One of the more scrutinized, yet least standardized aspects of aviation is human decision making. We’ve all heard the saying that “once you learn to keep the dirty side down, good piloting is all about good judgment.” While science shows that personal judgment is a complex recipe composed of many things, on a relatively simple level, it’s made up of three main ingredients: attitude, experience and personality. It’s the different quantities of each ingredient, which cause variations in one’s judgment to range from superior to dismal.
Attitude. It provides both a foundation and overlying tone with which we tackle a task. It is the final governor of all our perceptions before we make a decision. It has a life cycle to it. It almost invariably starts out quite conservative and cautious. It changes as we amass new skills and discover new limitations through handling of new scenarios.
Experience. It is what allows our attitude, and therefore our decision making, to evolve. It can have the effect of increasing or decreasing comfort, but it always provides knowledge. Like case law to the lawyer, the more of it we have, the stronger our convictions can be. In the right hands this knowledge brings adeptness and wisdom, allowing growth without sacrificing caution.
Personality. It’s what makes us uniquely different. It is an entire soup kettle of ingredients unto itself. While our attitudes towards flying are continually adjusted by our experiences, our personality is hardwired from an early age, and that’s important—because it follows us right into the cockpit, and personality is a key ingredient that can hasten or hinder positive attitude adjustment. Scan the web and you will find countless articles relating to the typical pilot’s personality. Terms used to describe them include intelligent, self-sufficient, analytical, suspicious and goal-oriented, just to name a few. Additionally as career police officer aviators, I’d say we’ve all developed varied degrees of ego and heroism over the years. For many, it’s their innate personality that drove them to a career in law enforcement. There is an undeniable sense of authority when we key the mike and state our police call sign, and great satisfaction in catching the bad guy. We enjoy the confidence boost we get from handling tough mission scenarios, validating countless hours of study and training. In some personalities, this can fuel an attitude of invulnerability and arrogance, allowing overconfidence to overshadow lessons that otherwise might be learned, and skew clearly risky scenarios into being just another “tough mission.” Soon, salvaging a bad approach, pushing a weather limit, or finding a way to “pull the mission off” becomes habitual.
When good or bad habits form, they have the effect of dulling the educational senses. They cease to have meaning and just become part of what we perceive as “rational” actions.
At best, this can provide an unforgettable experience (read: a time that scares you out of your flight boots), which finally brings a positive attitude change and an immediate improvement in judgment—decidedly a few moments too late. At worst, it can bring catastrophe. This is clearly not the preferred way to improve one’s game. For the more conservative personality, just a single brush with one of those high-risk scenarios may be enough for a mental “I’ll never do that again” adjustment in decision-making and continued gradual maturation as a professional aviator. Just as the attitude of an aggressive driver weaving in an out of traffic is telegraphed by his driving style, the attitude with which we take to the skies is readily apparent. Crewmembers in the aft cabin know who is doing the flying just by the subtle differences in flying style. It is our duty to provide each other and all those who fly with us a sense of safety and security! We must be skilled at what we do; yet judicious in how we use our skills.
How can being aware of the insidious effects of our personality give us the slight edge needed to improve our flight discipline? We already know. Foremost, adopt a standard. Don’t just use the buzzword! Do it. It doesn’t need to be all encompassing. Specifically defining limitations, responsibilities and duties required of all crewmembers eliminates many of the variables of each flight. It’s like the wooden clown holding the yardstick at the amusement park. If you don’t meet the requirement, you can’t ride the ride! Next, truly practice crew resource management (CRM) techniques. Police missions get busy. Resist the urge to prove your adeptness by flying, operating the moving map, GPS and FLIR camera all by yourself. If you’re the pilot flying, then fly. If you’re the pilot not flying, only then should you be the cop.
Finally, adding your own personal attitude-check to your preflight checklist is the simplest way to improve. It’s your final opportunity to “check your ego at the clown,” before you ride the ride.