CFI Brief: What is Aeronautical Decision Making?

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) is a systematic approach to the mental process used by aircraft pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances. ADM is vital process allowing pilots to safely and efficiently manage risk. Although there is no way to eliminate the associated risks and hazards that come with aviation the proper application of ADM will allow the pilot to limit exposure to risks and hazards.

Risk Management is the part of the decision making process which relies on situational awareness, problem recognition, and good judgment to reduce risks associated with each flight.

The ADM process addresses all aspects of decision making in the cockpit and identifies the steps involved in good decision making. Steps for good decision making are:

  1. Identifying personal attitudes hazardous to safe flight.
  2. Learning behavior modification techniques.
  3. Learning how to recognize and cope with stress.
  4. Developing risk assessment skills.
  5. Using all resources in a multicrew situation.
  6. Evaluating the effectiveness of one’s ADM skills.

There are a number of classic behavioral traps into which pilots have been known to fall. Pilots, particularly those with considerable experience, as a rule always try to complete a flight as planned, please passengers, meet schedules, and generally demonstrate that they have the “right stuff.” These tendencies ultimately may lead to practices that are dangerous and often illegal, and may lead to a mishap. All experienced pilots have fallen prey to, or have been tempted by, one or more of these tendencies in their flying careers. These dangerous tendencies or behavior patterns, which must be identified and eliminated, include:

Peer Pressure. Poor decision making based upon emotional response to peers rather than evaluating a situation objectively.

Mind Set. The inability to recognize and cope with changes in the situation different from those anticipated or planned.

Get-There-Itis. This tendency, common among pilots, clouds the vision and impairs judgment by causing a fixation on the original goal or destination combined with a total disregard for any alternative course of action.

Duck-Under Syndrome. The tendency to sneak a peek by descending below minimums during an approach. Based on a belief that there is always a built-in “fudge” factor that can be used or on an unwillingness to admit defeat and shoot a missed approach.

Scud Running. Pushing the capabilities of the pilot and the aircraft to the limits by trying to maintain visual contact with the terrain while trying to avoid physical contact with it. This attitude is characterized by the old pilot’s joke: “If it’s too bad to go IFR, we’ll go VFR.”

Continuing Visual Flight Rules (VFR) into instrument conditions often leads to spatial disorientation or collision with ground/obstacles. It is even more dangerous if the pilot is not instrument qualified or current.

Getting Behind the Aircraft. Allowing events or the situation to control your actions rather than the other way around. Characterized by a constant state of surprise at what happens next.

Loss of Positional or Situation Awareness. Another case of getting behind the aircraft which results in not knowing where you are, an inability to recognize deteriorating circumstances, and/or the misjudgment of the rate of deterioration.

Operating Without Adequate Fuel Reserves. Ignoring minimum fuel reserve requirements, either VFR or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), is generally the result of overconfidence, lack of flight planning, or ignoring the regulations.

Descent Below the Minimum Enroute Altitude. The duck-under syndrome (mentioned above) manifesting itself during the enroute portion of an IFR flight.

Flying Outside the Envelope. Unjustified reliance on the (usually mistaken) belief that the aircraft’s high performance capability meets the demands imposed by the pilot’s (usually overestimated) flying skills.

Neglect of Flight Planning, Preflight Inspections, Checklists, Etc. Unjustified reliance on the pilot’s short and long term memory, regular flying skills, repetitive and familiar routes, etc.

Each ADM student should take the Self-Assessment Hazardous Attitude Inventory Test in order to gain a realistic perspective on his/her attitudes toward flying. The inventory test requires the pilot to provide a response which most accurately reflects the reasoning behind his/her decision. The pilot must choose one of the five given reasons for making that decision, even though the pilot may not consider any of the five choices acceptable. The inventory test presents extreme cases of incorrect pilot decision making in an effort to introduce the five types of hazardous attitudes.

