Fit to Fly: A New Pilot's Guide to Making the Right Decision

6 min read
Aug 26, 2019

Bad decisions are made every day and in every field. Twelve publishers turned down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel. Bad decision. They filled the Hindenburg with hydrogen. Really bad decision. Ten actors turned down roles in one of the most profitable movie franchises in history, Star Wars*. Ten really bad decisions.  And, of course, one of the biggest marketing faux pas, Ford Motor Company named a vehicle “The Probe.”

In any profession, these types of decisions can create discomfort, waste money, and cause decision-makers to live with regret. Unfortunately, in aviation, some bad decisions don’t allow us to live at all. We have to learn from the mistakes made by others.

While the potential for bad decisions exists at every stage during a flight, the decision-making process as a pilot starts when you roll out of bed, saunter off to the bathroom, rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. Yep, your decision to fly today begins before the flush of the toilet.  Ask yourself, did you get your normal hours of uninterrupted sleep? Do you feel rested and ready to aviate? While fatigue may settle in as your day progresses, you want to at least start the day fully rested. Remember, it’s estimated that fatigue is a contributing factor to approximately 15% of aircraft accidents. Your prescription for a safe flight starts with a fully rested brain. But that is only one aspect of your evaluation. 

For the newly initiated, you will find that aviation is full of acronyms (second only to the world of text messaging). BTW, while you can LOL with your FWB and might even ROFLOL, the fact is YOLO.  Yes, You Only Live Once. There are no do-overs for critically bad piloting decisions. Fortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration devises checklists to keep you safe before and during every flight. One of its most popular, IMSAFE, is a well-tested, self-assessment of your readiness to fly. Before jumping in the cockpit, consider how these factors impact the safety of your flight: 

ILLNESS  - are you sick or feeling sick?

MEDICATIONS - have you taken any medications that could affect your thought process and decision making? This could be something as simple as over-the-counter cold medication.
STRESS - are you under any undue stress?  Family, financial, and spouse/partner issues are common stress inducers. Stress is known to negatively affect judgment.
ALCOHOL - even though the eight-hour rule “from bottle to throttle” is well known, many experts agree that for some individuals eight hours is not enough to rid your system of the ill effects of alcohol. United Airlines now requires its pilots to refrain from drinking alcohol for at least 12 hours before reporting for duty. 

In addition, excessive consumption of alcohol the night before a flight may cause a severe hangover. You might have fun on the dance floor with the lampshade on your head, but remember they make movies about hangovers. They’re certainly not a pretty sight with your feet planted on the ground, but they could be deadly when taking flight.
FATIGUE - have you had enough sleep and nutrition? This is something you’ll need to reevaluate during your preflight. We are all individuals, so for some six hours of sleep and a Big Mac is sufficient to get through the day. For others, ten hours and a well-balanced meal fit the bill. Whatever it is for you, make sure you are well-rested, fully nourished, and ready for flight.
EMOTION - have you experienced any emotional, upsetting events preceding your planned flight? Are you dealing with the serious illness of a family member? Did you have to spend a day in court? Did you get in a shouting match with the neighbor? Were you on the receiving end of road rage?  All these things can harm your emotional health and, in turn, produce additional stress. As noted above, this is a vicious circle that certainly could affect your readiness to fly.

Once you have passed the IMSAFE checklist, it simply means that you are physically and emotionally fit to fly. It does not mean that you are immune from bad decisions. Leading up to a flight, several influences can tempt you to ignore your personal minimums. 

Peer pressure is certainly near the top of the list. Whether you’re negatively influenced by how you will look to other pilots, or whether you want your passengers to be in awe of your piloting skills, sometimes you have to say “no.” 

Peer pressure also is a contributing factor to another ‘malady’ that can lead to your day in the sky ending badly. In aviation circles, the condition is known as “get-home-itis.” Quite simply, it is the overwhelming desire to depart when other conditions—such as bad weather, maintenance issues, or failing any of the IMSAFE checklist items above— would dictate that it’s best to wait until later to fly. Get-home-itis usually is preceded by self-induced, or passenger related pressures to get home. You all have read the NTSB accident reports where the probable cause may not directly state “get-home-itis,” but the report makes evident to even the casual observer that poor pilot judgment, combined with the crushing sense of desire to get home, resulted in the almost always fatal accident. While you may survive a singular bout of this disease, there’s no guarantee, and the statistics work against you if it becomes a recurring theme in your decision-making process.

So, what can you do to avoid falling into this potentially fatal trap? After all, you wouldn’t intentionally make a decision that would jeopardize your safety or that of your passengers.

Our biggest safeguard to prevent these irreparable mistakes is to acknowledge—and remain conscious of—the fact that we are susceptible and vulnerable to the flaws of human nature. It sounds simple enough, but we all know that admitting your flaws as a person—especially every single time they arise—is easier said than done. The FAA recognizes five hazardous attitudes for pilots: antiauthority, impulsivity, invulnerability, macho, and resignation. Regardless of your social status, intelligence, or general goodness as a human being, you can exhibit one or more of these attitudes for a moment in time—and, unfortunately, a moment is all it takes to make an irreversible mistake. We all must recognize our potential to adopt these attitudes and consciously make efforts to avoid or mitigate the risks associated with them. 

In the end, a good rule is to recognize that a decision to scrub a flight, extend your pattern, hold over that fix for another circuit, or simply say that something just doesn’t feel right and return to the hanger is always preferred over making that one irreversible bad decision. There are no do-overs. Learn from others and avoid becoming the statistic that others read about and say, “it won’t happen to me.” For some, statistically speaking, it will happen to them. Don’t let it be you.
As pilots, we face several challenges in our quest to enjoy our world of aviation.  We’ve made a significant financial investment, along with considerable time and much effort to become FAA certificate holders. You could have all the piloting talent of a Top Gun fighter pilot, but if you are lax in your decision making, you are destined to become a statistic in the worst possible sense of the word. While most of us are born with good judgment and the ability to make sound decisions, we all could use a little reminder and remedial training on what it takes to make good decisions. 
It’s also wise to remember that while you may think you fly the airplane with your hands, you mostly are flying it with your head.  Make good use of your head and the good decision-making ability that you possess.

*For your next trivia night, here are the ten actors who turned down roles in the Star Wars franchise: 
1)     Leonardo DiCaprio (Anakin)
2)     Al Pacino (Han Solo)
3)     Christopher Lee (Grand Moff Tarkin)
4)     Ryan Phillippe (Anakin)
5)     Rooney Mara (Jyn Erso)
6)     Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka)
7)     Gary Oldman (General Grievous)
8)     Jim Henson (Yoda)
9)     Benicio Del Toro (Darth Maul)
10)   Sylvester Stallone (Han Solo)

Sam Winer caught the flying bug at an early age; he soloed 2 aircraft on his sixteenth birthday (a Piper PA28-180R Arrow and a Cherokee 140). Now, he has his commercial rating for fixed-wing and rotorcraft, with just under 900 hours total time. He also owned a helicopter flight school in the Chicago area for over 11 years.

In addition to his day job, Sam can be heard on radio dials in the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Salt Lake City markets as a part-time traffic reporter.