Safety Briefings

The Capacity to Stand Defeat (Part 1 )

by Charlie Marais


Life in the present as we experience it is merely a result of the decisions we have made in the past.  Our decisions will shape the future as they have shaped the past.

Decision making should never be by chance, but rather calculated through sufficient knowledge, skills and the correct attitude concerning the issue at hand.  How many times have I heard; "but I was not aware of that!"  By implication this means that should I have had a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the problem, I would have made a different decision.  The complete and total awareness of the factors affecting the situation, coupled with sufficiently developed skills to work with those factors, sets a point of departure for good decision making.

This might all be true, but most decisions in aviation when things are going wrong are associated with high stress levels.  Stress tends to dull our ability to function at our peak and therefore decreases our ability to make the correct and speedy decisions required in the high dynamic aviation environment.

Our designed capacity to stand adversity manifests itself in the individual's personality, moderated by the individual's frequent exposure to adversity in the specific field.

When we consider accidents we come up with some rather interesting statistics on the causation of non-technical accidents when measured against the crew's knowledge, skills, discipline and the human design factors involved.

On top of all these it still remains a mystery why professional aircrew should at times decide to willingly and knowingly divert from the standard operating procedures or norms and values as advocated to facilitate safe and efficient practices.

It is these findings that have prompted me to consider what it is that we could do to enhance our capability to make better decisions.  What is it that we can do to avoid becoming just another statistic?  What is the individual's own design capability to stand adverse conditions and more importantly, how can we enhance the individual's capacity to make decisions under stressful situations, where being defeated is a possibility?

Before I attempt to answer these questions, I would like to set the stage for what I consider to be an adequately equipped crew member to make better decisions in the face of adversity.


In flight safety we refer to the five M's as Man, Machine, Medium, Mission and Management.  The five M's are merely a practical way in which we can capture the total area influenced during our interaction in our work place.  In aviation this is a great tool to organise accident investigation results so as to apportion the influence of each sphere to the causation of the accident.  The areas of development are focused on the five M's.  We need knowledge in each area in order to be able to function professionally in that area.  For instance, flight crew are rarely knowledgeable in terms of Management.  Yet, if crews would understand the functions and challenges of management better, it would influence their decision making to some extent.


The foundation to support decision making in our work place, when focused on the areas of concern, needs to be developed.  The areas that require development in the individual are as follows:

Knowledge:  Knowledge is the foundation of all learning and functioning processes.  Knowledge of the past is as powerful as any ingredient in shaping the present.  If we only had fore-knowledge, we would have been able to shape the future perfectly according to our perception of perfection.

Skills:  Knowledge without the ability to apply it in a practical sense is of no use.  Skills are taught and rarely instinctive when it comes to complex environments where it is not usual for the human race to function.

Attitude:  How we behave in relation to given and accepted norms, values, SOP's and guidelines, determines our attitude in that respective environment.  As an aircraft's attitude determines a favourable and desired result or an unsatisfactory result, so our attitude will result in a relative outcome.  Attitude is a measure of our discipline when conforming to that which is accepted as best practice.  When we willingly and knowingly divert from that which is accepted behaviour, the results are not always negative, but the potential for a negative outcome is always present.  When you are misaligned for long enough, statistics will catch up and the negative predicted result will manifest itself.

Human Design:  Here we acknowledge human design limitations when considering the aviation environment.  Yes, personal discipline is also classified as a human factor, but because it is defined as a wilful way of behaviour, I elected to separate it from other human factors where we are subject to automated or designed behaviour. 


Now that we have areas defined that should be developed and we have defined the areas that we should focus on, it is time to analyse what the product of our development should be:

Knowledge:  In the development of Knowledge, the following products should be attained:

 o  Facts:  Facts represent the truth.  We must know how things work and especially the cause and effect loop.  We have to know the facts concerning the five M's.

 o  Concepts:  Concepts represent all fundamentals.  What are the results when certain actions are taken?  When we apply the facts, how will the outcome be influenced when the parameters become different?  These are the recipes for success and disaster.

 o  SOP's:  SOP's represent rules.  Everything we have ever manufactured has operating procedures to ensure safe and efficient usage.  SOP's are promulgated due to the results of behaviour.  Certain behaviours result in death or destruction.  The blood now gained is utilised to write the new set of behaviours in order to avoid another blood session.  SOP's when they exist, ensures in many cases that a potential complex situation becomes less complicated and achievable.  Again, if you follow the now tried and tested recipe for survival under the specific conditions facing you, the outcome becomes predictable.  SOP's are there to make decision making easy under stressful and complicated conditions.

 o  Experience:  Experience is represented by knowing through own discovery.  Knowledge as a result of experience is first hand and normally believable, but there are discoveries we need not make through our own experience.  It is better to learn from another's experiences than your own, especially when the potential of harm is great.

 o  Becoming Aware:  To become aware represents your ability to be aware of the true and complete situation presenting itself.   You need your senses to become aware.  Under normal circumstances this comes naturally, but when we operate in an environment where we have not been before, or where our attention is forced to split between different issues presenting itself, our ability to fully comprehend deteriorates.

