flying Safety


I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately. There was a recent fatal Cherokee crash in a reasonably nearby town – nobody knows yet what happened. As a result the local aviation forum is turning up all sorts of theories. One contributor opined that if the CPL/IR grade 2 instructor who was flying the aircraft couldn’t save himself, what chance did the average weekend warrior have?

I commented that I felt that the best way to mitigate the risk in GA was to ensure that we are all current and proficient, and the lack of experience (i.e lack of total hours) may not necessarily influence the outcome of what appears to have been an engine failure. Further, we need to make peace with the fact that there is risk involved in general aviation, in the same way there is risk involved in almost everything we do. Obviously there is some perceived benefit to undertaking the risk involved. I cannot earn a living, unless I am prepared to take the risk of leaving the house and driving to work. Risk, benefit. Likewise, general aviation. Yes, there is risk, and that risk is not insignificant. The benefits for the personal aviator (I hate the term Weekend Warrior) are perhaps more nebulous – but could include significant decrease in long journey time, a visual perspective on the world that few get to see, the satisfaction in taking control of a machine and flying like the birds, and in my case, a very definite improvement in my state of mind (I call it altitude therapy).

In the same way we subconsciously evaluate risk:benefit for day to day activities, we must do the same with flying. In my reply I used the term tolerable risk. In retrospect this was a mistake. I was taken to task by a well respected old-salt aviator for mentioning that I am happy with a level of risk. He said he would not be happy to fly with someone “who is OK with tolerable risk”. To me this is crazy. If you believe that 5000hrs of flying eliminates all risk and you can tell your passengers with a straight face that no risk is involved in flying your single engine piston then you’d have to be delusional. Further, I was told that ‘all doctors’ are high risk GA pilots because, ‘we believe that we are infallible, have massive egos, and don’t like being told what to do’. This based on a time when a group of doctors was taught to fly by this individual. In the 1970’s.

Talking of 70’s era doctors….(Photo by Bill Larkin CC-BY-SA 2.0

Where I tend to agree with the aforementioned well respected aviator is that pilots with low levels of experience may be incapable of adjudicating the risk correctly and may well underestimate the risk involved – leading to flawed risk:benefit analysis. In order to avoid this we need to actively seek the risks – by reading reports and safety publications, using tools and getting advice from mentors.

Reading accident reports can open eyes to potential hidden risks. To be honest, I find them frustrating. It always seems like the outcome of the flight is never in any doubt even prior to the first turn of the propeller. There often appears to be a litany of issues – expired Medicals, documentation problems, poor maintenance, poor airmanship on the ground. Still – there is much to be learned from these even if they’re only a cautionary tale.

I’ve been looking for a tool to make risk identification easier – and I came across an app which runs on the phone which references the FAA PAVE risk matrix in a way that helps me. Unfortunately, it is a little USA-centric as it asks about Wings program attendance (we have no similar program here). When calculating risk the app asks about Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment and External pressures – naming the specific risks, such as untowered airports, lack of weather reporting, currency, proficiency and familiarity with the aircraft.

The app looks at the answers to this and spits out a number on a risk scale – which translates to low, moderate or high risk. When risk is moderate the advice is to try to mitigate the risk. With this at least there are targets to where risk can be reduced. Look, it’s not a foolproof setup but it certainly does provide some insight.

So, while I accept my lack of experience may limit my insight into risks, I refuse to resign myself to this and not actively look to find and avoid risk. Resignation is a hazardous attitude in and of itself and I’m not buying into it.

One reply on “Risk”

Well said, Mike. Thanks for these thoughts. I think that the phrase “tolerable risk” is absolutely spot-on, even if the pilot royalty on your forum took issue with it. I deal with risk and risk assessment nearly every day in my job. I have had colleagues demand of me, “We must have zero risk on this.” Exactly along the lines of the example you used, I almost always ask them if they drove to work that morning. Most of us have deemed the morning commute to be a tolerable risk. And I see a lot of accidents every week – there is nothing low-risk about the morning commute.

Because there is no such thing as zero risk, I think the phrase tolerable risk demonstrates that (1) you have identified risks, (2) thought about their likelihood and impact, and (3) made a judgement. That is far more confidence-inspiring to me than someone claiming “zero risk” because it means that they have not put any thought into what the risks might be.

And, yes, your ability to perceive and mitigate risk will change over time. There are things I did fifteen years ago in flying that I do not do today and that is a direct result of learning and experience. Some of the things I did as a newer pilot feel too risky now. Maybe ten years from now, I may have similar comments about things I do today. I think our risk tolerance changes over time, even if the risks themselves do not.

The important thing, whether using a rubric like PAVE or any other, is to always be thinking about the risks and making those assessments. I think it’s in times of complacency, when people stop thinking about the risks, that they get themselves into trouble.

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