The Awkward Decision

There has been much written about the responsibility and authority of the Pilot In Command (PIC) when it comes to in-flight decision-making. It’s been said and repeated so many times that it has become almost a cliché. The Pilot In Command is, of course, the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft, and may deviate from any rule in an emergency in order to ensure the safe outcome of his or her flight.

In aviation textbooks and papers written on the subject of Aeronautical Decision Making and Crew Resource Management, there are tables, graphs, and matrixes to help create a decision-making process which will guide the pilot and produce a safe, efficient and satisfactory response to emergency and abnormal situations. In this ideal and objective world, the pilot simply inputs the data into the top of the decision tree, and the matrix spits out the proper solution, which the pilot then executes and evaluates.

The Decision-Making Process – The DECIDE Model
The DECIDE model….it should be so simple!

That being said, there is another factor at play when things go slightly sideways with an airplane’s systems or another abnormal situation occurs: the social factor. “What will they think of me and my actions?”

With this in mind, I am reminded of a flight a few months ago, into a busy Chicago airport. It was a beautiful day, with light winds and a high scattered layer, exposing glimpses of the clear blue sky above. While there seemed to be no actual bluebirds, one could almost hear them singing. Anyway, as we made ready to land on the southbound runway, still with Approach control, I heard a slightly cautious voice chime in on frequency “Chicago Approach, Piper 42 Foxtrot?” (I can’t remember the actual tail number, but let’s go with it). “42 Fox, Chicago. Go ahead”. “42 Foxtrot, student pilot on a solo cross-country. I’m about 15 miles Northwest and I’m considering returning to land.” “42 Fox, you’re considering returning to land, or you are returning to land?” “42 Foxtrot, I just have some light on the annunciator panel which I have not seen before, and I’m not sure if I should continue…”

At this point, much to my chagrin, we were switched over to Tower, diverting my attention from the story unfolding on Approach frequency. Having plenty of experience in the student pilot’s airplane from my flight training days, I was thinking that I might be able to render assistance in troubleshooting and resolving whatever systems problem or indication may be occurring. However, as we switched to Tower I reminded myself that complicating matters with my input would probably just confound the pilot’s decision-making process, and that she would decide what to do based on her training.

As we taxied in, I thought about the social pressures that student pilot must feel, along with the self-doubt and the narrative which might be running through her head as she made the initial callup: “What if this indication isn’t really a problem, and my instructor taught me about it before but I’ve forgotten? He’ll think I’m not fit to fly if I return.” “Should I be able to press on with this indication? The airplane is flying just fine right now. Would a real pilot keep going?” “Does Air Traffic Control think I don’t know what I’m doing?” Outside of the official decision-making matrix, there is a wide expanse of grey area, where social, internal and environmental factors play a role. A subtle web of resistance created by everything from the culture at the flight school (“sure, there are a few things broken on the airplane, but we always make the flights happen”) to the pilot’s own feelings of self-confidence with regard to flying. What if she returns to land after cutting her first solo cross-country flight short and tells her instructor what happened, only to have him turn on the alternator switch that she forgot? The other students might think she’s no good, and the other instructors will think her instructor isn’t teaching her well enough, as evidenced by her poor performance! These are scenarios which could run through any student (or other) pilot’s head when facing a decision which requires doing something a little outside of the norm, like returning for landing shortly after departure.

While experienced pilots might have more practice in breaking through this web, how would our fresh student pilot handle it? These factors affect all pilots to some degree, and the student pilot might be more vulnerable to these pressures than others.

With these thoughts in mind, we deplaned our passengers, unloaded the baggage, paid our ramp fee and prepared to depart once again. As we prepared to taxi out, I saw a green Piper trainer land on the runway in use; it looked like a greaser. When the pilot called for taxi on Ground Control frequency, I recognized the voice of the student pilot from before. She calmly requested to taxi to the flight school. Not being able to help myself any longer, I keyed up on Ground and said (as though my input were requested or required) “42 Fox, sounds like you made a good decision to return.” “Thank you”, replied the student, sounding relieved to have some backup, if only from a stranger on the radio.

So what, in fact, was the indication which caused our student pilot adventurer to return for landing? Was it a true safety issue? A pilot oversight? Indication error? I never found out, but it actually does not matter. The decision was made by the pilot to return for landing; this resulted in a safe outcome. In the face of all the pressures, real or perceived, external or internal, this student pilot had pushed through these factors and finally keyed the mic to make sure that she would reach the desired outcome.

As happens occasionally, we could all learn from this student pilot and the example of her decision. While it seems simple when looking in from the outside, in the real world, these decisions are usually not cut-and-dried like in the textbooks. Our challenge is to make each decision less like a writing exercise, and more like math, removing or at least ignoring the subjective narratives to see more clearly the path forward.

Sometimes simpler is better.

Fly safely!