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Acceptable Risk - Calculation or Emotion?

Posted 4 years 172 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

As a child, the value of the risk we would incur doing an activity was often measured by the spectators involved. Jumping a bicycle over a ditch brought a certain amount of fear, however the broken arm received as a result of such an attempt was looked upon as a badge of honor. Even as children, we justified risk through our belief that we could do what others could not or would not do.

Today we assess flight risk through Flight Risk Assessment Tools (FRAT) and other various risk-based systems to aid our decision-making to determine whether the risk incurred during a flight is acceptable or not. In many cases, the risk assessment scoring mechanism will reflect a color-coded or numeric based indicator of the risk involved.

Once risk is assessed and determined to be acceptable, we often cite that we’re “green” and all activity can move forward without further concern. In some cases, the risk assessment reflects an elevated risk level and requires some level of risk mitigation. In these cases, the score may receive a color of “yellow” which requires further planning and in many cases approval from others within the organization. Lastly, an unacceptable risk score receives a color of “red.”

Although effective to identify, assess, and mitigate acceptable risk, a simple calculation does not remove the human emotion from the equation. FRAT and other risk assessment tools provide an excellent mechanism to work through the external factors within a flight decision. There are many factors that drive pilots to make decisions or even question the outcome of a risk assessment tool. As humans, our innate belief that we are capable of something is compelling in the moment. These type of pressures may be shared among personality types, although they are often driven by internal factors that are as unique as fingerprints.

A desire to fly is the basis for a person to become a pilot. When this desire engages the corporate world, additional stressors are introduced and may influence a pilot’s decision-making process. The desire to fly, coupled with a desire to perform well based upon company related drivers, such as increased flight volume or revenue, may have devastating consequences.

Overcoming emotional drivers when determining acceptable risk is simply a life or death activity. Within many of the accidents in our industry we find the pilot accepted or continued beyond the point of no return with complete knowledge and understanding of the potential risk involved. In many cases, the risks identified in the FRAT process knowingly increased during the flight, yet the pilot continued. When risk is identified, assessed, potentially mitigated, and then accepted, every decision from that point is based upon the original level of risk. When any element of risk occurs on a flight that was not captured within the assessment—STOP THE FLIGHT and re-assess.

Dynamic or in-real-time risk re-calculation is often blurred by having already accepted the flight; it’s a purely emotional consideration and often the deadliest! Whether you’re a flight instructor, air medical pilot, or flying your personal helicopter, having the ability to STOP THE FLIGHT and accept dynamic changes no matter how far into the flight you are is the only clear path to survival!

Simply stated, the level of acceptable risk is determined by calculation. However, the risk engaged is always emotional. There is no badge of honor in a self-inflicted crash! 

About Randy:  Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.