4 Principles of Risk Management From the FAA

2 min read
Mar 14, 2024

A day with clear skies and low winds doesn't automatically mean a risk-free flight.  

But how do you assess risks? Not many pilots have a robust mental framework that safeguards them from every risk, even ones they anticipate. It can put them in a challenging situation when things go wrong and require action

Maintaining a ready posture is crucial. That doesn't mean you should be filled with angst, but rather that you understand that every flight has risks and that you prepare yourself ahead of time for the worst of them. If you let your guard down, the risks can be self-induced.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) identifies six primary types of risk.

  • Total 
  • Identified
  • Unidentified
  • Unacceptable
  • Acceptable
  • Residual

Residual risks are particularly tricky. The FAA defines residual risks as those remaining after system safety efforts have been fully employed. That means even with all the right contingencies in place, there may be some gaps in the system for which you still can't account.

They underscore the importance of a dependable framework to assess risk and augment your decision-making for every flight. If your flight operations occur within departments or locations that require a formal process for risk mitigation, developing an additional framework on top of that is still best practice. 

So, how do you accomplish that? In the Aviation Instructors Handbook, the FAA outlines four principles of risk management worth considering. 

1. Accept no unnecessary risk. 

Naturally, every pilot should follow that principle, but human nature can goad us into doing silly things. 

Here's an unnecessary risk that pilots and students can avoid. If your first flight in a multiengine might occur during instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), perhaps that is too much adjustment, leading to overload. You would be better off delaying that flight until a more favorable time. 

While that flight might still be doable with an experienced flight instructor, the fundamental principle is "no unnecessary" risk. Every flight has risks, and the goal of safe and successful flights is only to accept the risks we are most comfortable with (i.e., reasonably acceptable ones).

2. Make risk decisions at the appropriate level. 

That means taking ownership of risks and assigning responsibility for executing risky situations. In the example above, while a new multiengine student might be eager to fly and find it thrilling to do it in IMC conditions, the instructor must take responsibility for managing the risk. 

Reasonably, the decision to put off the flight depends more on them than the student. This is important to remember. If you find yourself in a crunch, you should do your best to escalate risk decisions to personnel with more authority over the situation. 

However, regardless of the guidance you receive, you always have the option (and responsibility) as pilot in command to pull the plug on the flight. If you doubt your capabilities to do what is best, that is an early sign that you probably should pass on that flight. 

3. Accept risks when the benefits outweigh the costs. 

That means, as much as practical, there should be very little doubt about the outcome of conducting a flight. A simple example is knowing that a VFR day is better for practicing visual flight maneuvers over a marginal day.

4. Integrate risk management into planning at all levels.

Even with your best efforts on the ground, all bets are off the minute you start the airplane. Therefore, every step of the way, you must reevaluate your decision-making and be ready to forego even what you assumed was acceptable. 

For instance, if you planned to fly to an airport ahead of a storm but, once airborne, discovered that the conditions deteriorated faster than you planned, you should be flexible in changing your plan.

These are just some considerations in developing a risk management matrix or framework you can depend on each flight. Doing so will pay dividends.