Aeronautical Decision Making


  • Flying safely requires the effective integration of three separate sets of skills:
    • Most obvious are the basic stick-and-rudder skills needed to control the airplane
    • Next, are skills related to proficient operation of aircraft systems
    • Last, but not least, are Aeronautical Decision-Making (ADM) skills
  • ADM is a systematic approach to the mental process used by pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances
  • While the FAA strives to eliminate errors through technology, training, systems and improved flight safety programs, one fact remains: humans make errors


  • It is estimated that approximately 80% of all aviation accidents are human factors related [Figure 1]
  • The ADM process addresses all aspects of decision making in the flight deck and identifies the steps involved in good decision making
  • While the ADM process will not eliminate errors, it will help the pilot recognize errors, and in turn enable the pilot to manage the error to minimize its effects by:
    1. Identifying personal attitudes hazardous to safe flight
    2. Learning behavior modification techniques
    3. Learning how to recognize and cope with stress
    4. Developing risk assessment skills
    5. Using all resources
    6. Evaluating the effectiveness of one's ADM skills
  • Historically, the term "pilot error," which means an action made by the pilot was the cause or a contributing factor that led to the accident, has been used to describe the causes of these accidents
    • This definition also includes the pilot's failure to make a decision or take action
  • From a broader perspective, the phrase "human factors related" more aptly describes these accidents since it is usually not a single decision that leads to an accident, but a chain of events triggered by a number of factors
  • The poor judgment chain, sometimes referred to as the "error chain," is a term used to describe this concept of contributing factors in a human factors related accident
  • Breaking one link in the chain normally is all that is necessary to change the outcome of the sequence of events

The Decision-Making Process:

  • An understanding of the decision-making process provides a pilot with a foundation for developing ADM skills
  • Some situations, such as engine failures, require a pilot to respond immediately using established procedures with a little time for detailed analysis
  • This is termed automatic decision-making and is based upon training, experience, and recognition
  • Traditionally, pilots have been well trained to react to emergencies, but are not as well prepared to make decisions requiring a more reflective response where greater analysis is required
  • Typically during a flight, there is time to examine any changes that occur, gather information, and assess risk before reaching a decision
  • The steps leading to this conclusion constitute the decision-making process:

  • Defining the Problem:
    • Problem definition is the first step in the decision-making process
    • Defining the problem begins with recognizing that a change has occurred or that an expected change did not occur
    • One critical error that can be made during the decision-making process is incorrectly defining the problem
      • Example: a low oil pressure reading could indicate that the engine is about to fail and an emergency landing should be planned, or it could mean that the oil pressure sensor has failed
        • The actions to be taken in each of these circumstances would be significantly different
        • One requires an immediate decision based upon training, experience, and evaluation of the situation; whereas the latter decision is based upon an analysis
    • It should be noted that the same indication could result in two different actions depending upon other influences

  • Choosing a Course of Action:
    • After the problem has been identified, the pilot must evaluate the need to react to it and determine the actions that may be taken to resolve the situation in the time available
    • The expected outcome of each possible action should be considered and the risks assessed before deciding on a response to the situation

  • Implementing the Decision and Evaluating the Outcome:
    • Although a decision may be reached and a course of action implemented, the decision-making process is not complete
    • It is important to think ahead and determine how the decision could affect other phases of flight
    • As the flight progresses, the pilot must continue to evaluate the outcome of the decision to ensure that it is producing the desired result

Improper Decision-Making Outcomes:

  • Pilots sometimes get in trouble not because of deficient basic skills or system knowledge, but rather because of faulty decision-making skills
  • Although aeronautical decisions may appear to be simple or routine, each individual decision in aviation often defines the options available for the next decision the pilot must make and the options, good or bad, they provide
  • Therefore, a poor decision early on in a flight can compromise the safety of the flight at a later time necessitating decisions that must be more accurate and decisive
  • Conversely, good decision-making early on in an emergency provide greater latitude for options later on

  • FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 60-22, defines ADM as a systematic approach to the mental process of evaluating a given set of circumstances and determining the best course of action
  • ADM thus builds upon the foundation of conventional decision-making, but enhances the process to decrease the probability of pilot error
  • Specifically, ADM provides a structure to help the pilot use all resources to develop comprehensive situational awareness

Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 1-11, The Margin of Safety
Figure 1: Instrument Flying Handbook, The Margin of Safety


  • Models allow for structure to the dynamic process of decision making
  • Two types of models associated with ADM are:

  • 3P Model:
    • Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 1-12, The 3P Model for Aeronautical Decision-Making
      Figure 2: Instrument Flying Handbook, The 3P Model for Aeronautical Decision-Making
    • The Perceive-Process-Perform (3P) model for ADM offers a simple, practical, and systematic approach that can be used during all phases of flight [Figure 2]
    • To use it, the pilot will:
      • Perceive the given set of circumstances for a flight
      • Process by evaluating their impact on flight safety
      • Perform by implementing the best course of action
    • In the first step, the goal is to develop situational awareness by perceiving hazards, which are present events, objects, or circumstances that could contribute to an undesired future event
      • In this step, the pilot will systematically identify and list hazards associated with all aspects of the flight: pilot, aircraft, environment, and external pressures
      • It is important to consider how individual hazards might combine
      • Consider, for example, the hazard that arises when a new instrument pilot with no experience in actual instrument conditions wants to make a cross-country flight to an airport with low ceilings in order to attend an important business meeting
    • In the second step, the goal is to process this information to determine whether the identified hazards constitute risk, which is defined as the future impact of a hazard that is not controlled or eliminated
      • The degree of risk posed by a given hazard can be measured in terms of exposure (number of people or resources affected), severity (extent of possible loss), and probability (the likelihood that a hazard will cause a loss)
      • If the hazard is low ceilings, for example, the level of risk depends on a number of other factors, such as pilot training and experience, aircraft equipment and fuel capacity, and others
    • In the third step, the goal is to perform by taking action to eliminate hazards or mitigate risk, and then continuously evaluate the outcome of this action
      • With the example of low ceilings at destination, for instance, the pilot can perform good ADM by selecting a suitable alternate, knowing where to find good weather, and carrying sufficient fuel to reach it
      • This course of action would mitigate the risk
      • The pilot also has the option to eliminate it entirely by waiting for better weather
    • Once the pilot has completed the 3P decision process and selected a course of action, the process begins anew because now the set of circumstances brought about by the course of action requires analysis
    • The decision-making process is a continuous loop of perceiving, processing and performing
  • The DECIDE Model:
    • Another structured approach to ADM is the DECIDE model, which is a six-step process intended to provide a logical way of approaching decision-making
    • As in the 3P model, the elements of the DECIDE model represent a continuous loop process to assist a pilot in the decision-making required when faced with a situational change that requires judgment
    • [Figure 3] The model is primarily focused on the intellectual component, but can have an impact on the motivational component of judgment as well
    • If a pilot continually uses the DECIDE Model in all decision-making, it becomes natural and results in better decisions being made under all types of situations

    • In conventional decision-making, the need for a decision is triggered by recognition that something has changed or an expected change did not occur
    • Recognition of the change, or lack of change, is a vital step in any decision making process
    • Not noticing change in a situation can lead directly to a mishap
    • [Figure 3a] The change indicates that an appropriate response or action is necessary in order to modify the situation (or, at least, one of the elements that comprise it) and bring about a desired new situation
    • Therefore, situational awareness is the key to successful and safe decision making
    • At this point in the process, the pilot is faced with a need to evaluate the entire range of possible responses to the detected change and to determine the best course of action

    • [Figure 3b] illustrates how the ADM process expands conventional decision-making, shows the interactions of the ADM steps, and how these steps can produce a safe outcome
    • Starting with the recognition of change, and following with an assessment of alternatives, a decision to act or not act is made, and the results are monitored
    • Pilots can use ADM to enhance their conventional decision-making process because it:
      1. Increases their awareness of the importance of attitude in decision-making
      2. Teaches the ability to search for and establish relevance of information
      3. Increases their motivation to choose and execute actions that ensure safety in the situational time frame

Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 1-13, Decision Making
Figure 3: Instrument Flying Handbook, Decision Making