Are We There Yet?

Exploring External Pressures

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff
8 min readOct 30, 2020


by Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing Associate Editor

Photo of two people in the cockpit of a small airplane.

Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing. After a comprehensive analysis of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents, the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee determined that “external pressure to complete a mission” was a key causal factor. Many of the concepts discussed in this article support these findings and mirror the underlying causes of CFIT accidents.

If you won’t put up with a backseat driver, why would you be influenced by a backseat flyer? The external or social pressures associated with completing a flight have been associated with a number of general aviation (GA) accidents. There is almost always pressure on the pilot to launch, and pressure to continue. Even the drive to the airport can create pressure to avoid wasted time.

Magazine cover graphic.

The “E” in PAVE

When you fly with non-pilot passengers, prepare yourself. They may not say it, but they are thinking it. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? If you just rolled your eyes at those words, you were affected by the “E” in PAVE (the risk assessment checklist of Pilot, Aircraft, EnVironment, and External Pressures). The “E” here is the external pressure of “get-there-itis” — or “get-home-itis” depending on the destination.

The four elements of the PAVE risk assessment checklist.

“Simply put, get-there-itis is a pilot killer,” observes Allan Kash, an aviation safety inspector (ASI) in the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division. “It’s a classic behavioral trap, which is an accident-inducing, operational pitfall a pilot may encounter as a result of poor decision making.” (For more about this topic, check out “Get-Home-Itis” in the March/April 2013 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.) Get-there-itis is often a result of the influence of your passengers. They tend not to understand the intricacies of GA flying.

“The biggest external pressures that I’ve experienced are non-pilot passengers,” notes Kevin Clover, an ASI and the FAA’s national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) operations lead. “Their general expectation is that an airplane ride is going to go like a car ride. They can become irritated and even bored by all the things that have to be done or considered to get the airplane in the air.”

What else is one to do without cell service or WiFi, right? Some people can’t handle the pressure of being away from their internet connection, and that pressure can migrate to an unwary pilot. This doesn’t just apply to kids or spouses either. High-powered business types used to making decisions and taking risks can create a pressure on the pilot to complete the flight. “When you tell them there is a safety issue, they still want to make the decision to go,” explains Clover, who is a former part 135 charter pilot. “They can’t seem to separate making a business decision that involves the loss of money to that of a flight decision that could involve the loss of life.”

Photo of a pilot in the cockpit.

You’re the pilot-in-command, so the responsibility of a safe flight rests with you, not your passengers. Motivation to meet a set schedule not under the pilot’s control will cause pressure on the pilot, even if flying solo. Significant family events like family reunions, weddings, funerals, graduations, athletic events, connecting travel arrangements, and vacations can cause the perfect internal storm that pushes you out of your comfort zone. “In this scenario, pilots can be compelled to take unnecessary flight risks when making the go, no-go, decision for that particular flight,” states Marcel Bernard, an ASI and FAA aviation training device national program manager. “An example would be departing on a flight in marginal, or forecast marginal weather conditions when they would otherwise not go.” Bernard has personally experienced pressure from his family (passengers) to get home during a trip. “I resisted and found a hotel room for the night. Making the no-go decision was the right thing to do.”

Mission Mentality

With family it can be easier to say “it’s a no-go” because it’s not your job to get to the destination. Your job is to keep your family safe. However, helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) pilots have a unique external pressure due to the critical nature of their overall operation. The pilot is driven by the goal — to get a critically ill patient to the hospital. In order to reduce the effect of this pressure, HEMS operators do not notify the pilot of the patient’s condition. This narrows the pilot’s decision making role to one question: “Can the pickup and transportation to the medical care center be made safely?” Risking the life of the entire HEMS aircrew in an attempt to save one life is not a safe practice.

A medical helicopter.

(For more about how modern helicopters speed up the “golden hour,” click on the article below.)

If you have made the technology leap and are using a new skysharing app to legally rideshare in the skies, you have another external pressure to think about. The goal here is to complete the flight to make money, which is why a commercial pilot certificate is required. It provides an added level of safety to counter external pressures among other things. (For more about this topic, click the article “Can I Air-Share with My Airplane?” below.)

Flying for nonprofits can also influence your risk-based decision making. Flying to save a dog, transport a veteran, or search for a missing person puts the pilot in a mission-first mentality. Civil Air Patrol (CAP) has recognized this risk to pilots, which is why the organization requires the completion of an “Operational Risk Management Matrix” worksheet before every mission flight. This paper-based flight risk analysis tool, or FRAT worksheet, assigns a point value for each hazard that corresponds to its risk factor. A low risk flight has a worksheet total of 75 points or less. As the risk value increases, the flight can be released only by a higher-level officer in the chain-of-command, which is a valuable control to prevent accidents. The CAP worksheet doesn’t strictly follow the PAVE checklist — the external pressures are the Mission broken down into two hazards.

  1. Operations Tempo: The more aircraft involved, the greater the chance for collision.
  2. Search Complexity: High workload caused by unfamiliar tasks can add to distractions.
A line of Civil Air Patrol Cessna airplans on the ramp.

More than four aircraft in the search area is considered high risk and carries a 20-point value. The combination of complex tasks for the aircrew to perform and the use of technology not routinely used by the aircrew is also considered high risk, and similarly carries a 20-point value. If everything else on the worksheet is low risk and these two high risk items are at 40 points, the flight is still within the low risk threshold of 75 points. (For more about Civil Air Patrol’s safety culture, click on the article below.)

If you won’t put up with a backseat driver, why would you be influenced by a backseat flyer? The external or social pressures associated with completing a flight have been associated with a number of GA accidents.

Pressure Popping Principles

Now that you understand what can cause external pressures and influence a pilot’s decision making skills, let’s look at how to mitigate those risks. The use of personal standard operating procedures (SOPs) is a way to manage it whereas a FRAT worksheet helps you make the go, no-go decision. According to the FAA’s Risk Management Handbook, the goal with an SOP is to supply a release for the external pressures with procedures that can include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Allow time on a trip for an extra fuel stop or to make an unexpected landing because of weather.
  • Have alternate plans for a late arrival or make backup airline reservations for the must-be-there trips.
  • For really important trips, plan to leave early enough so that there would still be time to drive to the destination.
  • Advise those who are waiting at the destination that the arrival may be delayed. Know how to notify them when delays are encountered.
  • Manage passenger expectations. Ensure passengers know that they might not arrive on a firm schedule, and if they must arrive by a certain time, they should make alternate plans.
  • Eliminate pressure to return home, even on a casual day flight, by carrying a small overnight kit containing prescriptions, contact lens solutions, toiletries, or other necessities on every flight.
Photo of a luggage being stowed in a small airplane.

The key to managing external pressure is to be ready to accept delays. As Bernard puts it: “What good is it if you die trying to get there?” Clover notes that the “key is to reset your passengers’ expectations early.” Let them know it will take some time to get the preflight done. Let them know that you may not get to your intended destination today if the weather changes. “I mitigate the pressure from my family and friends through education,” explains Bernard. “I explain the limitations of flights accomplished in GA aircraft in advance. — I’m not the airlines, and the aircraft I fly have significant limitations compared to the major air carriers using turbojet aircraft. — By educating potential passengers in advance, much of the pressure disappears.”

Above all, remember this: management of external pressure is the single most important key to risk management, because it is the one risk factor that can cause a pilot to ignore all others. It places time-related pressure on the pilot and figures into a majority of loss of control accidents, especially on base to final. So manage your “E” before you take off.

Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and an auxiliary airman with Civil Air Patrol.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.



FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. The magazine is part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).