By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine
The holiday season is a time for joy, sharing, and family get-togethers. Unfortunately, it’s also a time for sneezing, coughing, and runny noses. With cold and flu season in full swing, we all need to practice those personal hygiene tips that COVID-19 has engrained in us so well. But for pilots, another unpleasant affliction tends to creep up on us in greater frequency during this “most wonderful time of the year” — one that aspirin or tissues can’t help with: get-home-itis, aka plan continuation bias. It’s basically when you press on with a plan, even when information suggests you shouldn’t.
With so much conspiring for our time and attention during the holidays, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure of an invite or special event we planned on attending. Maybe you scored tickets to watch your favorite college football rivalry, or perhaps you can’t wait to see your new grandbaby open gifts at Christmas. It could also be your Aunt Carol’s cranberries and carrot cake at Thanksgiving that gets you pumped for a long trip. The good thing is that general aviation is often the key to help make these transcendent moments a reality. On the flip side, the specific timing of these events tends to stretch our personal minimums beyond a safe comfort level so that we don’t disappoint those who are expecting us or those traveling with us.
Take the football game for example. You likely dropped some cash on getting good seats, not to mention a rental car and hotel for you and a couple of friends. Many college games start earlier in the day on Saturday, considerably narrowing the window of good weather opportunities for your flight. Let’s also add that you had to work late the Friday before, leaving you minimal time for preflight planning and a good weather briefing. Throw another potential variable into the mix, like an argument with your spouse (possibly on how much you spent for those tickets!) or even getting a stiff neck from having to sleep on the couch unexpectedly. You can just see the Swiss cheese holes of accident causation lining up for a potentially bad flight.
Knowing you have a backup plan can help take the pressure off completing that flight when conditions are not ideal or beyond what you would usually risk.
With all that you have invested in the event, you become heavily biased toward continuing despite any red flags that pop up. These warning signs to cancel or discontinue the flight tend to be weaker than the motivation to complete the flight. For example, being too focused on your destination might have you overlook that bit of engine oil dripping from the bottom of the cowling, or a not-so-normal rpm drop after a magneto check on your run-up. Would you have stopped to investigate those items on a regular flight?
It’s an unfortunate reality for many pilots who overlook key items that could lead to a much more dire situation later on. What can you do? For starters, have a backup plan. We say that a lot in this magazine, but it bears repeating. Is your destination close enough to drive? Or could you get a last-minute commercial ticket? If you have tickets to a performance or sporting event and things don’t pan out, you might look for a way to sell those seats last minute via a third-party vendor.
Once you have your plan B (and possibly plan C and D) in place, be sure to get buy-in from your passengers and those expecting to see you. That will help manage expectations for everyone, yourself included. Knowing you have a backup plan can help take the pressure off completing that flight when conditions are not ideal or beyond what you would usually risk.
Need more help with your go/no-go decision? Try phoning a pilot friend to explain your scenario and get their opinion. They won’t have the same mental bias as you to complete that flight and can offer honest input towards your decision.
The bottom line: know and respect your limitations for a safe flight. Be realistic and objective with your assessments before and during your flight. And deal with small problems before they become big ones. As the saying goes, sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home. Fly safe and happy holidays!