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Risk Assessments: Back to the Drawing Board

Posted 9 years 260 days ago ago by Admin


How many flight hours do you have? That’s a three. When was the last time you flew? Oh, that’s a five. Are you instrument qualified? Yes, well now you can minus two…is this really helpful? Are questions like these going to make you actually pause and think about what the real potential “gotchas” are on your flight? Will gaming a form like this provide any relevance to the big picture or influence your decision to go flying? Who comes up with these numbers? What do they know about what you do in the air wherever and whenever you fly?

That’s a lot of loaded questions, but the fact remains that flight risk assessment tools (FRAT) are very useful, however this is often negated by the fact that general aviation or small commercial operators do not optimally use them. Why? They appear to be very useful for larger organizations that have a proactive safety culture and healthy SMS, so why can’t the process be handed down readily and be embraced by the single pilot? Two words: BUY IN.

Building the FRAT house foundation

To solve this dilemma for private pilots and small commercial operators, let’s go back to the drawing board and think about who our target users are, how we educate them, and what is needed to achieve “buy in.”

First, and simple enough, the target user is anyone intending to use an aircraft for private or commercial use. Second, how do we educate them on the value of FRAT? Articles and safety campaigns are well intended, but that doesn’t put FRAT in the hands of the operator and show them how to really use them. So what do FRAT with training wheels look like?

To begin with, they need to be very simple and come with instructions as to what they are actually for. FRAT need to make a personal connection, even at the level where a flight student is discussing the plan prior to that first solo. However, if in the process a student is asked to just add and subtract “objective” numbers on a static FRAT form, what do you think is going to be the student’s motivation? That’s right, to do whatever it takes to make the instructor happy so they can get the keys to the plane and go flying. The sad reality is that many flight schools don’t even introduce formal risk assessments until the commercial level. Why? Even if they do begin earlier, you will likely encounter the same issues already stated above. In the U.S. training system where pilots become instructors to build hours, they will just fill out whatever form the school tells them to complete. They’ll “tick those blocks” so they can get back out there and continue building those precious flight hours. I have heard some instructors say, “Oh, that is stuff for the military or EMS, we don’t take unnecessary risks in flight training.” (Yes, that’s an actual quote.) Do those instructors read the accident trends from the NTSB?
We need less “objectivity”

What is needed to make risk management work is a bit more subjectivity. Yes, subjectivity. Whether it is a single pilot or an instructor helping a student, something needs to spark those “family chats” about what one is going to do next with an aircraft … even if it is only a chat with yourself. Effective FRAT spark discussion. This discussion may be carried onto the aircraft, creating a mindset to conduct aeronautical decision-making on a professional level. It’s even better if the discussion continues from in-flight to post-flight, but let’s take baby steps here.

Safety professionals know that purely subjective FRATs can be flawed in what they might produce, things like ego and optimism bias tend to creep in. Still, if the pilot is gaming the process to begin with, or not using a process at all, then the end result is the same.

Another big factor is to take the time to do this. We live in a society that constantly generates self-induced pressures and timelines, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. However, some things just take more time to get it right.

Mentor a safety mindset

So, up on the proverbial “drawing board” we now have some bullet points:

o    Buy in
o    Education
o    Subjectivity
o    Time

What is missing? Let’s try “mentorship.” If someone hands you a particularly evil looking tool, something that spins ridiculously fast and has lots of teeth, is it safe to say that without any mentorship the first thing that is likely to happen is that you will hurt yourself? (That would be my fate!) I believe this ethos applies nicely to risk assessment tools.
Flight instructors should demonstrate risk assessment at every opportunity, emulating a process to be duplicated when their students go off into the blue alone. They also should allow student pilots to learn and articulate their own perceptions of the hazards on flights. When encountering hazards in-flight, instructors should permit students to brainstorm mitigations, time permitting. Of course, sometimes a hazard is on a constant bearing with decreasing range; that may not be the best time for a chat. In my experience, the preflight discussion can provide a foundation for real-time brainstorming (aeronautical decision- making) by caging a mindset from the outset to constantly be on the look out for potential hazards.

There’s an app for FRAT



The illustrated iPad app, iFRAT, lets you pick applicable hazards that are categorized as green, amber and red. It then requires you to subjectively move risk factor slide bars to correlate with the level of risk. The program then uses an algorithm to give an overall rating, which can be adjusted if you disagree. You then add in additional notes.

This interactive process makes it exceedingly difficult to move that risk slide bar without thinking about the risk factors that have been identified, shown as Quick Texts (QTs) or added as personal notes. Once selected, the QTs are very visible and the colors are compelling. I have witnessed several times where pilots would move the slide bar, think about it, move it again, and sometimes even again until they felt it aligned with the risk factors they identified. This method has proven highly effective at getting pilots to internalize risk and really think about it. Understand that a product such as this is intended for a diverse audience with a wide array of knowledge, skills, and abilities. One party’s objective assessment has little meaning to the next if their experience bases are not the same, hence the emphasis on subjectivity.




Flight department environments

Finally, let’s look at FRAT in flight department environments, when a department flies for company X or public agency Y. In such scenarios, the company establishes their thresholds for risk and designates who has the authority to accept this risk. In this sort of scenario you begin to see the model of a scoring sheet with set values and critical decision thresholds. This is where you move towards having the resources to properly determine these values and thresholds for the organization. A green threshold could mean the PIC has full autonomy to launch. Amber requires the PIC and Chief Pilot to discuss the mission. Red requires owner approval. (After all, it is their aircraft.) Tools like iFRAT are not currently designed for this environment. However, the app platform could be easily modified to meet the requirements of such an environment.
Getting operators to “buy in” means instilling in them an appreciation for using a process proven to work for “high-reliability organizations.” However, achieving this means going back to the drawing board and making risk assessment tangible from the first day of flying. Only then does it become engrained into everyday flight activities.