ABH at the Controls Risk Management principles have been applied in business and industry for years, becoming the subject of ISO/IEC Standard 31000:2009. They have also found their way into aviation, and particularly general aviation, where the layers of infrastructure and backup in airline operations are absent, and pilots must largely operate on their own.

John and Martha King, the respected operators of the King Schools, have preached the gospel of applying risk management principles to GA. They offer a series of “Practical Risk Management” training materials covering a range of flying activities. They have also spoken and written widely on the subject, forthrightly addressing the hazards of GA flying by using mistakes they made during their long career to illustrate the factors that can result in bad decision making in the air and on the ground. Their efforts have helped make risk management become a subject of interest and discussion in the GA community.

Until recently no standards existed for applying risk management to flying. After several years of study and input from instructors and pilots, in 2017 the Federal Aviation Administration adopted new Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards, commonly known as the ACS.[1] The ACS incorporates risk management into pilot testing, requiring applicants to demonstrate their ability to apply risk management, as well as their flying knowledge and skills.

While the Kings have been advocates for the ACS, other respected GA figures have criticized it. Prominent among them are instructor and blogger Rod Machado, who has voiced objections on his Aviation Learning Center web site and in debates with John King, and beloved curmudgeon (and former FAA examiner) Martha Lunken in her Flying magazine column. In substance, they argue that risk management is “subjective” and can neither be taught nor tested; and that the ACS is too complicated and bureaucratic to be an effective teaching or testing guide.

Machado writes, “The illusion here is based on the FAA’s belief that student pilots can be taught risk management skills. Learning to manage risk, however, requires prerequisite knowledge that student pilots typically do not have, nor is that knowledge typically available in any FAA document.” And he asserts, “Student pilots are fully capable of avoiding in-flight hazards with a little training. All that’s needed is for their instructors to help them identify these hazards in specific and general terms”[2] (emphases in orginal). Lunken says, “I have never believed you could teach or test good judgment in itself . . . each person’s judgment and his assessment of risk are highly subjective.”[3]

Both Machado and Lunken scorn the “Risk Assessment Matrix” in the FAA’s Risk Management Handbook, which seeks to quantify risk based on four levels of “Severity” and “Likelihood:”[4]

And Machado points out that the Handbook states, “Risk management is unique to each and every individual, since there are no two people exactly alike in skills, knowledge, training and abilities. An acceptable level of risk to one pilot may not necessarily be the same to another pilot . . . .”

Are these commentators correct?  Is attempting to train pilots about risk management and evaluate them on it futile?  Does the fact that managing risks in flying requires the exercise of individual judgment mean that it cannot be trained, or assessed?

The Kings say that risk management has two components: “The first is a habit of maintaining situational awareness by systematically thinking about risks. The second is coming up with mitigation strategies for the risks you have thought of.”[5] Simply put, pilots should always strive to identify risks, and consider how to avoid or reduce them.

It is true that good judgment cannot be taught. But the practice of consistently thinking about risks and how to cope with them can be taught and assessed–just as pilots are taught to do pre-flight inspections and use check lists, and instructors evaluate their performance. Adopting the practice of risk management surely benefits the cause of air safety.

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[1] Federal Aviation Administration Flight Standards Service, “Private Pilot—Airplane Airman Certification Standards,” FAA-S-ACS-6A (Change 1), June 2017.

[2] “Risk Management? Really?” Rod Machado’s Aviation Learning Center, https://rodmachado.com/blogs/learning-to-fly/17963915-risk-management-really, retrieved November 15, 2017.

[3] “ACS Makes My Head Ache: Where Does Common Sense Fit Into This New Mandate?” Flying, April, 2017, pp. 74 – 75.

[4] Federal Aviation Administration, Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083, 2009), pp. 4-2 – 4-4.

[5] Martha King, “Why Some Pilots Are Bad Risk Managers,” Flying, February 22, 2016, https://www.flyingmag.com/sky-kings-why-some-pilots-are-bad-risk-managers, retrieved November 15, 2017.