©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved
Originally published in Flying February, 1999
The corporate jet pilot was on the last leg of his LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) simulator session. Because a LOFT is supposed to closely simulate the challenges a corporate pilot normally encounters, the pilot had not been faced with the numerous malfunctions that usually plague a simulator session. He had served as copilot for his co-captain as they took off from Boston for the short hop down to La Guardia. As they were in the initial approach to their destination, their passenger had informed them that he had just received a call on the flight phone and he now needed to go to White Plains. They had gone through the hassle of changing destinations in the New York metropolitan area and were on final for White Plains when a wind shift necessitated changing runways.
After dropping off one passenger at White Plains, they had swapped seats and headed for Washington National with their remaining passenger. Now as they approached final the pilot thought about how easy this had been. There had been one minor problem with the environmental system and National was just above minimums, but other than that it had been a routine, almost boring flight. They joined the localizer and waited for the glide slope needle to come alive. A few more minutes and they would be on the ground. As the glide slope needle quivered and started down he asked the copilot to lower the landing gear. A few seconds later his copilot informed him that one main gear down and locked light was not illuminated and that the bulb tested ok. Suddenly his pulse quickened. He had to think fast. They were on final approach and if didn’t act quickly they would have to go around. Acting from memory he told the copilot to pull the landing gear circuit breaker and then activate the gear blow down lever.
As the copilot completed these steps, the pilot was astounded to see that the gear light was still not illuminated. In training the blow down procedure had always resulted in a green gear down and locked light, but now the bulb remained dark. Out of options and time, the pilot called the tower and initiated a missed approach. He also realized that he had painted himself into a corner. Once the blow down bottle is used, the gear can not be retracted until a mechanic bleeds the high pressure gas from the lines. Mentally he checked off all the options which were no longer available. He couldn’t cycle the gear to see if that would help. If the weather deteriorated below minimums, the distance he could fly to an alternate would be severely limited by the drag of the landing gear and the lower speed he would have to maintain.
The flight had a happy ending when the pilot touched down on the longer runways of Dulles International Airport a short time later, but his predicament illustrated the consequences of using the wrong decision making style for the situation. Each of us has a tendency towards one of two decision making styles. We call the people who make decisions very quickly “choicers”. Once these individuals have made a decision they usually stick with it and it can be very hard to get them to change their minds. In effect they are “choiced out”. People who like to take a long time to assess the situation are called “expanders” because they like to keep expanding their options. They may seem to take forever to make up their minds, and will quickly change their decision if new information surfaces.
As with most personality styles, neither approach is right or wrong in and of itself. However, the proper decision making style has to be matched to the challenge facing the pilot. if a pilot uses the wrong decision making style for a given situation the results can be disastrous. There a quite a few situations in aviation that call for the choicing approach to decision making. If an engine fails on takeoff at low altitude, the pilot has to immediately assess where is the best place to land and take the appropriate action. Any hesitation or indecisiveness will lead to a reduction in options as the plane’s altitude steadily decreases until the problem is solved because there is not enough altitude remaining to land anywhere except straight ahead. A non-instrument rated pilot who finds himself in the clouds needs to immediately initiate a 180 degree turn or a climb/descent back to visual conditions. Every second of hesitation will lead the pilot further into the instrument conditions and make getting out safely that much harder.
A person who tends towards the expanding decision making style can have a hard time with these types of situations. Their hesitation to decide quickly can leave them frozen momentarily. Even after making the right decision, something may occur which leads them to vacillate until there just aren’t any more options. For example, if the engine quits just after takeoff, it is critical to immediately get the plane back on the ground, on the remaining runway if possible. A choicing type individual would likely make that decision without hesitation and stick with it. The expanding type personality might hesitate to consider other options such as checking the fuel selector and the mags. If the engine regains power momentarily, they are more likely to assume everything is ok and be tempted to continue with the takeoff. If the engine completely fails a few seconds later, the option of landing back on the runway may be gone.
Other situations call for the expanding style of decision making. If time is available we need to carefully consider all possible courses of action before making any decisions which may ultimately limit our options. The pilot in the simulator used a choicing type approach when he had time to consider his options. The lure of the runway and the anticipation that the blow down procedure would result in a down and locked indication led him to make a snap decision he later regretted. When the initial unsafe gear indication was noticed, there was plenty of time to deal with the situation. He could have declared a missed approach, asked for a holding pattern to sort things out, and then gone over what options were available with his copilot. They likely would have tried to cycle the gear and in any case would have retained the option to raise the gear if they needed to fly to a more distant alternate.
It is important to assess your own decision making style and then make sure your style doesn’t cause a problem in situations where it is not appropriate. If you typically make snap decisions and people say that it is impossible to get you to change your mind, you probably tend towards the choicing style. You will typically do well in situations calling for a snap decision but need to be careful that you don’t jump to a conclusion too quickly when there is time to carefully consider the available options. When appropriate you also need to stay open to other alternatives even after you have made your decision.
On the other hand, if you tend to have a hard time making decisions and always seem to need more information before you can decide, you probably use the expanding style. While you will do well in situations where there is plenty of time to consider the options, you need to make sure you don’t take too long to decide, especially when time is short. Try to prepare yourself to act quickly in situations that don’t afford the time for careful consideration. Be careful that you don’t vacillate in situations requiring a quick response. Once you have made a decision which will likely result in a safe termination of the flight, don’t let yourself be tempted into changing your mind, unless you have discovered a clearly superior alternative.
As pilots we can face a critical decision making situation at any moment of a flight. Some of these situations do not have easy answers. But whatever options are available, it is critical to match our decision making style to the time available—making an immediate decision when time is short, and pausing to consider the options when time is available to do so.