ADM addresses the following five hazardous attitudes:

  1. Antiauthority (don’t tell me!). This attitude is found in people who do not like anyone telling them what to do. In a sense they are saying “no one can tell me what to do.” They may be resentful of having someone tell them what to do or may regard rules, regulations, and procedures as silly or unnecessary. However, it is always your prerogative to question authority if you feel it is in error. The antidote for this attitude is: Follow the rules. They are usually right.
  2. Impulsivity (do something quickly!) is the attitude of people who frequently feel the need to do something—anything—immediately. They do not stop to think about what they are about to do, they do not select the best alternative, and they do the first thing that comes to mind. The antidote for this attitude is: Not so fast. Think first.
  3. Invulnerability (it won’t happen to me). Many people feel that accidents happen to others, but never to them. They know accidents can happen, and they know that anyone can be affected. They never really feel or believe that they will be personally involved. Pilots who think this way are more likely to take chances and increase risk. The antidote for this attitude is: It could happen to me.
  4. Macho (I can do it). Pilots who are always trying to prove that they are better than anyone else are thinking “I can do it—I’ll show them.” Pilots with this type of attitude will try to prove themselves by taking risks in order to impress others. While this pattern is thought to be a male characteristic, women are equally susceptible. The antidote for this attitude is: taking chances is foolish.
  5. Resignation (what’s the use?). Pilots who think “what’s the use?” do not see themselves as being able to make a great deal of difference in what happens to them. When things go well, the pilot is apt to think that’s good luck. When things go badly, the pilot may feel that “someone is out to get me,” or attribute it to bad luck. The pilot will leave the action to others, for better or worse. Sometimes, such pilots will even go along with unreasonable requests just to be a “nice guy.” The antidote for this attitude is: I’m not helpless. I can make a difference.

Hazardous attitudes which contribute to poor pilot judgment can be effectively counteracted by redirecting that hazardous attitude so that appropriate action can be taken. Recognition of hazardous thoughts is the first step in neutralizing them in the ADM process. Pilots should become familiar with a means of counteracting hazardous attitudes with an appropriate antidote thought. When a pilot recognizes a thought as hazardous, the pilot should label that thought as hazardous, then correct that thought by stating the corresponding antidote.

If you hope to succeed at reducing stress associated with crisis management in the air or with your job, it is essential to begin by making a personal assessment of stress in all areas of your life. Good cockpit stress management begins with good life stress management. Many of the stress coping techniques practiced for life stress management are not usually practical in flight. Rather, you must condition yourself to relax and think rationally when stress appears. The following checklist outlines some thoughts on cockpit stress management.

  1. Avoid situations that distract you from flying the aircraft.
  2. Reduce your workload to reduce stress levels. This will create a proper environment in which to make good decisions.
  3. If an emergency does occur, be calm. Think for a moment, weigh the alternatives, then act.
  4. Maintain proficiency in your aircraft; proficiency builds confidence. Familiarize yourself thoroughly with your aircraft, its systems, and emergency procedures.
  5. Know and respect your own personal limits.
  6. Do not let little mistakes bother you until they build into a big thing. Wait until after you land, then “debrief” and analyze past actions.
  7. If flying is adding to your stress, either stop flying or seek professional help to manage your stress within acceptable limits.

The DECIDE Model, comprised of a six-step process, is intended to provide the pilot with a logical way of approaching decision making. The six elements of the DECIDE Model represent a continuous loop decision process which can be used to assist a pilot in the decision making process when he/she is faced with a change in a situation that requires a judgment. This DECIDE Model is primarily focused on the intellectual component, but can have an impact on the motivational component of judgment as well. If a pilot practices the DECIDE Model in all decision making, its use can become very natural and could result in better decisions being made under all types of situations.

  1. Detect. The decisionmaker detects the fact that change has occurred.
  2. Estimate. The decisionmaker estimates the need to counter or react to the change.
  3. Choose. The decisionmaker chooses a desirable outcome (in terms of success) for the flight.
  4. Identify. The decisionmaker identifies actions which could successfully control the change.
  5. Do. The decisionmaker takes the necessary action.
  6. Evaluate. The decisionmaker evaluates the effect(s) of his/her action countering the change.


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