The Number One Pilot Killer

The Number One Pilot Killer

The Number One Killer of Pilots

The Pilot Killer

It is common knowledge among aviators that the number one killer of pilots (within aviation) is pilot error.

Pilot error is most often caused by bad decisions made through poor judgment.  Sure, nothing new there, but, what exactly do we mean by poor judgment?

Maybe to better understand poor judgment, it would help to define good judgment.  Furthermore, we need to understand what we mean by good.

The quick answer is that “good” is concept fulfillment.  Something is good if it fulfills the concept of whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, or whatever it is you think something should be.

Therefore, good judgment is judgment that leads to good decisions, and by a “good” decision, we mean a decision that fulfills the concept of whatever it is that we are trying to do.

So, poor judgment is judgment that does not lead to good decisions, or in other words, decisions that do not fulfill the concept of whatever it is we are trying to do.  That may seem far removed from the practical aspects of flying.  However, the idea of good, of concept fulfillment, has extremely practical implications in every decision we make, and is a vital component of aviation decision-making.

For example, let’s say our goal is to fly from point A to point B.

Poor judgment would lead to decisions that do not fulfill the concept of a successful flight from point A to B.

We need evaluative judgment strong enough to make consistently good decisions, decisions that fulfill the concept, which in this case is a flight from point A to B.

Flying is a judgmentally demanding environment.  If our judgment is not up to the task of fulfilling the concept, we might say, “I was in over my head”.  What does that even mean, “… over my head”?

It means we did not have the judgment capacity to handle the judgment demands of the situation.  We simply were not able to interject strong enough judgment into the situation to handle the judgmental demands of the situation, and that can easily lead to “poor” decisions, decisions that do not fulfill the concept of a successful flight from point A to point B.  Certainly, anyone at any time can make a good decision, but if we have deficiencies in our ability to evaluate, it is just as likely that a good decision is due to serendipity and good luck as it is to our strong evaluative judgment.

The most common deficiency of evaluative judgment, within the overall population, is weakness within the systemic, which is our strategic, or “big picture” judgment.  Of course, many people, hopefully you, have very strong systemic judgment.  Unfortunately, many do not.

This is extremely problematic because it is within our systemic judgment that our personal radar resides.  Systemic judgment is that judgment that senses danger.  It is an understanding of implications and consequences, the notion that my current actions will influence my future outcomes.  It is that judgment that tells me to stop, turn around, be careful, slow down.

This can be even further exacerbated if someone is very strong extrinsically, which is their mission or task orientation.  Their desire to complete the mission can override any notions to slow down, or “maybe we shouldn’t launch” or “maybe we should wait until this weather flows through”, or “maybe it’s not such a good idea to buzz my girlfriend’s house”.

It is important to understand that merely because you are a pilot, and still alive, this does not infer that you have strong systemic judgment.  I have a database of over 30,000 profiles that suggests otherwise.  Obviously, one of the ways we can overcome weakness within our evaluative judgment is training, and more training.

If you have joined Pilot Judgment®, you already know the nature and character of your value structure.  We have measured your ability to evaluate, taken a cold hard look at your value structure, your value tendencies, and all the areas that will give your judgment a positive boost, or be a negative obstacle.

If you have not joined Pilot Judgment®, my advice, based on nothing except averages and trends within the population – is to slow down your decision making a little bit, make sure that you give due consideration to implications and consequences.  Ask the big systemic questions.  Why are we doing this?  What could go wrong?  What are the potential consequences of this decision?  What will this decision look like farther down the road?  Are we sure that this is a good idea?

Another technique to make sure that strategic consequences are being incorporated into your decisions is to consider best-case / worst-case scenarios.  What are the best, and worst, possible outcomes from the decision you are about to make?

Make sure that you compartmentalize before each flight.  It only takes a minute or so to place irrelevant issues into a cubbyhole in your mind, so that they will not negatively affect your judgment during your flight.  Don’t worry, they will be there for you to deal with after your post flight checklist is complete.

So, the answer to the question, “What is the number one killer of pilots?” goes beyond the broad notion of pilot error, to poor systemic judgment, a failure to fully consider the implications and consequences of what you are about to do.

Barry Hull is an expert in the field of evaluative judgment and decision-making. He helps organizations and individuals improve their success by helping them improve their ability to make good decisions and choices. Barry Hull is the founder of Pilot Judgment Inc. Additionally, he is a partner with the consulting firm, Athena Assessment Inc. He is a retired US Navy Commander, F/A-18 Hornet fighter pilot, combat decorated during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.


  1. E.H. in SC 10 years ago

    Great insight, even for non-pilots! Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this topic. It’s easy to see that other careers can be affected the same way.

    • Anita 10 years ago

      Yes, they indeed can.. When there is economic conjuncture, a rising tide lifts all boats, and good decisions can in fact result from poor judgment. It is very easy to make yourself believe that you have good judgment and great decision making skills – while that is actually far from the truth. And it is SO hard to see your own errors of judgment!

      • Author
        CDR Barry W. Hull, USNR (Retired) 10 years ago

        True statement Anita. Self-assessment is sometimes difficult. One of the best ways to determine the quality of evaluative judgment is to look at results, professionally and personally. I ask people, are your choices taking you where you want to go? If not, it can indicate weakness in areas of evaluative judgment.

    • Author
      CDR Barry W. Hull, USNR (Retired) 10 years ago

      Thanks E.H.

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