Decision Making

As a pilot, it’s important to realize how we make everyday decisions and how they apply to aeronautical decision making. In our day to day personal and professional lives decision making is a process based on how problems are framed. As workload & stress increase, our thought process tends to become less rational — it’s human nature.

To make rational decisions, we must be aware of the various negative thought processes and understand how they may effect us in our flying as well as our everyday life. Here are several irrational decision making tendencies to avoid:

Loss Aversion: When faced with a loss, most people would do anything to avoid it, leading them to become risk takers. Risk taking usually indicates the lack of a plan. Example: Insisting on flying yourself on vacation rather than taking an airliner even though hazardous weather conditions are predicted for both departing and return segments of your flight. (Accept the loss and make the prudent decision.)

Regret Theory: We often take additional risk to avoid acknowledging a previous error. Rather than admitting a mistake in judgment, we will postpone a corrective action. We accept greater risk in the hope that our previous misjudgment will go unnoticed. Example: I don’t want to acknowledge it was a mistake to take off, heading for potentially hazardous weather. (Acknowledge the initial mistake. Correct it; don’t compound it.)

Wishful Thinking: In a stressful situation we make decisions based on nothing more than the desire that things will work out. These decisions are rarely based on fact. Example: “It can’t be that bad – we’re so close to our destination, it’s
easier to continue than find a suitable place to land & wait out the bad weather.” (Yes, it really can be that bad, don’t fool yourself.)

Overconfidence: Studies have shown that 90% of all pilots consider themselves to be above average. The first mistake in a chain of events may be due to overconfidence. Example: Since we made it this far I know I have superior piloting skills and I can make it the rest of the way. (In fact, I was probably just lucky.)

Strength of an Idea: When focused on an original idea it may be hard to change it, even if totally wrong. Example: Failing to consider an alternate mode of travel due to unforeseen circumstances. (Situations change. Be willing to reassess).

Easy Way Out: Our brain can only process a certain amount of information, especially during crisis. At a point of input overload, we may take the path of least resistance even though it’s not the most logical/safe decision. Example: Low ceiling, high winds, low visibility. “I better get the plane on the ground because I can’t think what else to do.” (As long as you have fuel, you don’t have to put the plane on the ground at this moment. Go around, miss the approach, go somewhere where the sun is out. As long as you have fuel & a functional brain, you have options.)

If we realize these tendencies are a part of human nature, it is possible to establish “red flag” warning signals in our thought process to alert us when we fall prey to negative decision-making. Objective thinking & comprehensive training programs (such as WCFC programs) will help in developing a positive decision-making process.


  • USAA Magazine “The Psychology of Investing” Oct.2003
  • Flying Magazine “Dangerous Decision Making” by Jay Hopkins Feb.2004

These Safety Tips are provided by the WCFC Safety Committee. They are intended to stimulate thought and discussion about flight safety and do not necessarily represent club policy nor are they intended to replace instruction from a qualified instructor.

Decision Making