A solid approach to decision-making is through the use of analytical models, such as the 5 Ps, 3P, and DECIDE. Good decisions result when pilots gather all available information, review it, analyze the options, rate the options, select a course of action, and evaluate that course of action for correctness.

Decision-Making in a Dynamic Environment
Figure 1. The DECIDE model has been recognized worldwide. Its application is illustrated in column A while automatic/naturalistic decision-making is shown in column B
In some situations, there is not always time to make decisions based on analytical decision-making skills. A good example is a quarterback whose actions are based upon a highly fluid and changing situation. He intends to execute a plan, but new circumstances dictate decision-making on the fly. This type of decision-making is called automatic decision-making or naturalized decision-making. [Figure 1]

Automatic Decision-Making

In an emergency situation, a pilot might not survive if he or she rigorously applies analytical models to every decision made as there is not enough time to go through all the options. Under these circumstances he or she should attempt to find the best possible solution to every problem.
For the past several decades, research into how people actually make decisions has revealed that when pressed for time, experts faced with a task loaded with uncertainty first assess whether the situation strikes them as familiar. Rather than comparing the pros and cons of different approaches, they quickly imagine how one or a few possible courses of action in such situations will play out. Experts take the first workable option they can find. While it may not be the best of all possible choices, it often yields remarkably good results.
The terms “naturalistic” and “automatic decision-making” have been coined to describe this type of decision-making. The ability to make automatic decisions holds true for a range of experts from firefighters to chess players. It appears the expert’s ability hinges on the recognition of patterns and consistencies that clarify options in complex situations. Experts appear to make provisional sense of a situation, without actually reaching a decision, by launching experience-based actions that in turn trigger creative revisions.
This is a reflexive type of decision-making anchored in training and experience and is most often used in times of emergencies when there is no time to practice analytical decision-making. Naturalistic or automatic decision-making improves with training and experience, and a pilot will find himself or herself using a combination of decision-making tools that correlate with individual experience and training.

Operational Pitfalls

Although more experienced pilots are likely to make more automatic decisions, there are tendencies or operational pitfalls that come with the development of pilot experience. These are classic behavioral traps into which pilots have been known to fall. More experienced pilots, as a rule, try to complete a flight as planned, please passengers, and meet schedules. The desire to meet these goals can have an adverse effect on safety and contribute to an unrealistic assessment of piloting skills. All experienced pilots have fallen prey to, or have been tempted by, one or more of these tendencies in their flying careers. These dangerous tendencies or behavior patterns, which must be identified and eliminated, include the operational pitfalls shown in Figure 2.
Decision-Making in a Dynamic Environment
Figure 2. Typical operational pitfalls requiring pilot awareness

Stress Management

Everyone is stressed to some degree almost all of the time. A certain amount of stress is good since it keeps a person alert and prevents complacency. Effects of stress are cumulative and, if the pilot does not cope with them in an appropriate way, they can 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 flight can be impaired by stress. There are two categories of stress—acute and chronic.
Factors referred to as stressors can increase a pilot’s risk of error in the flight deck. [Figure 3] Remember the cabin door that suddenly opened in flight on the Mooney climbing through 1,500 feet on a clear sunny day? It may startle the pilot, but the stress would wane when it became apparent the situation was not a serious hazard. Yet, if the cabin door opened in IMC conditions, the stress level makes significant impact on the pilot’s ability to cope with simple tasks. The key to stress management is to stop, think, and analyze before jumping to a conclusion. There is usually time to think before drawing unnecessary conclusions.
Decision-Making in a Dynamic Environment
Figure 3. System stressors. Environmental, physiological, and psychological stress are factors that affect decision-making skills. These stressors have a profound impact especially during periods of high workload
There are several techniques to help manage the accumulation of life stresses and prevent stress overload. For example, to help reduce stress levels, set aside time for relaxation each day or maintain a program of physical fitness. To prevent stress overload, learn to manage time more effectively to avoid pressures imposed by getting behind schedule and not meeting deadlines.

