Editors Briefing: A Reckoning With Risk

Editors Briefing: A Reckoning With Risk

Last week, my husband and I took our annual flying getaway to the Out Islands of the Bahamas. The trip one-way is approximately 1,400 nm between our home airport in Kansas City, ending at an island 350 nm southeast from the coast of Florida. It’s a route we know pretty well. For the return trip home, we reasoned that we could make the entire journey – including clearing customs in Fort Pierce, FL – in a single day. The weather wasn’t entirely cooperating, as a front stretched across our route. But with some route deviations, it looked doable. We had two IFR-current and experienced pilots in the cockpit who fly together often and use good CRM practices. The airplane was well-equipped and functioning perfectly. Plus, we had plenty of weather and situational awareness tools at our fingertips.

What were the risks? We might be delayed at the departure airport in the Bahamas. (They operate on island time.) Getting through U.S. customs and refueling could take longer than anticipated. The weather might not conform to the forecast. We would be landing after dark. Finally, it would be a very long duty day, therefore fatigue could be a factor. An adage we both fly by: Always have an out. Ours was that we could land and call it a day if the forecasted rain showers developed into a line of thunderstorms. Or if we felt fatigue creeping in.

Get-there-itis, or the overpowering desire to complete a mission, is one of the most insidious dangers to safety that pilots of all aircraft and experience levels must reckon with. It can play tricks with your mind, tempt you to bend your own personal minimums, and convince you to downplay or minimize risks. Often, it applies pressure without you even realizing it. You can deny that it has an effect on your decision-making, but often it does, especially when the risks are more gray than black and white. 

I, probably like you, strive to fly to a high professional standard. As aviation safety author/speaker/authority Tony Kern has written, airmanship requires discipline, skill, proficiency, and our knowledge of self, aircraft, environment and risk. I really like that first word: discipline. Given a set of circumstances, your approach to a situation should be nearly the same each time. Solid airmanship leads to good judgment. Get-there-itis is not invited to the party.

As we flight-planned the evening before, we put our decision to the test using a Flight Risk Assessment Tool, or FRAT. While there are plenty of FRAT tools out there – the FAA offers one on its website – the Malibu M-Class Owners & Pilots Association (MMOPA) has developed an easy-to-use FRAT for the iOS. It’s free to download and use from the App Store. Although it is specifically designed with the PA46 in mind, a pilot of any aircraft can use and apply it. 

You may recall that MMOPA was born out of a spate of accidents that occurred in the early 1990s.The initial organization represented PA46 owners and participated in the NTSB and FAA’s investigation, testing and review of the PA46, which found that proper training and pilot education were the real issues. Since that time, MMOPA has been a champion of safety, training and education for PA46 owners. The MMOPA FRAT is one of a number of safety tools the organization is building out in 2018.

The FRAT highlights risks and causes us to think about the flight we are about to take. Humans tend to compartmentalize individual hazards, which leads us to not appreciate their cumulative effects. Quantifying the risks gives us an objective perspective of the flight we are contemplating and encourages us to think of ways we can mitigate the risks. The FRAT asks you to answer questions regarding pilot qualifications and experience, the operating environment and the equipment you will be flying. After you complete the FRAT, you get a score that falls within three ranges: 1) Green or go; 2) Yellow or caution; the pilot should carefully consider ways to mitigate some of the risks, and 3) Red or stop; unless you can change some of the risks (delay departure; add a co-pilot), scrub the flight.

Can you “hack” the FRAT? Of course. It won’t stop you from fudging a number here and there to get the outcome you desire. But its job is not to be your mother or your CFI. If you are serious about flying to the highest professional standard (and we all are, right?), you will be mercilessly honest with yourself. No fudging. No hacking.

After running our proposed flight through the FRAT, our result was yellow or Caution. After some meaningful discussion, we decided not to not commit to the entire trip initially: We would get underway and re-evaluate once we cleared customs in Florida. Turns out the weather was mostly benign, our quick-turn in Florida was fairly quick, ATC gave us favorable routing and the trip went as planned. The only hiccup was that surface winds in Kansas City were gusting +25 kts., and not aligned with either runway. The post-frontal winds were whipping up harder than forecasted. We had a hint of what was to come by monitoring the METARs west and north of our destination, but it wasn’t something we were thrilled to take on after a 14-hour duty day. 

The next morning, we spent some time over coffee dissecting our decision-making. Although the flight was completely safe and legal, it turned out to be a long day ending with a challenging landing. Perhaps next year we will stretch the trip home by an extra day…I hear there is some good baseball in Florida that time of year.

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