We’re all human, and we all suffer from the same silly human ways of thinking, doing, and existing. However, we all have a part to play in how much we allow the monkey part of our brain to come to the surface, and how much control we give it. When it comes to the term “Defensive Flying” we usually refer to how vigilant or complacent we are as pilots, and how much Threat Error Management (TEM) we incorporate into our daily operations. Where do you belong on this spectrum, and how can you push yourself to become a more vigilant pilot? Let’s find out!

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The Benefits of Defensive Flying

Why do you want to fly defensively? There are so many really good reasons. Flying an aircraft in the ‘correct’ and ‘safe’ way, while complying with the limitations, is not quite enough to be the safest pilot you could be.

It’s the way you operate and the way you think: your habits – that dictates if the outcome of what you do every day is good or bad. Let’s cover the biggest reasons you should aspire to adopt the defensive flying concept:

Defensive flying

Pro-Active Threat Error Management

Threat Error Management (TEM) is a framework that most companies and training schools are heavily focussed on ingraining into pilots across the globe. TEM basically breaks down everything we do on a given day into 3 categories:

1) What could pose threats
2) In what way could those threats cause harm
3) How can we manage those threats in such a way, that an unsafe outcome is the least likely throughout the operation

When you fly defensively, you are thinking about potential threats in a pro-active way. You think of the ways things could go wrong before you even get to them.

Doing this can help massively with navigating difficult situations caused by circumstances outside your control, because you’ve already thought it through! When you do this, you are actively pursuing a higher degree of flight safety, which is exactly what we’re going for!

Increased Situational Awareness

Flying defensively also means you’re constantly making sure you take in all the available information around you in the most accurate way possible. This is basically what we call Situational Awareness (SA).

SA isn’t something you either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’, you have to actively chase it and put a conscious effort into constantly updating yourself with the most accurate version of reality. This includes information from the pilot next to you, the instruments, information from outside, ATC, etc.

Mitigating Human Errors

It’s not only the technical bits of flying that you get to benefit from when you fly defensively. We make plenty of errors as humans, and when you fly defensively, it means you assume we can make mistakes and actively try to catch them when they happen. It means active monitoring as Pilot Monitoring (PM), and crosschecking yourself and your colleagues during flight, without taking things personally.

Handling Unforeseen Circumstances and Emergencies

Probably the biggest benefit of defensive flying is the fact that you’ll be better prepared for when things inevitably do not go according to plan.

  • If the engine fails in a single engine aircraft, you’ll already have a field lined up.
  • If there’s a fuel leak, you’ll already have a diversion in mind
  • And if the weather changes, you’ve already thought of a way to go around those pesky CB’s and navigate to a different airport.

If you don’t fly defensively, any of these can cause massive amounts of chaos in short timeframes, as the solutions will not be as straightforward compared to when you have options lined up at all times.

Improved Crew Coordination

Probably the most neglected benefit is the fact that the entire crew gains from defensive flying. An increased amount of vigilance during flight means you’ll pick up non verbal cues from your colleagues quicker, and will notice that they might be stressed about something that you haven’t picked up on, and that they haven’t communicated yet. Being vigilant in a multi pilot environment has a lot of benefits, whether you’re the Pilot Flying (PF) or PM.

How to Spot Complacency

To spot a complacent mindset, you need to ask yourself how many assumptions you make without actual evidence to back it up. Are the assumptions you’ve made things that have already happened, or are they about things to come?

No one can predict the future, so if you spot yourself assuming future happenings, pull yourself back to reality and come up with a plan B.

The question has been asked plenty of times if the label ‘complacency’ is useful when we talk about flight safety, or if we should call it ‘risk perception and tolerance’. When an unsafe outcome occurs, we should ask ourselves 2 main questions:

1) Was the risk level I perceived the same as the actual risk level?
2) Should I have accepted the perceived level of risk, or not?

Both of these questions show us how risk aware we are, and how much risk we are willing to tolerate when going into situations. If you want to spot complacency in yourself, these are the main complacency symptoms and risk factors to look out for:

  • You feel fatigued, or just behind the aircraft.
  • You skip steps of SOP’s or checklists.
  • You feel overly comfortable / confident and do not actively pursue an accurate understanding of potential threats or push yourself to learn more.
  • You notice yourself drifting off in thought during flight, resulting in a lack of acute awareness.
  • You rely too much on automation: Over-reliance on automated systems without actively monitoring their performance can indicate you might have too much trust in the systems you’re working with.
  • You’re on a repetitive or routine flight: Complacency can be more likely during familiar and routine flights, so be extra cautious in such situations. Flying back to base, where you’ve probably landed over a thousand times by now, is a common place for complacency.
  • You have a lot of assumptions regarding the current weather conditions: Especially if your route does not have any planned poor weather, you could easily get sucked into thinking you’re all good for the day, and not check back to spot changes.
  • You’re assuming your communication methods are clear and easy to understand: has ATC and your other pilot actually understood what your message was, have you verified that?
  • You’re assuming the other pilot flies accurately and there are large gaps between crosschecks and scans

A Vigilance Checklist for Pilots

So what can you do as a pilot to check your levels of vigilance, to increase overall flight performance and safety? You could assess this and see where you can improve by comparing your own habits and behaviours, to the ones that are linked to vigilance.

We’ve designed a vigilance checklist in PDF form, that you can download at the bottom of the article. Save it, and come back to it when you’re looking for ways to improve your overall vigilance as a pilot!

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Vigilance is the antidote for complacency. While complacency can creep up on anyone, it’s up to us to make sure we keep reflecting on our in-flight habits and attitudes, and see where we can improve!

Feel free to share this article if you’ve found it useful to assess your own performance, and please don’t hesitate to contact us via thecrew@pilotswhoaskwhy.com!

Janine Lythe

S92 Senior First Officer | Co-Founder of Pilots Who Ask Why | Project Manager | Former Flight Instructor


Anonymous · August 10, 2023 at 3:27 AM

Great article. Well done.

David Wallace · August 7, 2023 at 2:27 PM

Thank you for the reminders and tips. Great job!

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