Monday, May 16, 2016


Consider this logic; “I think therefore I am.” Rene Descartes was the father of those words and yet everything we do seems to come from those words. Our thoughts become actions and then those become habits and they eventually develop our character.

So let us look at it in matters of aviation safety. Two pilots from the same household develop differing characteristics of behavior. One is judicious in thought and action, careful in planning and argues within himself all observable points of view with an eye towards flexibility due to changing environments, thus creating various scenarios and plans of action. The other pilot is laissez faire. He gets up, looks out the window at the sun peaking though the clouds ands heads to the airport. He is our “kick the tire and light the fire, barnstormer.”

The logic of decision making is based on information primarily. Asymmetry of information is the main reason for our first pilot to have deliberation over multiple plans of action. He deals with the Boolean logic of “If this then that.” The barnstormer cares a wit about information per se. He believes he is the epitome of an aviator and the sky is his oyster. So to each, thought is his own way.

Both the pilots are borne of the discovery and justification process. The discovery of biases and the justification to do things. The careful pilot has turned information into knowledge and understanding, while the barnstormer is, shall we say more about his own fully developed sense of “greatness,” then any sense of reality. 

While the former takes in all the available bits of data and compiles them into a cohesive sense of the environment, both past and future, the latter has built within himself the fire-walls of confidence rich in confirmatory bias. 

Ah I am glad you asked about confirmatory bias. Basically if you do something repetitively and it works, you consider that as a successful and repeatable enterprise. Not withstanding Taleb’s “Black Swan” effect the barnstormer can go on for a finite period of time with that bias lingering within him, until one day the ailerons fly off the hinges. An example would be a pilot who scud runs. As he continues to press on while the cloud ceiling lowers the boom and confirmatory bias continues to ride the wave, until one day the pilot mangles himself on a cell tower or becomes a statistic of a CFIT (obscured mountain). That happens quite a few times a year unfortunately. Justification of actions are a human mechanism steeped in hubris and confirmed through the passage of time by similar acts of carelessness. Its like the teenager who after watching a video of an expert skateboarding champion decides he can go down the rails on flat concrete surface, only to break some young bones in the process, trying to up the ante down a steep staircase.

On the other hand the careful pilot looks at the weather briefing diligently, has acquired the instrument rating, is always instrument proficient and even then takes into consideration the weaknesses of his own skills with “what if scenarios.”

How do we make decisions?

Carefully with as many pieces of information as are available!

Daniel Kahnemann a Nobel laureate has grafted the idea that we have two internal systems in our brain that are employed in the decision making process. System 1 is a knee-jerk type, quick on the pedal to the metal with little reverence to the conditions of the equipment or the surroundings. System 2 is a more careful, slow, methodical and judiciously employed consideration of all available pieces of information that go on to making a decision.

While System 1 is more of the emergent nature that triggers the frontal lobe of the brain into quick-firing of electrical stimuli, System 2 is the careful process that takes into account from the temporal, visual, auditory and parietal lobes of the brain before committing the fire from the frontal lobe. So in essence with deliberate care.

Which is correct?

If you have to ask that question as a pilot then, I suggest, you take some classes to govern your impulsive, hazardous attitude.

The old story about that, “there are no old, bold pilots!” is a truism. There are only the methodical careful ones that define the risks, mitigate as many known hazards as possible and only then undertake an action.

Conquering space did not happen because someone decided to tie a rocket on their back and lit the fuse. It happened because of hundreds of scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and a few brave astronauts took on the arduous task of understanding space.

Pilots are not all pioneers in space. Most of us are just pilots. There are a few aviators amongst us, not mere technicians in flight but who understand each motion as they are strapped into the seats of an aircraft flying at many hundreds of miles per hour across space.

Understanding natural science and the design of science that is created to embark through that nature is as important as knowing when to apply the force on the rudder to prevent a slip and when to create a slip in flight.

Decisions are made on a daily basis in life. We decide to buy, to sell, to go to movies, to read a book, to cook a meal, to wash clothes. All these decisions have a precedent of understanding and need. Similarly flying has a precedent and need. The need however must be met with an equal tincture of understanding of the surrounding space and its vagaries.

All flights are possibilities and as they proceed in space and time, they become probabilities and then are added to the ledger of understanding based on the information gleaned from those flights. These flights then become the justification for future ones. It is equally easy to fall into the trap of hubris as it is into the comforts of a carefully crafted methodology. Therefore it is important to learn about good habits from others and discern about bad habits. Accident cases abound in the aviation literature, most (70%+) point against the pilot actions as the causality of aircraft accidents. One would even consider the number higher. But then I digress.

How not to fall into the System 1, knee-jerk, barnstorming trap?

Develop good habits
Employ careful and methodical Instructors to give instructions.
Create a log of all flights outside than those in the logbook, detailing each flight and errors.
Critique every flight and what was learnt from each.
Point out to other’s bad habits (you might save their lives one day).
Rash car drivers make bad pilots.
Egocentric machoism is dangerous to a pilot’s health.
Keep learning. Get all that aviation certification has to offer. Get the Instrument rating if you are a private pilot, a commercial ticket and all the way to the Airline Transport rating. Then consider sea pilot rating, Soaring, Upset training, etc.. All these fill your bag of tricks when one day, you might need them.
Always emulate good behavior.
Do not drink and fly (Consider more than 8 hours from bottle to throttle, because you as pilot might be a slow metabolizer of alcohol).
Consider the FAA’s IMSAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Eating) before each flight.

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