Aviation Decision Making

By Aviation Division, Directorate of Assessments and Prevention, United States Army Combat Readiness CenterApril 1, 2021

On May 6, 2018, a AH-64 Apache helicopter from Task Force Ragnar comes in to land at the tactical assembly area established in the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Cali.
On May 6, 2018, a AH-64 Apache helicopter from Task Force Ragnar comes in to land at the tactical assembly area established in the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Cali. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Capt. Katherine Zins) VIEW ORIGINAL

Aviation decision making, in and of itself, sounds like it should be rather cut and dry. We hear the term used frequently yet, we still often fail to make the best decisions while leading an aviation unit, briefing aviation missions, approving missions and also while behind the controls of an aircraft. Aviation is very intolerant of bad decisions or mistakes. Whether the decision is complex or simple, making a poor decision can rapidly escalate into a catastrophic sequence of events. The key to making good decisions is to understand that Army aviation operations require a holistic look at the mission, the crew, the aircraft, and possible complications that could be encountered.

The Mission

Each mission is different. While the task supporting the mission may be the same such as executing a sling load or engaging the enemy from a battle position, no two missions will have the same variables. The most important consideration for making good decisions is first making an informed decision whether the unit can execute the mission. This requires the leader to make the decision to review all the resources available and the variables that could impact the mission completion. Once the leader has the information and has reviewed it, he can then make an informed decision to accept or reject the mission. Here you can immediately see, while aviation units have matrices, charts and regulations citing hard numbers and directives. There is still a decision process that may move a “charted” acceptance of a mission to a rejection based on a variable or variables known at the time of the mission request or at the time the mission is slated for execution.

On the other hand, when a mission is accepted, the same informed decision-making effort must continue. The leader and aviation crewmembers must now develop the mission through planning, rehearsing and briefing. Once again, decision points develop as this process moves forward. During each phase, questions and variables surface. These are the decision points to which leaders and crewmembers apply necessary controls to negate or, in certain situations, cause a rejection/modification of the mission. Following the planning process, the mission should continue to resolve issues and mitigate risk through conducting a rehearsal.

The rehearsal, even with time constraints, is one of the most critical actions that can be taken to maximize shared understanding to enable leaders to make informed decisions. Following the rehearsal, the mission briefing should be finalized while understanding that there are branches and sequels which can occur with changes in variables. Variables that arise during the mission brief may not remain constant yet when identified as possibilities won’t come as a surprise. Especially if the time from mission acceptance to mission execution is over a longer period of time. Conditions can change (enemy situation, weather, crews, aircraft availability, and fuel.) Mission briefing officers and approval authorities must be prepared to adjust fire on the mission brief and approval due to the very fluid nature of combat operations and combat operations training.

The Crew

The aircrew is the last dynamic in the decision-making process. The aircrew, from pre-flight through post-flight, is responsible for real-time decision making while the mission is in progress. The plan is the starting point and those Army aviation crewmembers who have flown for a while understand that once the aircraft leaves the ground and is in mission profile, variables encountered can be from small, such as a pair of night vision goggles failing to large such as an engine failure in flight while at max gross aircraft weight. While these variables may have been addressed during the planning and rehearsal process, aircrews must remain ready to make the right decisions based on the circumstances immediately in front of them. No book or regulation can cover every single possibility; aircrews will always be counted on to make the best decision based on the current circumstances. Training aircrews realistically and requiring them to make real-time decisions is the only way to strengthen their ability to respond correctly to unplanned events. Leaders can assist their aircrews on decision making by ensuring they are rigorously trained to make decisions through situational training exercises in the simulator and awareness, discussion, and collaboration.

 The Aircraft

The aircraft impacts the decision-making process. Numerous mishap investigations have shown that many times the chain of events leading up to a mishap involves the aircraft, aircraft maintenance, or improper maintenance actions. Aviation missions don’t happen without an aircraft, so the availability of an aircraft plays a role in the decision-making process. At all levels of maintenance and operations, leaders, planners, and aircrews are required to address aircraft as an integral part of their decision-making process. Some examples are:

Production Control- Decisions are made establishing the priority of efforts for aircraft maintenance. During high workload time frames, critical decisions are required to determine the availability of aircraft for missions. Decisions by the production control officer flow down through the maintenance sections requiring more decision making on the part of supervising noncommissioned officers (NCO) and enlisted maintainers. The amplification of production pressures to meet mission requirements continues to generate additional decision points from the start of a maintenance procedure, through the quality control inspection, and if necessary, the completion of a maintenance test flight.

Flight Operations- Decisions by the flight operations section on mission request acceptance generate follow-on decisions by creating the need to determine the best crew for a mission. Operations officers and NCOs are relied on to make informed decisions on what aircrew members to recommend to the commander who will provide the best outcome for a particular mission, this decision becomes more critical when missions are complex, require multiple aircraft, and when available crews are limited.

Possible Complications

Along each step in the mission execution process, there are possible complications. These complications typically result from one or more variables that can arise and create decision points from the assignment of a mission to the post-flight following mission completion. Each section of an aviation unit, whether they understand it or not, plays a vital role in making good decisions that culminate in the unit to successfully accomplishing the mission. Poor decision making on the part of a refueler managing a hot refuel closed-circuit nozzle to a Black Hawk can result in a fuel fire and loss of an aircraft and injuries or death. Poor decision making on the part of the motor pool NCO can result in the unavailability of necessary vehicles to support logistics transport of critical aviation parts. Poor decisions by the pilot during an emergency procedure can result in a damaged or destroyed aircraft and injury to personnel. Poor decisions by a maintainer or a quality control NCO during aviation maintenance can result in aircraft damage or initiate the mishap sequence of the aforementioned failed emergency procedure.

The list of possible complications that can occur during aviation operations is unlimited. If units train their leaders and Soldiers on decision making and the implications of making poor decisions, each member of the aviation team will continue to improve their ability to overcome complications. No team member should believe they are not an integral part of the unit completing a mission safely. Leaders should integrate decision-making training into their unit training program with emphasis on the importance of each member of the team. It is just as important for a private first class in the refuel section as it is for the CW4 standardization instructor pilot to understand decision making and its influence on the operational safety of the mission.


Understanding the mission, the crew, the aircraft, and possible complications that could be encountered allows the commander to structure unit decision-making training which assists in mitigating the risk of poor decisions. To reduce aviation unit risk to mission and force requires the commander and leaders to look at the aviation unit holistically and understand that every member of the unit makes decisions that impact the mission. Unit personnel should be trained on decision making and how important proper decision making is to reduce mission failure, aircraft damage, personnel injury and death.