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Aviation Decision Making

Risk and Stress Assessment

Within life we always have to deal with some element of risk. Be it driving a car, walking downtown, riding a bike or fly an airplane. We learn to cope with and learn from these risks. This is necessary so that we can have years of safe driving / flying and living without avoidable risk.

The items we discussed earlier in our aviation decision making article (remember: pilot, aircraft, environment, operation and situation) are five risk elements in aviation. We take another look at them but from the angle of risk this time and see which factors ans risks may influence you in your aviation career.

Being able to handle these stress factors as a pilot is very important to keep the flight operation safe and the risk to the aircraft and it occupants as low as possible and will result into airmanship of the highest level.

Stress Factors

We are all subject to stress in one form or another and its defined as: "an individual phenomenon, subjective in nature and resulting from an excess of environmental demands". And as a human your performance and acting will be affected by several stress aspects when acting as a pilot. Typical factors are:

  • Physical stress - External factors acting on you. Temperature, cabin/engine noise (headset quality) vibration and altitude (lack of oxygen, makes you think you are doing great but in fact you are maybe about to collapse).
  • Physiological stress - The condition of your body. Loss of sleep, meals and overall fitness all contribute to this type of stress.
  • Psychological stress - The condition of the mind. These include: sickness of a relative, relationship issues, death in the family, factors at work. Things that bother you as person.

The above factors all add up to the workload of the pilot during flight and may increase the overall risk of the flight at hand. Coping with environmental demands that surrounds a person or pilot depends on that individual capability to meet those demands or getting rid of those demands. Which is different for every person.

Types of Risk

While flying or preparing the flight we must evaluate the risks involved and try to minimize them. With each type of risk we encounter we must take a decision. Below a list of risks and how to deal with it.

Aircraft Risk

Assessing this risk can be best done during the preflight phase on the ground. The walk around is the place to assess the airworthiness of the aircraft. If it is airworthy then we have reduced this risk. Another factor is fuel on board, this can become a risk factor later on in the flight when the weather changes adversely. Higher winds aloft than expected/predicted will make fuel a factor to be analyzed by the pilot.

Environmental Risk

This element is far reaching concerning and modifies or affects the aircraft, pilot and operational elements. Weather has its effect (direct or indirect) on the aircraft (density altitude, runway length, climb performance, visibility and such things). It is therefore very important to assess this risk thoroughly during the preflight phase. Adverse weather has killed many a pilot, make sure that you do not join those ranks.

An axiom comes to mind: It is better to be on the ground wishing you were up there than in the air wishing you were on the ground. Which is especially true when the weather closes in.

Flight Operation

The evaluation of the interaction of you, the aircraft and the environment. Basically this is the desirability to the undertaking or continuing this flight as you have planned it, considering all factors and available information regarding this flight.

Ask yourself the question: is the flight worth the risk I am taking right now?


For effective risk management you need to be aware of all of the risk raisers and if and when these risk raisers can add up to a point where they can no longer be tolerated and neutralizing is no longer possible. Think of trying to navigate VFR trough a front line of CB's and with every cloud you circumnavigate you loose the possibility to turn back.


Good decision making requires a continuous assessment of the five elements whether to start or continue the flight as you planned it. Using this technique makes it easy to make a "go/no go" decision, just make sure you have 5 go's or re-evaluate the situation to continue or not.

Proper evaluation of these factors will result in a greater situational awareness of the pilot or crew.

Written by EAI.

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