Aeronautical decision-making


The concept of "aeronautical decision making" can be broken down into its semantinc components, resulting in something like "making a decision on flight". This implies firstly that it is a concept used in aviation, namely in the operation end of controlling an aircraft (thus, most relevant to pilots). Secondly, it relates to making (wise) decisions while operating an aircraft. Thirdly, it also implies it is a concept geared towards action, rather than a purely cognitive process.

In this context, the concept is used with the meaning "1a: the act or process of deciding" although it does not necessarily precludes "1b: a determination arrived at after consideration: conclusion <make a decision>." (Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 20094). The former meaning is the closest to action, thus, decision making means not only decide on something but also take appropriate steps to bring that decision into practice (e.g. following standard operating procedures). This can be done without much determination. The second meaning implies that some thought has being put into making a good selection of a course of action among alternatives (e.g. whether to divert to airport A or B in case of an emergency, or whether to de-ice an aircraft sitting on icing conditions or not).

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, 20073) defines Aeronautical Decision-Making as "a systematic approach to the mental process used by pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances".


Flying safely requires the effective integration of three skills; 1: Stick and rudder skills. 2: proficiency in instruments and aircraft systems, lastly 3: ADM skills to initiate and conduct safe flight operations (FAA, 2007 Bibliography item 2007 not found.).
Despite the advances in aircraft systems technology, automation, training methods, and many other approaches directed at enhancing aviation safety, human decision making remains a critical issue in aviation safety. Thus, the FAA has initiated numerous programs to reduce, or eliminate, the plausible factors that contribute to decision making errors by pilots (Emich, 2005 2). Additionally, decision making training plays a significant role towards the safer flight and has had a positive impact on pilot performance. Study shows that decision training reduces pilot errors. Adams (19931) documented accident rate reductions about 50% when compared pilot groups with and without decision making training. Additionally, along with training, design and implementation of better information displays and human- computer interfaces are equally important. This is highlighted by the research carried out by Perezgonzalez & Lee (2009). In this research, most student pilots wanted information like; on-board display, navigation charts, airspace functionality & TCAS functionality in their aircraft. For more details see Ergonomization needs of student pilots. This will aid in ADM because more often pilots make a decision based on the ambiguity and completeness of information that s/he has at hand. Improving the content and presentation of those information can improve and facilitate the better aeronautic decision making process.

Theoretical framework

The ADM process addresses all aspects of decision-making on the flight deck that influence the pilots’ ability to identify, manage, and minimize,
the effects threats and errors. The main ideas of ADM are:

•Identifying personal attitudes hazardous to flight safety
•Learning behavior modification techniques
•Learning how to recognize and cope with stress
•Developing risk assessment skills
•Using all resources available.
•Evaluating ADM skills among crews

The ADM Process

Defining the Problem
Problem identification is the first active step in the ADM process. It begins when a change has occurred or an expected change did not occur. It is firstly detected by the pilots’ senses (perception) and then through other systems like knowledge, insight or personal experiences (recognition). One of the main threats in this part of the process is that Pilot’s often commit the error of incorrectly defining the problem. In many situations a problem is not clearly defined, it may have two or more possible interpretations, each requiring a different, and often conflicting, course of action. Thus, the use of experience, knowledge and the appropriate resources are required to ensure the problem is correctly determined prior to decision-making.

Choosing a Course of Action
Evaluation must be done in order to ensure the correct course of action is identified to solve the defined problem. This process can include reference to manuals, or brainstorming within the crew to evaluate actions and the outcome of each appropriate action. This stage is critical in order to decide the response to the situation.

Pilots will enter this stage after choosing a course of action to be implemented for the defined problem. It is critical for pilots to think ahead about the aftermath of the action chosen. After implementation, vigilance must be maintained at a high level in order to evaluate the outcome of the action, and to determine that it is producing the desired effect.
(Adapted from FAA, 2007Bibliography item 2007 not found.)

Factors Affecting ADM

It is important to point out that being familiar with the decision-making process does not ensure good judgment or create a safe pilot. The ability to make effective decisions as pilot in command depends on a number of factors. Some circumstances, such as the time available to make a decision may be beyond pilot’s control. However, one can learn to recognize factors that can be managed, and learn skills to improve decision-making ability and judgment.

Pilot Self Assessment
The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft. To effectively exercise that responsibility and make effective decisions regarding the outcome of a flight, a pilot should be aware of personal limitations. Performance during a flight is affected by many factors, such as health, currency of experience, knowledge, skill level, and attitude. Exercising good judgment begins prior to taking the controls of an aircraft and are based on many considerations. Key Decision Points (KDP's) will help to make 'Go/ No Go' decision before the flight helping towards better ADM. For more details see Key Decision Points. Often, pilots thoroughly check their airplane to determine airworthiness, and also evaluate their own fitness for flight by carrying out IMSAFE checklist. For more detail information see IMSAFE.

Recognizing Hazardous Attitude
Being fit to fly depends on more than just a pilot’s physical condition and currency of experience. Attitude can be defined as a personal motivational predisposition to respond to persons, situations, or events in a given manner. Hazardous attitudes can lead to poor decision making and actions that involve unnecessary risk. The pilot must examine decisions carefully to ensure that the choices have not been influenced by hazardous attitudes and be familiar with positive alternatives to counteract the hazardous attitudes. These substitute attitudes are referred to as “antidotes”. During a flight operation, it is important to be able to recognize a hazardous attitude, correctly label the thought, and then recall its “antidote”.

