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Aeronautical Decision-Making (ADM) – The Decision-Making Process

in Human Factors

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. A problem is perceived first by the senses, then is distinguished through insight and experience. One critical error that can be made during the decision-making process is incorrectly defining the problem. For 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.


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