Managing Risks

Risk is the degree of uncertainty. An examination of risk management yields many definitions, but it is a practical approach to managing uncertainty. [Figure 1-4] Risk assessment is a quantitative value assigned to a task, action, or event. [Figure 1-5] When armed with the predicted assessment of an activity, pilots are able to manage and reduce (mitigate) their risk. Take the use of improper hardware on a homebuilt aircraft for construction. Although one can easily see both the hazard is high and the severity is extreme, it does take the person who is using those bolts to recognize the risk. Otherwise, as is in many cases, the chart in Figure 1-5 is used after the fact. Managing risk takes discipline in separating oneself from the activity at hand in order to view the situation as an unbiased evaluator versus an eager participant with a stake in the flight’s execution. Another simple step is to ask three questions—is it safe, is it legal, and does it make sense? Although not a formal methodology of risk assessment, it prompts a pilot to look at the simple realities of what he or she is about to do.

Figure 1-4. Types of risk.

Figure 1-4. Types of risk.

Figure 1-5. Using a risk assessment matrix helps the pilot differentiate between low-risk and high-risk flights.

Figure 1-5. Using a risk assessment matrix helps the pilot differentiate between low-risk and high-risk flights.

Therefore, risk management is the method used to control, eliminate, or reduce the hazard within parameters of acceptability. Risk management is unique to each and every individual, since there are no two people exactly alike in skills, knowledge, training, and abilities. An acceptable level of risk to one pilot may not necessarily be the same to another pilot. Unfortunately, in many cases the pilot perceives that his or her level of risk acceptability is actually greater than their capability thereby taking on risk that is dangerous.

 

It is a decision-making process designed to systematically identify hazards, assess the degree of risk, and determine the best course of action. Once risks are identified, they must be assessed. The risk assessment determines the degree of risk (negligible, low, medium, or high) and whether the degree of risk is worth the outcome of the planned activity. If the degree of risk is “acceptable,” the planned activity may then be undertaken. Once the planned activity is started, consideration must then be given whether to continue. Pilots must have viable alternatives available in the event the original flight cannot be accomplished as planned.

Thus, hazard and risk are the two defining elements of risk management. A hazard can be a real or perceived condition, event, or circumstance that a pilot encounters.

Consider the example of a flight involving a Beechcraft King Air. The pilot was attempting to land in a northern Michigan airport. The forecasted ceilings were at 500 feet with ½ mile visibility. He deliberately flew below the approach minimums, ducked under the clouds, and struck the ground killing all on board. A prudent pilot would assess the risk in this case as high and beyond not only the capabilities of the aircraft and the pilot but beyond the regulatory limitations established for flight. The pilot failed to take into account the hazards associated with operating an aircraft in low ceiling and low visibility conditions.

A review of the accident provides a closer look at why the accident happened. If the King Air were traveling at 140 knots or 14,177 feet per minute, it would cover ½ statute mile (sm) visibility (2,640 feet) in about 11 seconds. As determined in Figure 1-1, the pilot has 12.5 seconds to impact. This example states that the King Air is traveling ½ statute mile every 11 seconds, so if the pilot only had ½ sm visibility, the aircraft will impact before the pilot can react. These factors make flight in low ceiling and low visibility conditions extremely hazardous. Aerodynamics of Flight, under the Aeronautical Knowledge Section presents a discussion of space required to maneuver an aircraft at various airspeed.

Figure 1-1. Head-on approach impact time.

Figure 1-1. Head-on approach impact time.

So, why would a pilot faced with such hazards place those hazards at such a low level of risk? To understand this, it is important to examine the pilot’s past performance. The pilot had successfully flown into this airport under similar conditions as these despite the apparent risk. This time, however, the conditions were forecast with surface fog. Additionally, the pilot and his passenger were in a hurry. They were both late for their respective appointments. Perhaps being in a hurry, the pilot failed to factor in the difference between the forecasted weather and weather he negotiated before. Can it be said that the pilot was in a hurry definitively? Two years before this accident, the pilot landed a different aircraft gear up. At that incident, he simply told the fixed-base operator (FBO) at the airport to take care of the aircraft because the pilot needed to go to a meeting. He also had an enforcement action for flying low over a populated area.

 

It is apparent that this pilot knew the difference between right and wrong. He elected to ignore the magnitude of the hazard, the final illustration of a behavioral problem that ultimately caused this accident. Certainly one would say that he was impetuous and had what is called “get there itis.” While ducking under clouds to get into the Michigan airport, the pilot struck terrain killing everyone onboard. His erroneous behavior resulted from inadequate or incorrect perceptions of the risk, and his skills, knowledge, and judgment were not sufficient to manage the risk or safely complete the tasks in that aircraft. [Figure 1-6]

Figure 1-6. Each pilot may have a different threshold where skill is considered, however; in this case no amount of skill raises this line to a higher level.

Figure 1-6. Each pilot may have a different threshold where skill is considered, however; in this case no amount of skill raises this line to a higher level.

The hazards a pilot faces and those that are created through adverse attitude predispose his or her actions. Predisposition is formed from the pilot’s foundation of beliefs and, therefore, affects all decisions he or she makes. These are called “hazardous attitudes” and are explained in the Aeronautical Knowledge Section under Aeronautical Decision-Making.

A key point must be understood about risk. Once the situation builds in complexity, it exceeds the pilot’s capability and requires luck to succeed and prevail. [Figure 1-7]

Figure 1-7. Pilots accept their own individual level of risk even though they may have received similar training. Risk, which must be managed individually, becomes a problem when a situation builds and its complexity exceeds the pilot’s capability (background + education + predisposition + attitude + training). The key to managing risk is the pilot’s understanding of his or her threshold and perceptions of the risk.

Figure 1-7. Pilots accept their own individual level of risk even though they may have received similar training. Risk, which must be managed individually, becomes a problem when a situation builds and its complexity exceeds the pilot’s capability (background + education + predisposition + attitude + training). The key to managing risk is the pilot’s understanding of his or her threshold and perceptions of the risk.

Unfortunately, when a pilot survives a situation above his or her normal capability, perception of the risk involved and of the ability to cope with that level of risk become skewed. The pilot is encouraged to use the same response to the same perceived level of risk, viewing any success as due to skill, not luck. The failure to accurately perceive the risk involved and the level of skill, knowledge, and abilities required to mitigate that risk may influence the pilot to accept that level of risk or higher levels.

Many in the aviation community would ask why the pilot did not see this action as a dangerous maneuver. The aviation community needs to ask questions and develop answers to these questions: “What do we need to do during the training and education of pilots to enable them to perceive these hazards as risks and mitigate the risk factors?” “Why was this pilot not trained to ask for an approach clearance and safely fly an approach or turned around and divert to an airport with better weather?” Most observers view this approach as not only dangerous but also lacking common sense. To further understand this action, a closer look at human behavior is provided in the next post.