Risk Elements

There are four risk elements to a general aviation operation:

  1. The Pilot: Risks associated with the pilot include attitude, recency of flight experience, knowledge of the airplane systems, illness, and fatigue.
  2. The Airplane: Inoperative equipment, performance limitations, and limitations of the airplane and its equipment.
  3. The Environment: Weather, closed runways or taxiways, wildlife, obstacles, and terrain are all environmental risks.
  4. The Operation: The purpose of the flight affects the pilot's decision making, which can add risk to a flight. A pilot should not allow motivation to get home, stay on schedule, or maintain an image to cause a higher risk to be allowed.

Risk Assessment

The risk elements must be continuously assessed before and during the flight. Knowing the risks allows the pilot to make the right decisions concerning how to manage that risk.

As the pilot, did I get enough rest last night? Do I have a cold? Do I generally feel ok and comfortable with all aspects of this flight?

When assessing the risk involved with the pilot, consider using the "IMSAFE" checklist.

  • I - Illness: Do I have any symptoms?
  • M - Medication: Have I taken any prescription or over the counter medications?
  • S - Stress: What environmental, physical, and psychological demands am I dealing with?
  • A - Alcohol: Have I had any alcohol within the last 24 hours?
  • F - Fatigue: Have I had enough rest?
  • E - Eating: Have I eaten properly to make me comfortable during the flight? Am I properly hydrated?

Think about risks associated with the airplane. Is all the equipment working properly? If not, what limitations are placed on the flight as a result of inoperative equipment? Are there any performance limitations placed on the airplane? Is the airplane's performance capabilities sufficient for the current and future conditions?

How about the environmental risks? Is the weather good enough? It is improving or deteriorating? Will the flight take us into night or over hazardous terrain? What would change if the flight were delayed? Are all the navigational aids I need for the flight operational? Are there any closures that could affect the flight?

Be aware of any operational risks. Is someone waiting to use the airplane? Would a delay or cancellation of this flight result in a someone being disappointed? How much pressure exists from a personal desire to get there? Are other pilots or passengers pressuring me that my image might be affected if make a conservative decision?

Managing the Risk

Once the risk has been assessed, decisions can be made about how to manage the risk. These decisions are specific to each situation. For example, maybe the longer and better lit runway has been closed at the planned destination airport. The remaining open runway at this airport is shorter and has no lighting aids to guide a pilot's visual descent for landing. Even though the airplane's performance charts indicate it is capable of landing on the shorter runway, the pilot decides it is more comfortable to change the destination to the nearby large international airport. The pilot in this scenario made this decision based on a realistic assessment of risks and limitations, and did not allow ego or a desire to please to influence the decision.

Another example might be a pilot who opts to take a more expensive, but better equipped airplane. Maybe that airplane has an autopilot or better avionics equipment. Or, maybe the cheaper airplane had inoperative equipment, without which the pilot was not comfortable.

If the risk cannot be managed to an acceptable and comfortable level, then the pilot is placed in the position of taking of delay or canceling the flight. For example, it may be necessary to take a delay and wait for improved weather or maintenance to fix some inoperative equipment. When choosing to delay a flight, remember to continuously analyze the impact of the delay on the risk elements.

The good decisions made by the pilot keep their flying safe, comfortable, and fun. There will be no way to prove after the fact that conservative decisions you have made in the past saved you from some stressful, uncomfortable, or emergency situation. However, when you have no such stories to share after years of flying, it is pretty reasonable that there was more to it than luck.