The Danger Zone

Tips to Reduce Risk in All Phases of Flight

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff
4 min readNov 9, 2022



By Larry Fields, (Acting) FAA Flight Standards Service Executive Director

Photo of a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.

It’s likely that everyone who loves aviation has by now seen “Top Gun: Maverick,” one of the hottest summer 2022 movies, along with the original “Top Gun” film. You’re also likely familiar with the opening music, “The Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins. As the first stanza goes:

Revvin’ up your engine/Listen to her howlin’ roar

Metal under tension/Beggin’ you to touch and go

Highway to the Danger Zone/Ride into the Danger Zone

While riding into the Danger Zone is an inherent occupational hazard for military aviators, that’s not the case for either commercial or general aviation. On the contrary, the FAA expects — in fact requires — those who fly in the civilian world for commercial purposes or personal pleasure and convenience to actively avoid the danger zone where accidents can occur.

Magazine cover.

Shovin’ into (System Safety) Overdrive

In that connection, social media is full of lively debate about the “real” cause of GA accidents. Some threads focus on deficiencies in so-called stick-and-rudder skills and suggest — incorrectly — that the addition of risk management to training curricula diverts attention from airplane handling skills. In fact, most accidents have multiple causes. That is why the FAA has focused so much on the concepts of system safety and the discipline of risk management. These terms and their formal definitions may sound abstract. But, as characters repeatedly assert in the slapstick “Airplane!” movie, “that’s not important right now.”

What is important is a practical understanding of how to use system safety to keep yourself out of the aerial Danger Zone. Think of it as the mortar needed to bind individual regulatory bricks together and build a sturdy barrier to accidents. GA flight operations clearly constitute a complex system with many variables:

  • Pilots have different levels of knowledge, skill, experience, ability, and discipline.
  • Procedures, such as instrument approaches, can be very complex.
  • Equipment, including airframes and avionics, changes rapidly.
  • Services, such as those provided by airports and air traffic control, can vary and are already changing as NextGen technologies are deployed in the National Airspace System.
  • The flight environment, including weather, is a critical factor in the safety of every flight.
  • External factors can have a substantial impact, especially if the pilot doesn’t consciously recognize them.

Revvin’ Up Risk Management

A key part of system safety approach is risk management, a decision-making process designed to methodically identify hazards, assess the degree of risk, and determine the best course of action. To make system safety and risk management practical for real-world GA operations, the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) advocates a simple three-step process:

  1. Perceive, or identify, the possible hazards associated with each category in the well-known PAVE checklist: Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, and External Pressures.
  2. Process, or analyze, by evaluating the severity, probability, and/or exposure of the risk posed by the hazard(s) you identified in step one.
  3. Perform by finding ways to eliminate or mitigate the severity, probability, and/or exposure of each of the identified hazards.

In this issue, the magazine team explores system safety and risk management in the context of persistent accident factors in various phases of flight: preflight; taxi; takeoff and departure; maneuvering flight; and approach and landing. Accidents in these areas all imply some degree of deficiency in the pilot’s knowledge, skill, and risk management abilities. Even the world’s best stick-and-rudder pilot is at risk if deficiencies in weather knowledge or risk management ability lead to inadvertent flight into IMC.

So, join us as this issue explores ways to “fly ‘way from the Danger Zone!”

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This article was originally published in the November/December 2022 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).