Stress Management
Everyone experiences stress, to some degree, almost all the time. A certain amount of stress is good since it keeps a person alert and prevents complacency. However, the effects of stress are cumulative and, if not coped with adequately, eventually add up to an intolerable burden. Performance generally increases with the onset of stress, peaks, and then begins to fall off rapidly as stress levels exceed a person’s ability to cope. The ability to make effective decisions during a flight can be impaired by stress. Factors, referred to as stressors, can increase a pilot’s risk of error in the cockpit so it is important for the pilot to recognize and manage these factors before they impinge on performance.

Use of Internal & External Resources
To make informed decisions during flight operations, a pilot must become aware of the resources found both inside and outside the cockpit. Since useful tools and sources of information may not always be readily apparent, learning to recognize and access these resources is an essential part of ADM training. Resources must not only be identified, but a pilot must develop the skills to evaluate whether there is time to use a particular resource and the impact that its use will have upon flight safety. Internal resources are items like instruments, procedures, checklist, thorough understanding of equipment and systems (autopilot, navaids) and shared knowledge by the crew, while external resources refers to ATC, Flight dispatchers, etc.

Workload Management
Effective workload management ensures that essential operations are accomplished by planning, prioritizing, and sequencing tasks to avoid work overload. As experience is gained, a pilot learns to recognize future workload requirements and prepare for high workload periods during times of low workload. Reviewing the appropriate approach and landing charts and setting radio frequencies well before these high workload parts of a flight helps reduce workload as the flight proceeds nearer to the airport. In addition, a pilot should listen to (Air Traffic Information Services) ATIS or (Automated Weather Observation System) AWOS, if available, and then monitor the tower frequency or (Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies) CTAF to get a good idea of what traffic conditions to expect. Checklists should be performed well in advance so there is time to focus on traffic and ATC instructions. Attention cannot be devoted to several tasks at one time, and as workload increases the pilot may begin to focus on one item. When this occurs a pilot becomes “task saturated”, there is no awareness of inputs from various sources, so decisions may be made on incomplete information, and the possibility of error increases. Recognizing these conditions and managing them before they impact on flight safety is an important aspect of ADM.

Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is the accurate perception of the operational and environmental factors that affect the aircraft, pilot, and passengers during a specific period of time. Maintaining situational awareness requires an understanding of the relative significance of these factors and their future impact on the flight.
(Adapted from Peterson,2006 5)

Models for Practicing ADM

3 Ps Model

The 3P model refers to Perceive-Process-Perform which is a simple and systematic approach that can be used for all phases of flight (FAA, 2007 Bibliography item 2007 not found.). Pilots have to “perceive” the given set of circumstances for a flight, “process” by evaluating their impact on flight safety and “perform” by implementing the best course of action. This 3P process begins anew with every set of circumstances as they occur during the flight. This model is a continuous loop aimed at keeping pilots vigilant and pro-active in maintaining safe flight.


The DECIDE Model for ADM is a six step process which provides a logical way to approach decision-making (FAA, 2007 Bibliography item 2007 not found.). This deductive reasoning model is taught to accomplish a good ADM and this method is useful for novice pilots but not necessarily represent advanced decision making abilities used by expert pilots. This is because of significant difference exist between the mental processing carried out by novice and experts in how they approach to problem solving/ decision making. Despite this, DECIDE model do enhance the conventional decision-making for novice pilots by increasing pilot awareness, teaching the ability to search for, and establish relevant information, as well as raising motivational levels used to choose, execute and monitor actions, thus leading to a safer process. The six steps are as follows and

Detect- Detection of changes
Estimate-Estimate the need for counter-measures or react to the change
Choose-Choose a safe outcome
Identify-Identification of actions which will successfully control the change
Do-Implement the chosen actions
Evaluate-Evaluate the effect of action in countering the change and progress of the flight

Practical use of ADM

There are several general questions a pilot must answer prior to conducting any flight operations to successfully improve safety. The recommendations below are adopted from Emich's, (2005 2) flight safety seminar in Texas, USA in 2005.

Is the aircraft worthy? Inspections, logbooks, checks? MEL or CDL issues?
Weather minimums? What are critical issues in the weather forecast or other TAFs, METARs, NOTAMs and INTAMs?
Are there any duty period, fatigue and stress issues with flight crews?
Flight Planning
Are the dispatch and flight planning issues highlighted? Payload, weight and balance calculations, recheck?
What is the purpose of flight? The differences between cargo and passenger flights might encourage pilots to become complacent about decision-making issues.
Duration of Flight
Do the distance and the time of the flight increase stressors or degrade performance in decision making, thus proper CRM is required to enhance safety in decision-making.

Further steps on ADM for pilots:

  1. Problem vigilance: Look for change in flight
  2. Problem Recognition: Discover the nature of problem and change in the status of flight and how it effects safety.
  3. Alternative Identification: Choosing a course of action. Identify a set of alternative courses of action to solve or avoid problem.
  4. Risk Analysis: Determine risk involved with each of the identified course of actions.
  5. Implement:Evaluate and re-assess if necessary.
1. Adams, R. (1993). Cognitive process in expert decision making. FL, USA. Advanced Aviation Concepts.
2. EMICH, M.C. (2005). Should We Be Making This Flight? A Guide to Aeronautical Decision-Making. Balloon Life April-May 2005
3. FAA. (2007). Instrument Flying Handbook. FAA-H-8083-15A. Jeppesen Boeing Company.
4. MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE DICTIONARY (2009). "Decision". Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Online on 15 Oct 2009.
5. PETERSON, B.D. (2006). Do the Right Thing. Decision Making for Pilots. Safety Advisory, Operations and Proficiency No: 11. AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Retrieved from

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