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How do you assess risk?

From any discussion with GA pilots, it becomes clear that different people assess risk in very different ways. Some people say that they will under never under any circumstances fly single-engine over over an area with poor visibility/low cloudbase at the surface or over water out of gliding distance from land. Other people have no particular problem with either.

My reasoning is that I accept an elevated risk for flights I do seldom enough as that will only marginally affect my total risk level. If say, overwater flights had twice the risk of a fatal accident and 10% of my flight time was over water, then my total risk would increase only by about 10% which I would feel to be acceptable. If I lived on an island and 90% of my flight time was over water, I would likely view overwater flights quite differently. (The figures are purely hypothetical – just for the argument.)

How do you reason when you determine whether the risk of a particular (kind of) flight is acceptable?

ESKC (Uppsala/Sundbro), Sweden

This is a very “personal” thing – it’s like having an opinion – everyone has one !

That said, we are seeing more Risk Assessment Checklists which generally attempt to score a particular situation. Now what one does with the score in itself will very widely between individuals


To begin with, there’s obviously an implicit risk in flying SEP (and in flying, for that matter). It’s not the topic of this thread to determine that risk, but I like to regard the implicit risk in SEP flying as somewhat similar to the risk level involved in motorcycling (based on the limited stats that are available), although I acknowledge that the characteristics of the risks involved in motorcycling are very different (you are very much at the hands of other road users with better “weapons”).

I willingly accept that risk. It’s also very subjectively much less risky than free-climbing, the other risk-involving activity that I do. I have no idea about the numbers here, but climbing simply feels much more risky because many times when we’re on some wall, I feel pretty damn scared and part of the challenge is to overcome that fear anytime we go – which usually isn’t the case when I’m flying.

I also willingly accept the increased risk of flying over areas that make an emergency landing hard. That’s a practical consideration because otherwise, my flying would be very, very limited. Not only would you have to avoid flying over water, but also flying over mountains, cities, forests, … I don’t fancy only ever flying over meadows and farm fields. As pretty as they can be – then I might as well stay on the ground.

What I find really hard is to bring these considerations across to non-flying passengers and would-be passengers. It’s hard to objectively discuss this without scaring people away. When friends want to fly with you, it’s not very charming to go through a risk assessment catalogue with them, before you set out. As in, making people aware that flying to London or crossing the Alps or coming home a few minutes after sunset will involve more risk – without scaring them away from the flight for emotional reasons. “The pilot always talks about risks and increased risks… I don’t feel very comfortable with this…”

Hungriger Wolf (EDHF), Germany

My rule is easy, and was firmly pressed into my brains by all of my instructors: always have a viable plan B.
If no viable plan B is available for some section of the flight, then I do not fly.

This also means I always want to be within gliding distance of a suitable landing field – I would never want to endanger people in the streets by emergency landing on a city boulevard, as seems to be not uncommon in the USA. OTOH, given my stall speed of 35 kts, 100 metres is sufficient, at least to avoid personal injuries, and with any luck to even keep the plane repairable.

The hard part now becomes assessing what is “viable” But, for one example, a sea ditching is not viable for me – not a sportsman, and flying a high winger that could scarcely take the extra weight of a raft.

And, as Patrick stated, this is very hard to discuss with (potential) passengers. I always tell them “It’s about as dangerous as riding a motorbike”, without entering into details; and they could all live with that – and all have survived, as yet…

EBZH Kiewit, Belgium

When friends want to fly with you, it’s not very charming to go through a risk assessment catalogue with them, before you set out.

But one wouldn’t do that. One would do that on one’s own, if at all.

What one does with pax is a (short and concise) emergency briefing, which if labelled as such, doesn’t seem to scare people. Then go straight back to “let’s have fun mode”.

Mainz (EDFZ), Germany

boscomantico wrote:

But one wouldn’t do that. One would do that on one’s own, if at all.

And that’s what I mean.

Who am I to judge the risk appetite of people flying with me? I have the “luxury” to at least have an idea of what factors of a flight make it more or less dangerous.

There’s no easy way of allowing passengers to take part in that sort of assessment, without the problems described above.

I.e. if I find it ok to fly at night – alright. But isn’t it a bit presumptuous to make that decision for PAX? One conclusion would be to only fly at night alone – but that, again, would minimize the utility of the night rating. The benefit IMO is to be more flexible about return times for day trips etc. – I usually do those with people.

Hungriger Wolf (EDHF), Germany

Don’t sell your passengers short. Their risk assessment was competed when they decided you’re a trustworthy enough person with whom to fly. Just do good work within a conservative version of your own metric and you’re doing what’s needed for them. Life goes by too fast to be an exact science in this regard, and they know it as well as you know it.

Indeed this is a very interesting topic.

In my experience risk assessment very often involves subjectivity rather than objectivity, to the extent those assessing make the perceived risk what they want it to be.

It amuses me to hear pilots’ assess the risk others take as being unacceptable only to offer fanciful ‘justifications’ when being questioned about risks they have taken.

Objectivity in risk assessment is not easy to achieve.

“You’re seven times more likely to have a fatality in a general aviation (GA) airplane than you are in a car, per mile.” John & Martha King (King Schools)

Decision Making and Risk
A. go/nogo – the number one killer is the decision to go based on external pressures when a nogo would be prudent but more hassle
B. rental plane – what is true condition of the aircraft? what happened prior flights since annual? what happened in flight prior to yours?
C. night v water v mountains v IMC … decision making complicated by terrain and and weather

An FAA Fact Sheet lists the four leading causes of fatal U.S. GA accidents between 2001 and 2011
• Loss of control–in flight (stall, spin, fuel, confusion, weather)
• Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)
• System/component failure– engine.
• Low-altitude operations (stall close to ground or hitting a structure)

Last Edited by USFlyer at 25 Dec 16:57

Silvaire wrote:

Don’t sell your passengers short. Their risk assessment was competed when they decided you’re a trustworthy enough person with whom to fly.

Most passengers don’t have nearly enough understanding of aviation to make a sensible risk assessment. They have to rely on the PIC. (Just see what airline pax say in newspaper interviews after anything unusual happens on a flight – e.g. some serious turbulence or a missed approach from minima.)

Last Edited by Airborne_Again at 25 Dec 18:29
ESKC (Uppsala/Sundbro), Sweden
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