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Mitigating Risk

For a little change of pace, I'm going to branch out and spend a post or two on Flying topics.

Recently, I read a very good article written by Martha King, whom I usually can take or leave, in the April 2014 issue of Flying Magazine.

I often use the phrase:  “I like to plan the flight and fly the plan.”  Inherent in that phrase is the concept that the best flights that are nice and routine, where the plan is followed, and the goal achieved according to the plan.  And therein lies the problem.  Flying is done by goal-directed people and is inherently a goal-directed activity.  If we are too rigid about “flying the plan” and loose the ability to be flexible about the goal and fluid in our approach, then we will inevitably increase the risk of flying because we are motivated to keep to the plan, achieve the goal, and overcome any obstacles in our way despite clear indications that that may not be possible.

Martha King points out: “When you are in the company of pilots, you are in the company of achievers, people who are hard-wired to complete what they set out to do.  They don’t give up their goals easily.” She goes on to say that it is by realizing that the goal can be unachievable, and maintaining flexibility in our thinking, that we mitigate risk.

Another approach to keep in mind for mitigating risk is to increase the scope and contingencies in our plan.  We all plan an alternate, make sure we have appropriate fuel, and study the approaches, don’t we?  (Say YES!).  But do we pack an overnight bag on every day trip?  Do we call the alternate airport and select the best FBO, negotiate fuel and hangar if necessary, and generally lower the mental barrier to making the diversion?  Or do we believe that picking out the place is good enough?  I’m going to change what I do, and I think it’s going to be a big, big help in performing safer operations.

Here are some other things that you might think about.  They are strategies that make it easier to give up on a goal.  Some are directly from Martha King's article.

  • Always pack an overnight bag, even for a day trip.
  • If you feel “late” or “in a hurry” then you are loosing the battle of risk mitigation
  • Just as in a stall, you need to unload the pressure to recover the situation!
  • Remind yourself that airline flight are very frequently late, delayed, or just plain cancelled!!
  • Think about the whole trip the way we are taught to view an approach:  Make your expectation that the trip will be delayed or worse, but if all the pieces happen to come together, then you can make it as planned!  This is the same as the old adage: Expect the missed. Be surprised and happy that you can land.
  • Take along a second crewmember.  Or a virtual crewmember.

What Martha doesn’t explicitly state in her piece is that, in each case that she cites of changing or giving up on a goal, discussion with someone else was a big factor in making the right decision.  It’s having a second option to back you up in making the oh-so-hard decision that the goal just isn’t reasonable today.  If you don’t have a second crewmember, then use a makeshift “dispatch” — call your airplane partner, friend, or flight instructor!!  They too may be able to be the sounding board of reason.

Finally, I want to share a little story about a trip home that I took with my airplane partner on a commercial carrier from Dallas to Boston.  It was Thanksgiving eve.  We had finished our recurrent simulator training earlier in the day, and had made it to DFW airport with plenty of time.  But our flight was delayed first because it was late arriving, and then for somewhat mysterious reasons.  We were eventually told that they were working on a mechanical issue where water was leaking from behind the gally sink, flooding the aft galley area, and dripping through the floor into the “Ebay” of our Embraer 190 aircraft.  Water dripping into the Electrical Bay, where the critical electrical systems of the aircraft are housed, sounded like a problem that needed to be completely remedied before flight!

Next thing we hear is from the captain of our airplane, who seemed like a very nice guy.  He came out and addressed the assembled passengers.  He explained the problem and pointed out that he was pushing maintenance very hard for us to get repaired and make the flight back to Boston, because if we didn’t he would miss Thanksgiving with his 4 and 7 year old kids.  He explained that we were all in the same boat — wanting to be able to make our trip and make it in time for the Holiday celebration.  It was a very heartfelt announcement, and every passenger, save two, applauded after he put down the microphone.  The remaining two passengers, my partner and me, looked at each other and thought: “OMG.  Does he have perspective on the risks of this operation?  Are they pushing too hard to make the trip with a known and, in the words of the pilot, “very serious” problem?  Should we get a hotel room right now and refuse to get on this flight?”

It’s all too easy to forget that commercial crews are often under the same pressures that we are.  They want to be home to their families.  They want to complete their leg.  And they don’t want to let anybody down.  In short, they have a goal, and they will do nearly anything to achieve it.  And we are along for the ride.  We had just discussed this in our training.

Well, this particular crew did a great job, and managed the risk well.  We were very late, but after the leak was repaired, water completely drained from the fresh water tank, and the Ebay dried out, we made a safe flight back to Boston.  We used bottled water to wash our hands!

I hope we can all learn to manage our risks and look for creative, flexible solutions as well.  And if we can’t find a great solution, we will do what this crew was prepared to do:  miss Thanksgiving with their families.



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Reader Comments (1)

Excellent points! I've found that the mere act of having an overnight bag with a single change of cloths and my own "stuff" takes nearly all the "oh darn" out of an unplanned lay-over, and makes it a FAR easier choice to make.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Singer

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