Aeronautical Decision Making

Aeronautical Decision Making

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) is a systematic approach to the mental process used by airplane pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances. The importance of learning effective ADM skills cannot be overemphasized. While progress is continually being made in the advancement of pilot training methods, airplane equipment and systems, and services for pilots, accidents still occur. Despite all the changes in technology to improve flight safety, one factor remains the same, the human factor. It is estimated that approximately 75 percent of all aviation accidents are human factors related.

Human Factors—The study of how people interact with their environments. In the case of general aviation, it is the study of how pilot performance is influenced by such issues as the design of cockpits, the function of the organs of the body, the effects of emotions, and the interaction and communication with the other participants of the aviation community, such as other crewmembers and air traffic control personnel.

Historically, the term “pilot error” has been used to describe the causes of these accidents. Pilot error means that an action or decision made by the pilot was the cause, or a contributing factor that led to the accident. This definition also includes the pilot’s failure to make a decision or take action. From a broader perspective, the phrase “human factors related” more aptly describes these accidents since it is usually not a single decision that leads to an accident, but a chain of events triggered by a number of factors.

The poor judgment chain, sometimes referred to as the “error chain,” is a term used to describe this concept of contributing factors in a human factors-related accident. Breaking one link in the chain normally is all that is necessary to change the outcome of the sequence of events. The following is an example illustrating the poor judgment chain.


An understanding of the decision-making process provides a pilot with a foundation for developing ADM skills. Some situations, such as engine failures, require a pilot to respond immediately using established procedures with little time for detailed analysis. Traditionally, pilots have been well trained to react to emergencies, but are not as well prepared to make decisions requiring a more reflective response. Typically during a flight, there is time to examine any changes that occur, gather information, and assess risk before reaching a decision. The steps leading to this conclusion constitute the decisionmaking process.


Problem definition is the first step in the decisionmaking process. Defining the problem begins with recognizing that a change has occurred or that an expected change did not occur. A problem is perceived first by the senses, then is distinguished through insight and experience. These same abilities, as well as an objective analysis of all available information, are used to determine the exact nature and severity of the problem.

One critical error that can be made during the decision- making process is incorrectly defining the problem. For example, a low oil pressure reading could indicate that the engine is about to fail and an emergency landing should be planned, or it could mean that the oil pressure sensor has failed. The actions to be taken in each of these circumstances would be significantly different. Fixating on a problem that does not exist can divert attention from important tasks. The pilot’s failure to maintain an awareness of the circumstances regarding the flight now becomes the problem. This is why once an initial assumption is made regarding the problem, other sources must be used to verify that the conclusion is correct.

While on a cross-country flight, a pilot discovered that fuel consumption was significantly higher than predicted during flight planning. By noticing this discrepancy, change has been recognized. Based on insight, crosscountry flying experience, and knowledge of airplane systems, the pilot considers the possibility that there might be enough fuel to reach the destination. Factors that may increase the fuel burn rate could include environmental factors, such as higher-than-expected headwinds and lower-than-expected groundspeed. To determine the severity of the problem, recalculate the fuel consumption and reassess fuel requirements.


After the problem has been identified, the pilot must evaluate the need to react to it and determine the actions that may be taken to resolve the situation in the time available. The expected outcome of each possible action should be considered and the risks assessed before deciding on a response to the situation.

The pilot determines there is insufficient fuel to reach the destination, and considers other options, such as turning around and landing at a nearby airport that has been passed, diverting off course, or landing prior to the destination at an airport on the route. The expected outcome of each possible action must be considered along with an assessment of the risks involved. After studying the aeronautical chart, the pilot concludes that there is an airport that has fueling services within the remaining fuel range along the route. The time expended for the extra fuel stop is a worthwhile investment to ensure a safe completion of the flight.


Although a decision may be reached and a course of action implemented, the decision-making process is not complete. It is important to think ahead and determine how the decision could affect other phases of the flight. As the flight progresses, the pilot must continue to evaluate the outcome of the decision to ensure that it is producing the desired result.

To implement the decision, the pilot determines the necessary course changes and calculates a new estimated time of arrival, as well as contacts the nearest flight service station to amend the flight plan and check weather conditions at the fuel stop. Proceeding to the airport, continue to monitor the groundspeed, fuel status, and the weather conditions to ensure that no additional steps need to be taken to guarantee the safety of the flight.

The decision-making process normally consists of several steps before choosing a course of action. To help remember the elements of the decision-making process, a six-step model has been developed using the acronym “DECIDE.” [Figure 1]

Detect the fact that a change has occurred.
Estimate the need to counter or react to the change.
Choose a desirable outcome for the success of the flight.
Identify actions which could successfully control the change.
Do the necessary action to adapt to the change.
Evaluate the effect of the action.
Figure 1. The DECIDE model can provide a framework for effective decision making.

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