The European Helicopter Safety Team (Ehest) has published a “training leaflet” for single-pilot operations, in a bid to curb accidents stemming from poor decision-making. The document highlights common errors and suggests strategies to prevent a pilot from being caught in a fatal spiral of events after having chosen the wrong option.
“The majority of fatal crashes are attributable to decision errors rather than perceptual or execution errors,” the authors say. In other words, the problem doesn’t lie with a pilot’s failure to execute a correct decision. Rather, it lies with the pilot’s poor judgment in making an incorrect decision at the outset.
The authors of the training kit identify several “hazardous attitudes” that increase the risk of poor decision-making. First, those with an anti-authority attitude tend to regard rules as unnecessary. Another hazardous attitude is impulsivity, leading people to act immediately without taking the time to think. Also noteworthy is the “macho/egocentric” attitude, which motivates pilots to take risks to impress others. Finally, under the “resignation” category, the authors point at those pilots who will go along with unreasonable requests, just to be “a nice guy.”
Then there are behavioral traps and biases. Among them is “emotional response to peers.” In this case, a solution offered by a peer is accepted without further assessment, even when this solution is wrong. The confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to discard evidence to the contrary.
Another bias is the tendency to take risks for which consequences are considered remote and unlikely, in exchange for immediate and direct benefits such as saving time.
The authors of the toolkit lay out strategies to prevent or cope with these attitudes. “Comply with standard operations procedures (SOPs),” “manage your workload” and “if an emergency occurs, stay calm” are among them. The Ehest also recommends pilots maintain a healthy lifestyle to minimize fatigue and the risk of incapacitation.
Among decision errors, one of the weightiest bad judgment calls is a decision to “go” in a “no-go” situation. What can lead to such choices? First, some cues can be ambiguous, impeding a good representation of the situation. In addition, pilots typically under-assess the level of threat, sometimes because of tolerance to risk, the Ehest asserts. Separately, workload and stress can overload pilots to the point that mental processes deteriorate, leading to tunneling of attention and memory limitation.
The Ehest refers to a decision-making model based on the “Observe, orientate, decide and act” stages. The “decide” stage hinges on the robustness of mental resources, which can be severely limited during periods of rapid change, underscoring the need for diligent preflight preparation.
Pilots should be better trained in strategies to improve decision-making abilities, the authors emphasize. Thorough planning conducted strategically before takeoff, in a lower-stress environment, rather than tactically under pressure in flight, sets the stage for a safer flight. The pilot can be proactive and plan ahead to select a safe route and establish “decision points” during each flight phase. Moreover, in carefully devised SOPs, “pre-planned responses must…break the chain of events that leads to accidents.” To be effective, SOPs must be clear, concise and unambiguous.
In addition, the Ehest recommends training in single-pilot cockpit resource management (SRM, a form of CRM for single-pilot operations), on threat and error management (TEM) and using simulators. SRM training helps the pilot to maintain situational awareness by better managing the flying and navigation tasks, the authors say. TEM training can be seen as a form of defensive flying, with the objective of detecting and managing threats and errors.
Finally, the authors recommend the use of simulators to allow pilots to explore the consequences of poor decisions safely. As simulators for light helicopters become more widely available, single-pilot operations may at last benefit from these devices.