Use of Resources

To make informed decisions during flight operations, a pilot must also become aware of the resources found inside and outside the flight deck. Since useful tools and sources of information may not always be readily apparent, learning to recognize these resources is an essential part of ADM training. Resources must not only be identified, but a pilot must also develop the skills to evaluate whether there is time to use a particular resource and the impact its use will have upon the safety of flight. For example, the assistance of ATC may be very useful if a pilot becomes lost, but in an emergency situation, there may be no time available to contact ATC.

Internal Resources

One of the most underutilized resources may be the person in the right seat, even if the passenger has no flying experience. When appropriate, the PIC can ask passengers to assist with certain tasks, such as watching for traffic or reading checklist items. The following are some other ways a passenger can assist:
  • Provide information in an irregular situation, especially if familiar with flying. A strange smell or sound may alert a passenger to a potential problem.
  • Confirm after the pilot that the landing gear is down.
  • Learn to look at the altimeter for a given altitude in a descent.
  • Listen to logic or lack of logic.
Also, the process of a verbal briefing (which can happen whether or not passengers are aboard) can help the PIC in the decision-making process. For example, assume a pilot provides a lone passenger a briefing of the forecast landing weather before departure. When the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) is picked up, the weather has significantly changed. The discussion of this forecast change can lead the pilot to reexamine his or her activities and decision-making. [Figure 4] Other valuable internal resources include ingenuity, aviation knowledge, and flying skill. Pilots can increase flight deck resources by improving these characteristics.
Decision-Making in a Dynamic Environment
Figure 4. When possible, have a passenger reconfirm that critical tasks are completed
When flying alone, another internal resource is verbal communication. It has been established that verbal communication reinforces an activity; touching an object while communicating further enhances the probability an activity has been accomplished. For this reason, many solo pilots read the checklist out loud; when they reach critical items, they touch the switch or control. For example, to ascertain the landing gear is down, the pilot can read the checklist. But, if he or she touches the gear handle during the process, a safe extension of the landing gear is confirmed.
It is necessary for a pilot to have a thorough understanding of all the equipment and systems in the aircraft being flown. Lack of knowledge, such as knowing if the oil pressure gauge is direct reading or uses a sensor, is the difference between making a wise decision or poor one that leads to a tragic error.
Checklists are essential flight deck internal resources. They are used to verify the aircraft instruments and systems are checked, set, and operating properly, as well as ensuring the proper procedures are performed if there is a system malfunction or in-flight emergency. Students reluctant to use checklists can be reminded that pilots at all levels of experience refer to checklists, and that the more advanced the aircraft is, the more crucial checklists become. In addition, the pilot’s operating handbook (POH) is required to be carried on board the aircraft and is essential for accurate flight planning and resolving in-flight equipment malfunctions. However, the most valuable resource a pilot has is the ability to manage workload whether alone or with others.

External Resources

ATC and flight service specialists are the best external resources during flight. In order to promote the safe, orderly flow of air traffic around airports and, along flight routes, the ATC provides pilots with traffic advisories, radar vectors, and assistance in emergency situations. Although it is the PIC’s responsibility to make the flight as safe as possible, a pilot with a problem can request assistance from ATC. [Figure 5] For example, if a pilot needs to level off, be given a vector, or decrease speed, ATC assists and becomes integrated as part of the crew. The services provided by ATC can not only decrease pilot workload, but also help pilots make informed in-flight decisions. The Flight Service Stations (FSSs) are air traffic facilities that provide pilot briefing, en route communications, VFR search and rescue services, assist lost aircraft and aircraft in emergency situations, relay ATC clearances, originate Notices to Airmen (NOTAM), broadcast aviation weather and National Airspace System (NAS) information, receive and process IFR flight plans, and monitor navigational aids (NAVAIDs). In addition, at selected locations, FSSs provide En Route Flight Advisory Service (Flight Watch), issue airport advisories, and advise Customs and Immigration of transborder flights. Selected FSSs in Alaska also provide TWEB recordings and take weather observations.
Decision-Making in a Dynamic Environment
Figure 5. Controllers work to make flights as safe as possible