AINsight: Don't Underestimate External Pressure

 - January 29, 2020, 8:55 AM

Every time an accident happens, a number of factors come into play, and when the investigative report comes out, we often find out which ones played a significant role. But it seems that short shrift still is given to what may be a most significant factor: external pressures.

There are accidents where overt external pressure was certainly a factor, for example a fatal 2001 Gulfstream III charter crash in Aspen during which the cockpit voice recorder captured the customer urging the pilot to try to land despite the late hour and poor visibility, not to mention the illegality of such a move. Any crew flying an emergency medical flight suffers from enormous external pressure. And in fact, all flights have a measure of external pressure, because, without a certain dedication to reaching the destination, no flight would be successful.

No matter what form it takes, pilots must be trained early on how to deal with external pressure, and their employers must make a concerted effort to explain their policies with regard to dealing with external pressure.

NetJets is an excellent example of a company that backs its pilots up and trusts their judgment when it comes to safety decisions. The company makes a point of clearly explaining to customers—many of whom are famous celebrities—that the ultimate safety decision is the pilot’s and that customers are not permitted to try to pressure pilots into breaking the rules.

The key to dealing with external pressure in aviation, as explained in excellent detail by John and Martha King in the King Schools CFI renewal program that I’m in the middle of right now, is to think about these issues ahead of time. By the time the pressure comes to bear during a flight, often with other issues piling on more pressure, the pilot will likely be too overwhelmed to make the proper decision.

Going back to aeromedical accidents, it seems that there are a significant number that involves pilots pushing into worsening weather conditions and trying to maintain VFR when the weather is clearly IFR. 
I have no personal knowledge of the pilots’ decision making in these accidents, but the fact that they are carrying patients whose lives are at stake seems to be a significant factor in deciding to press on into awful weather conditions. Would it make sense to train pilots not to think about the patient but just on getting from Point A to B safely?

This certainly could prevent some accidents, but is it realistic?

It’s been shown many times that adhering precisely to regulations is a good way to slow down an operation. In real life, there is a fine line between staying legal and being expeditious in order to complete the mission. I’m not suggesting that the only way to reach a destination is to break the rules, but real-life decision making for pilots is not clearly defined, and pilots have to use their judgment in a dynamic environment, constantly making decisions that enable successful completion of a flight.

An example illustrates this dichotomy. FAA rules clearly specify how far away aircraft must be from clouds. But what is the definition of a cloud? Where is the fine line between cloud and regular air? If a pilot flies too close to an area of poor visibility, is he or she breaking the cloud-clearance rules?

Nevertheless, any flight where skirting close to the edges of the regulations comes into play adds enormous pressure on the pilot. Dealing with this external pressure, whether from a passenger or the boss or a pilot’s own personal pride, is a big factor in reducing the safety margins of a flight.

The best way to deal with external pressure is to consider it ahead of time and game plan on how to minimize it in order to make the flight safe. The King Schools course helpfully explains this and shows how pilots can prepare passengers before a flight, managing their expectations so that a decision for safety is well understood and appreciated.

I’m pretty sure that most passengers wouldn’t balk if their pilot told them that the flight needed to be cut short in order for them all to stay alive. But if the pilot had brought this up before taking off, the passengers would feel much more comfortable about any subsequent safety-related decision, and the pilot would face much less pressure when making that decision and not allow the fame of the passenger or the urgency of the mission to cloud his or her judgment.