. Use of unapproved hardware on aircraft

Recognizing the Hazard

Recognizing hazards is critical to beginning the risk management process. Sometimes, one should look past the immediate condition and project the progression of the condition. This ability to project the condition into the future comes from experience, training, and observation.

  1. A nick in the propeller blade is a hazard because it can lead to a fatigue crack, resulting in the loss of the propeller outboard of that point. With enough loss, the vibration could be great enough to break the engine mounts and allow the engine to separate from the aircraft.
  2. Improper refueling of an aircraft is a hazard because improperly bonding and/or grounding the aircraft creates static electricity that can spark a fire in the refueling vapors. Improper refueling could also mean fueling a gasoline fuel system with turbine fuel. Both of these examples show how a simple process can become expensive at best and deadly at worst.
  3. Pilot fatigue is a hazard because the pilot may not realize he or she is too tired to fly until serious errors are made. Humans are very poor monitors of their own mental condition and level of fatigue. Fatigue can be as debilitating as drug usage, according to some studies.
  4. Use of unapproved hardware on aircraft poses problems because aviation hardware is tested prior to its use on an aircraft for such general properties as hardness, brittleness, malleability, ductility, elasticity, toughness, density, fusibility, conductivity, and contraction and expansion.

If pilots do not recognize a hazard and choose to continue, the risk involved is not managed. However, no two pilots see hazards in exactly the same way, making prediction and standardization of hazards a challenge. So the question remains, how do pilots recognize hazards? The ability to recognize a hazard is predicated upon personality, education, and experience.


Personality can play a large part in the manner in which hazards are gauged. People who might be reckless in nature take this on board the flight deck. For instance, in an article in the August 25, 2006, issue of Commercial and Business Aviation entitled Accident Prone Pilots, Patrick R. Veillette, Ph.D., notes that research shows one of the primary characteristics exhibited by accident-prone pilots was their disdain toward rules. Similarly, other research by Susan Baker, Ph.D., and her team of statisticians at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, found a very high correlation between pilots with accidents on their flying records and safety violations on their driving records. The article brings forth the question of how likely is it that someone who drives with a disregard of the driving rules and regulations will then climb into an aircraft and become a role model pilot. The article goes on to hypothesize that, for professional pilots, the financial and career consequences of deviating from standard procedures can be disastrous but can serve as strong motivators for natural-born thrill seekers.

Improving the safety records of the thrill seeking type pilots may be achieved by better educating them about the reasons behind the regulations and the laws of physics, which cannot be broken. The FAA rules and regulations were developed to prevent accidents from occurring. Many rules and regulations have come from studying accidents; the respective reports are also used for training and accident prevention purposes.

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The adage that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks is simply false. In the mid-1970s, airlines started to employ Crew Resource Management (CRM) in the workplace (flight deck). The program helped crews recognize hazards and provided tools for them to eliminate the hazard or minimize its impact. Today, this same type of thinking has been integrated into Single-Pilot Resource Management (SRM) programs.


Regulations provide restrictions to actions and are written to produce outcomes that might not otherwise occur if the regulation were not written. They are written to reduce hazards by establishing a threshold for the hazard. An example might be something as simple as basic visual flight rules (VFR) weather minimums as presented in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) part 91, section 91.155, which lists cloud clearance in Class E airspace as 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, and 2,000 feet horizontally with flight visibility as three statute miles. This regulation provides both an operational boundary and one that a pilot can use in helping to recognize a hazard. For instance, a VFR-only rated pilot faced with weather that is far below that of Class E airspace would recognize that weather as hazardous, if for no other reason than because it falls below regulatory requirements.


Experience is the knowledge acquired over time and increases with time as it relates to association with aviation and an accumulation of experiences. Therefore, can inexperience be construed as a hazard? Inexperience is a hazard if an activity demands experience of a high skill set and the inexperienced pilot attempts that activity. An example of this would be a wealthy pilot who can afford to buy an advanced avionics aircraft, but lacks the experience needed to operate it safely. On the other hand a pilot’s experience can provide a false sense of security, leading the pilot to ignore or fail to recognize a potential hazard.

Experience sometimes influences the way a pilot looks at an aviation hazard and how he or she explores its level of risk. Revisiting the four original examples:

  1. A nick in the propeller blade. The pilot with limited experience in the field of aircraft maintenance may not realize the significance of the nick. Therefore, he or she may not recognize it as a hazard. For the more experienced pilot, the nick represents the potential of a serious risk. This pilot realizes the nick can create or be the origin of a crack. What happens if the crack propagates, causing the loss of the outboard section? The ensuing vibration and possible loss of the engine would be followed by an extreme out-of-balance condition resulting in the loss of flight control and a crash.
  2. Improper refueling of an aircraft. Although pilots and servicing personnel should be well versed on the grounding and/or bonding precautions as well as the requirements for safe fueling, it is possible the inexperienced pilot may be influenced by haste and fail to take proper precautions. The more experienced pilot is aware of how easily static electricity can be generated and how the effects of fueling a gasoline fuel system with turbine fuel can create hazards at the refueling point.
  3. Pilot fatigue. Since indications of fatigue are subtle and hard to recognize, it often goes unidentified by a pilot. The more experienced pilot may actually ignore signals of fatigue because he or she believes flight experience will compensate for the hazard. For example, a businessman/pilot plans to fly to a meeting and sets an 8 a.m. departure for himself. Preparations for the meeting keep him up until 2 a.m. the night before the flight. With only several hours of sleep, he arrives at the airport ready to fly because he fails to recognize his lack of sleep as a hazard. The fatigued pilot is an impaired pilot, and flying requires unimpaired judgment. To offset the risk of fatigue, every pilot should get plenty of rest and minimize stress before a flight. If problems prevent a good night’s sleep, rethink the flight, and postpone it accordingly.
  4. Use of unapproved hardware on aircraft. Manufacturers specify the type of hardware to use on an aircraft, including components. Using anything other than that which is specified or authorized by parts manufacturing authorization (PMA) is a hazard. There are several questions that a pilot should consider that further explain why unapproved hardware is a hazard. Will it corrode when in contact with materials in the airframe structure? Will it break because it is brittle? Is it manufactured under loose controls such that some bolts may not meet the specification? What is the quality control process at the manufacturing plant? Will the hardware deform excessively when torqued to the proper specification? Will it stay tight and fixed in place with the specified torque applied? Is it loose enough to allow too much movement in the structure? Are the dollars saved really worth the possible costs and liability? As soon as a person departs from the authorized design and parts list, then that person becomes an engineer and test pilot, because the structure is no longer what was considered to be safe and approved. Inexperienced as well as experienced pilots can fall victim to using an unapproved part, creating a flight hazard that can lead to an accident. Aircraft manufacturers use hardware that meets multiple specifications that include shear strength, tensile strength, temperature range, working load, etc.

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