Skills:  In the development of Skills, the following products should be attained:

 o  Motor Skills:  Co-ordination skills are crucially important in all the development focus areas.

 o  Verbal:  Being conversant in the international aviation language is not the only requirement.  One must also understand the technical language of the environment.  To be able to speak "technical" as a language, one needs to understand the air vehicle technical to a very high degree.  The language we speak must cover all the focus areas and must be of such a standard that one can reason well enough in any situation presented in the cockpit or cabin.

 o  Cognitive:  The ability to think on the spot, to use information and to utilise logic to come to a point of decision making, takes not only knowledge and experience, but practice in any conceivable situation.  The ability to apply knowledge under varied circumstances is a developed skill and not just IQ.

 o  Emotional:  The ability to contain and restrain one's emotions is also a skill that needs training and constant attention.  Due to the fact that our strongest instinct is that of survival and the associated chemical release in our bodies when faced with adverse conditions, we need to learn to maintain our composure in order to attend efficiently to the crisis situation.

 o  People:  Our interactive skills need development.  As a crew member we need to have the ability to take advantage of the crew concept of synergy.  The team must be practised and well prepared for any situation that might arise.  People skills is an art that should be taught to suit the operational environment.

Attitude:  In the development of Attitude, the following products should be attained:

 o  Discipline:  One must be aligned with the facts, the norms and values and ultimately with the truth.  It is when we stray from the SOP's with no negative results that we interpret this as a safe shortcut.  The human ability to accept dangerous situations, especially when exposure to those situations yields no negative effect initially, creates a huge challenge to stay away from short cuts and wrong practices.  The fact is that negative behaviour will be rewarded with negative results, we just don't know when.

 o  Motive:  If our motives are honest, then we would follow procedure, but when dishonesty enters the equation, disaster is bound to follow sooner or later.

Human Design:  The human design or human factors considered here are those that are uncontrollable design attributes and limitations.  When things get out of hand and the human brain can no longer cope with the variety of stimuli.  We can only assimilate so much, pay so much attention, consider so many factors etc.  The following capabilities or capacities in the development of Human Design/Factors, need attention:

 o  Data Computation:  Data assimilated can only be computed at a certain design maximum rate.  One can only compute one set of data at any given time.  Complex situations will take longer to compute into usable form at the expense of time.

 o  Awareness:  We have only so many sensors to become aware, and we are designed to be aware only to a certain extent.  Awareness could be as little as zero, with an average of around 20% and when we only concentrate on one item, close to 100%.  However, when the complete set of circumstances is considered, we simply can't be totally aware of everything around us.  Our attention span is not capable of doing so.

 o  Stimulation vs Performance:  We need stimuli in order to have any level of performance.  There could be too little stimuli and on the other hand too much stimuli and thus an overload of the designed system.

  o  Stress Handling:  Some of us have a greater capacity to handle stress and to perform under stressful conditions.  Ones designed emotional strength or EQ differ from person to person.  The human design of Flight or Fight is seated in the Amygdala. This is our prehistoric brain, which is triggered before our thinking brain, seated in the neocortex.  This means that our emotions can take control before our rational brain has made sense of the situation.   With chemicals released our reactive motor skills get a boost, but our ability to be rational is dulled.  Excessive stress does make us less intelligent.

 o  Risk Acceptance:  Doing a dead stick landing is risky business.  The student will be petrified the first time, but as the student experiences that when the correct procedures are followed, that no harm comes with the experience.  This leads to the conscious or sub-conscious belief that "it is not that dangerous".  A more relaxed attitude towards this danger now takes the place of the initial terror experience.  The more dangers we are exposed to and the more we get away without having experienced any harm, the more we believe that we are invulnerable.  Should these beliefs be solely based on positive results that flowed from positive and correct actions, we are on the right path.  These beliefs are strengthened when no harm comes to us as short cuts are taken or when the SOP's are not followed.  The result is that we are in for a nasty surprise down the line.  Risk acceptance is thus good when it is controlled and supported by tried and tested procedures such as the action when faced with an engine cut.  Risk acceptance, when we have been lucky to get away with it until now, sets the stage for disaster in the future.

To be continued...