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Addressing the topic of pilot pressure

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 21, 2015

Have you ever waited for a plane to depart into the bush only to groan when a weather delay is announced? Do you vent your frustration on the customer service employees and the pilot? As a pilot, have you waivered in your decision to fly, only to have your mind changed by the people around you? These scenarios happen everyday in Alaska, but lately are receiving some increased scrutiny.

The fall issue of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation newsletter tackles the issue of pressure and how it can cause pilots to make unsafe decisions. According to Mark Madden, a professor with the University of Alaska Anchorage Aviation Technology program and a Master Flight Instructor, pressure can come from internal and external sources and be very difficult to resist:

"Quite often," writes Madden, "pilots are 'caught in the middle' between trying to please someone else like your passengers or perhaps your boss if you're a commercial pilot, and doing what you know is best and safe. Doing the right thing requires self-discipline and having the courage of your convictions."

It's difficult to know when pressure—either internal or external—is a factor in a crash however because it affects each pilot differently. Was a pilot who overloaded her aircraft after a hunting trip pressured by friends to do so or simply eager to fit everything into the fewest trips possible? Did a newly-hired pilot who took off in marginal conditions feel pressure to prove to his co-workers that he was up to their unwritten standards or did he blithely assume he was as capable as they were of completing the flight in unfamiliar territory?

How often are Alaskan pilots, whether flying professionally or for themselves, persuaded to take chances because of the influence from others or their own misconceptions about what flying in Alaska supposedly entails?

Effectively tracking evidence of pressure among pilots is impossible, but the National Transportation Safety Board has studied the issue among Alaskan commercial operators in the past, producing two reports in 1980 and 1995. In both, based on information gathered from surveys, the NTSB noted external sources as passengers, the delivery policies of the U.S. Postal Service and unsafe corporate cultures among employers. It also looked at the more ambiguous "bush pilot syndrome," a combination of the universal internal pressure known as "get-home-itus", and the mindset more unique to Alaska aviation that encapsulates the glory-seeking Last Frontier mythology and the legendary heroics of the early bush pilots. It's this aspect of the syndrome that has lead many to believe flying here is inherently dangerous and thus requires a level of risk-taking on behalf of all pilots.

Evidence of bush pilot syndrome and other sources of pressure can be detected in the subtle language of accident investigations and news reports such as when a Flight Service Station tells the NTSB that a pilot mentioned passengers getting impatient shortly before departing into marginal weather and crashing or pilots in a line of aircraft recall hearing the pilot in the rear report that she was struggling to keep up with them before crashing into the terrain.

It is willingness among the members of the Alaska aviation community to address pressure as a serious safety concern that will likely have the most significant impact on the problem. Frank discussion on the topic among pilots, such as at the upcoming AASF fall safety seminar, will resonate more than anything else and positively affect future decision-making. "Set your personal minimums (ceiling/visibility, risk assessment score) before you fly and stick to them," wrote AASF Chairman Harry Kieling in the newsletter. This sentiment is echoed by Madden in his article: "Don't be concerned about letting someone down because you've determined the requested load for the airplane exceeds the aircraft's design capabilities. Don't be concerned about letting someone down because the weather is unacceptable to launch. Instead, be concerned about letting someone down because you knowingly are willing to take unnecessary chances."

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen@chasingray.com.

The Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation fall safety seminar will be held on Saturday, November 21, from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. at the Coast International Inn at 3450 Aviation Avenue in Anchorage. This year's guest speaker is Dr. Melchor Antun?ano, MD. He is the Director of the FAA?s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) and is responsible for oversight of the Office of Aerospace Medicine?s programs in Medical Certification, Medical Education, Medical Research, Human Factors Research, and Occupational Health Services. Dr. Antun?ano will be presenting with Dr. Marcel Dionne, MD, the Alaska Regional Flight Surgeon, to bring attendees up to date on the latest news on medical issues, as well as Alaska-specific information to help keep pilots healthy and safe.

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