(August 2011) At the end of my previous article I wrote that “pressure is at the heart of most accidents.” As I read through the final proof copy of that article, it struck me that there is more to the story than that. Even though pressure seems to be a significant factor in many accidents, there are plenty of pilots who experience intense pressure during a flight but don’t give in to that pressure. Pressure isn’t really a problem unless we let it affect our reasoning and decision making. People who are feeling a lot of pressure may resort to wishful thinking, analyzing the situation according to what they would like the outcome to be rather than carefully assessing available data and considering potential consequences of all courses of action. Sometimes the person is merely biased toward the desired solution, but in extreme cases the person’s brain may actually block evidence contrary to the desired outcome. This can easily lead to decisions that would make no sense to someone analyzing the available information without any pressure influencing judgment.
There is another factor that can greatly increase the likelihood of this happening — fatigue. People who are tired are not going to be able to think as clearly as when they are fresh and well rested. Thinking takes an amazing amount of energy, especially in a critical situation when a decision must be made under pressure without all the necessary or desired information. In that kind of situation, it is very easy for fatigued people simply to give in and take the path toward the outcome they most desire, hoping that “everything will work out OK.”
The crash of a corporate jet on an aborted landing illustrates the potentially deadly outcome of pressure, fatigue and wishful thinking. There were a number of disturbing items in the NTSB report. For example, the crew had apparently not even checked the en route or arrival weather before or during the flight, and they did not seem concerned when the destination AWOS reported thunderstorms and lightning in all quadrants, or even when the controller asked if they saw extreme precipitation 20 miles straight ahead.