Fixing “Slow Motion” Accidents!

We have amazing technology in most of our airplanes these days. We navigate with satellites and have omniscient weather mapping on board. But despite all these tools, pilots continue to fly into terrible weather and kill themselves. These “slow-motion” accidents involve a series of bad decisions over time – starting with the launch – that increasingly restrict options like a funnel to a  (seemingly inevitable) wreck. “VFR into IMC” and IFR into convective or icing accidents are 90% fatal.  “What was the pilot thinking?” Let’s have a look.

The question “How can humans learn efficiently to make decisions in a complex, dynamic, and uncertain environment” is still a very open question.

It is first essential to understand – and confess – our human weakness in the “thinking” part. We crash planes because our human brain is not rational by design. We are “optimizers”  and proceed by “satisficing,” a term coined by AI pioneer Herbert Simon. We achieve “good enough” and push optimistically forward, with resilience and flexibility. This attribute has led to our incredible success in populating every diverse environment on the planet and launching rockets to the moon. As decision-makers, we have adapted to be optimistic and aggressive (92% of drivers think they are “better than average!”) For years economists predicated human behavior based on the Renaissance “Rational Man Model.”  But both Herbert Simon and later Daniel Kahneman won Nobel prizes in “Behavioral Economics” by demonstrating how “predictably irrational” humans are when making decisions.

We do not perceive reality precisely. Every individual senses and assembles a different world through a personal lens of need and intention; “predictive perception.” Then we stereotype that input data into pre-existing categories relying on past experiences (which we recreate like impressionistic painters) to create a personal understanding; “magical thinking.” Decisions are then often colored with our many cognitive biases and emotional needs developing procedures based on “successes” rather than objective standards “normalizing deviance.” If we thought accurately and decided rationally no person would ever buy another lottery ticket and we would all aggressively leverage compound interest like Warren Buffet. But in a totally rational world, there would be no incredible optimism and energy creating innovation and growth (and probably no art, fashion and culture). Our “magical thinking” motivates human success in many fields but sucks for facts, science and statistics (and sometimes flying).

We have to apply the discipline of P-A-V-E and 3P to be safe in flying. There is no room for rosy optimism or complacency in flying (I personally go hard on people who count on “luck” too) Decision making has to be systematic and conform to reality (gravity never sleeps). To be safe we have to visualize and account for the worst outcomes and surprises; “what if?” This “evil agent viewpoint” is something every good flight instructor must encourage and *always* be helping their pilot-in-training to understand. (though not for the first five hours please – that is all “sunshine and light” – building confidence and comfort). During X-C planning, I also encourage the 3D rule for X-C planning; “Delay, Divert, Drive” as a simple impediment to “launching with doubt.” Moving the timeline is one of the most successful strategies for flight safety; later or tomorrow? And few people in the GPS (“Going Perfectly Straight”) world realize the huge benefit of “rubber-banding” a planned course even a little to gain better alternate options below (and the time penalty is surprisingly minimal). If there is doubt about the take-off or plan it probably needs “3D” modification and maybe a scrub. “A pilot in motion tends to stay in motion…”

Once en route, the “3R rule of alternates” is a huge benefit to encourage wise options and defeat the “mission mentality” we see so often in the “accident chain.” A good alternate must be psychologically desirable. It should have a good Restaurant, Radar (ATC resources), and Rental Cars. If an alternate is somewhere you *want* to go, there will be less “get there itis”  pushing the flight down that fatal accident funnel. There will be no sense of personal failure in this diversion; you already want to end up there (and the passengers will enjoy it too)! Share the 3Ds and 3Rs with your flight students and people you mentor and see if it doesn’t help keep planes out of the trees? Defeat human “magical thinking” and apply disciplined decision making to your flying. Be safe out there!


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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