Level of Risk

The level of risk posed by a given hazard is measured in terms of:

  • Severity (extent of possible loss)
  • Probability (likelihood that a hazard will cause a loss)

Assessing Risk

Assessment of risk is an important part of good risk management. For example, the hazard of a nick in the propeller poses a risk only if the airplane is flown. If the damaged prop is exposed to the constant vibration of normal engine operation, there is a high risk is that it could fracture and cause catastrophic damage to the engine and/or airframe and the passengers.


Every flight has hazards and some level of risk associated with it. It is critical that pilots and especially students are able to differentiate in advance between a low-risk flight and a high-risk flight, and then establish a review process and develop risk mitigation strategies to address flights throughout that range.

For the single pilot, assessing risk is not as simple as it sounds. For example, the pilot acts as his or her own quality control in making decisions. If a fatigued pilot who has flown 16 hours is asked if he or she is too tired to continue flying, the answer may be no. Most pilots are goal oriented and, when asked to accept a flight, there is a tendency to deny personal limitations while adding weight to issues not germane to the mission. For example, pilots of helicopter emergency services (EMS) have been known to make flight decisions that add significant weight to the patient’s welfare. These pilots add weight to intangible factors (the patient in this case) and fail to appropriately quantify actual hazards such as fatigue or weather when making flight decisions. The single pilot who has no other crew member for consultation must wrestle with the intangible factors that draw one into a hazardous position. Therefore, he or she has a greater vulnerability than a full crew.

Examining National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports and other accident research can help a pilot learn to assess risk more effectively. For example, the accident rate during night VFR decreases by nearly 50 percent once a pilot obtains 100 hours, and continues to decrease until the 1,000 hour level. The data suggest that for the first 500 hours, pilots flying VFR at night might want to establish higher personal limitations than are required by the regulations and, if applicable, apply instrument flying skills in this environment.

Several risk assessment models are available to assist in the process of assessing risk. The models, all taking slightly different approaches, seek a common goal of assessing risk in an objective manner.


The most basic tool is the risk matrix. [Figure 9-2] It assesses two items: the likelihood of an event occurring and the consequence of that event.

Figure 9-2. This risk matrix can be used for almost any operation by assigning likelihood and severity. In the case presented, the pilot assigned the likelihood of occassional and the severity as catastrophic falls in the high-risk area.

Figure 9-2. This risk matrix can be used for almost any operation by assigning likelihood and severity. In the case presented, the pilot assigned the likelihood of occasional and the severity as catastrophic falls in the high-risk area.

Likelihood of an Event

Likelihood is nothing more than taking a situation and determining the probability of its occurrence. It is rated as probable, occasional, remote, or improbable. For example, a pilot is flying from point A to point B (50 miles) in marginal visual flight rules (MVFR) conditions. The likelihood of encountering potential instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) is the first question the pilot needs to answer. The experiences of other pilots, coupled with the forecast, might cause the pilot to assign “occasional” to determine the probability of encountering IMC.

The following are guidelines for making assignments.

  • Probable—an event will occur several times.
  • Occasional—an event will probably occur sometime.
  • Remote—an event is unlikely to occur, but is possible.
  • Improbable—an event is highly unlikely to occur.

Severity of an Event

The next element is the severity or consequence of a pilot’s action(s). It can relate to injury and/or damage. If the individual in the example above is not an instrument flight rules (IFR) pilot, what are the consequences of encountering inadvertent IMC? In this case, because the pilot is not IFR rated, the consequences are catastrophic. The following are guidelines for this assignment.

  • Catastrophic—results in fatalities, total loss
  • Critical—severe injury, major damage
  • Marginal—minor injury, minor damage
  • Negligible—less than minor injury, less than minor system damage

Simply connecting the two factors as shown in Figure 9-2 indicates the risk is high and the pilot must either not fly or fly only after finding ways to mitigate, eliminate, or control the risk.