Decision Making


“The accident pilot continued the ______ and struck_____ resulting in____.” 

Sound familiar? It should. Most of the NTSB reports you read today contain a statement similar to that one where you fill in the blanks. Meanwhile everyone is asking, what really happened? What was he or she thinking? In this line of work, bad decisions can have catastrophic results. 

Decisions, bad or good, require at least one thing: a choice. If there is not a choice to be made, then you literally have no choice. If the engine quits five seconds after takeoff, you are landing straight ahead. You have no options. When it quits at 300 feet, you may have options which in turn require a decision….in a split second. Generating and preserving options is a prerequisite for any decision. 

In some cases, like low altitude engine failure, time is critical and options are limited. Pre-planning is crucial. When doing a show over a river, miles from the airport, knowing there is a corn field behind the trees on the south side of the river may be the critical difference. For time-critical emergencies, combine knowledge and contingency planning to create options before you fly. 

When the torque tube fails leaving the aircraft marginally controllable, the decision making process changes. You have time. You can get help over the radio. You can do a controllability check, run a checklist. You can find a safe place to jettison the airplane and you can get CFR in place, roads blocked, etc. You can go through a pre-bailout check. 

While these two examples are pilot-related, the same things apply to air bosses and air show producers. Time and again, producers watch a storm approach the field. The air boss lets the performer keep flying. The producer waits for the wind and rain to hit before getting people under cover. Was that last pass really worth the risk? 

The hardest decision is to stop before you absolutely have to. The difference between a perfect show and a tragedy is not measured by acts accomplished or maneuvers flown. It is measured by decisions and is only truly measured when contingencies occur. 

Plan, practice, plan some more and then be prepared for the plan to fall apart. Know how you are going to handle the situation when planning falls apart. Keep your options available. Make decisions that help you keep those options open. Take the time to evaluate those options and then make sound decisions.

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The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) is a trade association dedicated to building and sustaining a vibrant air show industry to support its membership. To achieve this goal, ICAS demands its members operate their air show business at only the highest levels of safety, professionalism, and integrity.