Personal Risk Management in Pilots

Keryn Anne Pauley

Research output: Other contribution


Risk management is a key component of aeronautical decision-making and one of the possible causes of pilot error (e.g., Jensen, Guilke, Hunter, 1997). Risk management encompasses risk perception and risk tolerance. Risk perception involves the detection of risks associated with a situation, whereas risk tolerance is the willingness to accept a given degree of risk (Hunter, 2002). Previous studies using flight simulators have found that risk perception and risk tolerance differs between pilots who fly into adverse weather and those who do not (e.g., O'Hare, Owen, Jorgensen, Wiegmann, Hunter, Mullen, 2007). The aim of this research was to assess risk perception and risk tolerance using scenario-based measures. The measure of risk perception was developed over three studies. Since risk perception is a skill which expert pilots exercise (Jensen et al., 1997), I used the Cochran-Weiss-Shanteau (CWS, Weiss Shanteau, 2003) index to measure how good pilots were at perceiving aeronautical risks. Weiss and Shanteau assumed that an expert should be able to discriminate between two relevant stimuli, and do so consistently. Participants were presented with flight scenarios and rated the risk involved in each scenario from 0 (low risk) to 100 (high risk). If a valid measure of expertise in risk perception, those with experience in aeronautical decision-making should have been better at this task. In study one the qualified pilots had higher and more variable CWS scores than the non-pilots, suggesting that some pilots were expert at this task, whereas most non-pilots were poor at this task. The focus of study two was shifted to weather-related decision-making (WRDM). Geography students, student pilots, and qualified pilots did not differ in their mean CWS scores, although the qualified pilots were most discriminating, and the geography students were most consistent. To decrease the reliance of the task on memory, study three included a blocking task in between each scenario. While only a small scale study, the results suggested that the blocking task improved the qualified pilots' performance while the geography students' performance deteriorated. In study four, I used Lopes's (1987) theory to measure risk tolerance in pilots. According to Lopes (1987), risk tolerant individuals are motivated by opportunity, or what they can gain from taking risks, whereas risk averse individuals are motivated by threat, or what they can lose from taking risks. Qualified pilots were presented with 36 flight scenarios, varying in the level of threat and opportunity. The pilots rated the likelihood of going on the flights. Multiple regression equations were calculated, measuring the influence of threat and opportunity on each pilot's ratings. Pilots were largely risk averse, as their ratings were influenced by threat. The two pilots whose ratings were influenced by opportunity had experienced more aviation incidents compared to the pilots who were not influenced by opportunity. The aim of study five was to assess the relationship between risk management and in-flight WRDM. Qualified pilots completed a simulated flight into adverse weather, and four-computer based measures: the expertise in risk perception measure developed in study three, the risk tolerance measure developed in study four, and two implicit association tests assessing implicit risk perception and anxiousness towards adverse weather. Twelve pilots continued beyond the critical decision point, 18 pilots diverted, and 2 pilots crashed. There was no relationship between in-flight WRDM and expertise in weather-related risk perception. However, the pilots who diverted gave higher ratings of risk during the CWS task compared to the pilots who crashed. The pilots who diverted also tended to be more risk averse and implicitly perceived more risk in adverse weather, compared to the pilots who continued, suggesting a relationship between risk management and decision-making in a simulated flight into adverse weather. These five studies further highlight the role of risk management in pilot decision-making. The tools developed in these studies have potential for measuring risk management in pilots.
Original languageEnglish
TypePhD Thesis
Publication statusPublished - 1990

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    Pauley, K. A. (1990). Personal Risk Management in Pilots.