Identifying Hazards and Mitigating Risk (Part Three)

E = External Pressures

External pressures are influences external to the flight that create a sense of pressure to complete a flight—often at the expense of safety. Factors that can be external pressures include the following:

  • Someone waiting at the airport for the flight’s arrival
  • A passenger the pilot does not want to disappoint
  • The desire to demonstrate pilot qualifications
  • The desire to impress someone (Probably the two most dangerous words in aviation are “Watch this!”)
  • Desire to satisfy a specific personal goal (“get-home-itis,” “get-there-itis,” and “let’s-go-itis”)
  • A pilot’s general goal-completion orientation
  • The emotional pressure associated with acknowledging that skill and experience levels may be lower than a pilot would like them to be. (Pride can be a powerful external factor.)

The following accident offers an example of how external pressures influence a pilot. Two pilots were giving helicopter demonstrations at an air show. The first pilot demonstrated a barrel roll in front of the stands. Not to be outdone, the second pilot (with passengers) decided to execute a hammerhead type maneuver. Flying past the stands at 90 knots, the pilot pulled the helicopter into a steep climb that ended at about 200 feet. When the speed dissipated to near zero, he rolled back to the ground in a nose-low attitude to regain airspeed with the obvious intention of pulling the aircraft out of the dive near the ground. An error in judgment led to the pilot being unable to pull the helicopter out of the dive. The helicopter struck the ground, killing all onboard.


The desire to impress someone can be a powerful external pressure, especially when coupled with the internal pressure of pride. Perhaps the pilot decided to perform a maneuver not in his training profile, or one in which he had not demonstrated proficiency. It appears there was nothing in this pilot’s experiences to help him effectively assess the high risk of this maneuver in an aircraft loaded with passengers. It is not uncommon to see people motivated by external pressures who are also driven internally by their own attitude.

Management of external pressure is the single most important key to risk management because it is the one risk factor category that can cause a pilot to ignore all other risk factors. External pressures place time-related pressure on the pilot and figure into a majority of accidents.

Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) operations, unique due to the emergency nature of the mission, are an example of how external pressures influence pilots. Emergency medical services (EMS) pilots often ferry critically ill patients, and the pilot is driven by goal completion. In order to reduce the effect of this pressure, many EMS operators do not to notify the EMS pilot of the prospective patient’s condition, but merely confine the location of the patient pickup and restrict the pilot’s decision-making role to the response to the question “Can the pickup and transportation to the medical care center be made safely?” Risking three or four lives in an attempt to save one life is not a safe practice.

The use of personal standard operating procedures (SOPs) is one way to manage external pressures. The goal is to supply a release for the external pressures of a flight. These procedures include, but are not limited to:

  • Allow time on a trip for an extra fuel stop or to make an unexpected landing because of weather.
  • Have alternate plans for a late arrival or make backup airline reservations for must-be-there trips.
  • For really important trips, plan to leave early enough so that there would still be time to drive to the destination.
  • Advise those who are waiting at the destination that the arrival may be delayed. Know how to notify them when delays are encountered.
  • Manage passenger expectations. Ensure passengers know that they might not arrive on a firm schedule, and if they must arrive by a certain time, they should make alternative plans.
  • Eliminate pressure to return home, even on a casual day flight, by carrying a small overnight kit containing prescriptions, contact lens solutions, toiletries, or other necessities on every flight.

The key to managing external pressure is to be ready for and accept delays. Remember that people get delayed when traveling on airlines, driving a car, or taking a bus. The pilot’s goal is to manage risk, not increase it.