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Decisions, Decisions

You’ve just returned from finishing a load on what you thought was your last flight of the morning. The temperature is rising, the winds are coming up, and you’ve already treated 3,000 acres. You reach the loading area and are just about to shut down when the mixer/loader hands you a last-minute worksheet. It’s got “high priority” stamped all over as it’s a canola crop being decimated by Bertha armyworms.

You take a quick look at the worksheet. Just one load with a short ferry. Decision time! While both winds and temps are coming up, they are still within limits, so you give the signal to load.

You tap the GPS coordinates into your nav program and look at the farmer’s map attached to the worksheet—big red barn in the northeast corner, stone piles in the south end. No obstacles indicated, so there shouldn’t be any issues.

Load is completed, and off you go, climbing to 500 feet AGL enroute. You notice in the climb it’s getting bumpy, starting at 300 feet. Probably wind shear. A couple of miles to go, and you see the big red barn and the stone miles. Good to go!

But wait! At the north end, you see the large towers of a 230 kV power line running through the field. Big surprise as it wasn’t on the farmer’s map! A decision has to be made to go over or under. If over, you’ll have to contend with wind shear on pullup to clear the towers, as well as having to run quite a few trim runs parallel to and on both sides of the line. If under, the line is sagging a bit with the increased temperature and bears a close look to ensure it is safe to do so. Decision time again! After a close inspection, you decide the best option is to go under.

One last review of the farmer’s map, and you notice a susceptible field marked to the east. With the westerly flow that makes it downwind. Is it far enough away to ensure no drift issues? Winds are still within limits, but you decide to leave a sizeable buffer zone just to make sure.

One last decision: racetrack or back-to-back? If the powerline weren’t there, racetrack would be best, but the powerline is there. You decide that back-to-back would be the better option and give the field one last survey while setting up the first swath. Beyond the power line at the north end is a paved road, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for traffic. Another decision to make; it shouldn’t be a problem.

That’s when you note you will be flying into the sun towards the powerline. Is glare going to be a factor?   One quick test run, and you decide it won’t be a problem. Decision: it’s a go! You run your first pass and, in due time, complete the application safely and effectively.

That scenario is typical of day-to-day ag operations, where sometimes it seems as if your helmet is on fire with decision after decision to make. Considering the serious consequences of making a bad decision – something which we’ve all done and hopefully have gotten away with – a review of the many factors that can contribute to good decision making is always a fruitful topic.

I have been very fortunate in my early career as an ag pilot to have met several individuals who were not only highly experienced but were willing to share that knowledge with the greenhorn that I was. A seasoned Kiwi ag pilot told me that good decision-making starts the moment you wake up and begin preparing for the day’s flights. Your attitude should be shifted into “Safety First” mode, which should form the cornerstone of all the decisions you will have to make that day.

When deciding whether a trip is a go or no-go, you need to answer two questions:  will it be safe, and will it be effective. If the answer to both is not an immediate “Yes!” instead of a lot of humming and hawing, the trip should be left until you get that resounding “Yes!” answer.

When things are going smoothly, the workload light, and there isn’t a pressing need to complete a trip, it’s easy to make good decisions, one of which is saying “No, this trip can wait!” when conditions so dictate. But once you get into a scenario where distressed farmers are lined up at the office because a sudden infestation of pests is destroying their crop, the weather limits are marginal, and you’ve already flown 23 trips (or was that 24 or 25) and fatigue is beginning to creep in, it’s a lot harder to make the correct decision to say “No.”

This is especially true when you are new to the business and feel the onus is on you to get the job done, even if it means pressing the many factors that go into making treatments safe and effective.

An interesting approach I’ve used to assist in the correct decision-making process started when my friend and I were working together off the same strip. We both carried a box of Cigarillos, even though neither of us was a smoker. Whenever it looked like conditions were getting to where a “Go/No Go” decision had to be made, one or the other would say over the radios, “time for a smoke.” We would both shut down and get together to discuss things rather than continue until it was really obvious operations needed to cease.

In most cases, just taking that little break was enough to put things in the right perspective and make the decision to stop flying until conditions improved. Whether it’s a smoke break, coffee break, or water break, make sure taking a break is SOP for your operation.

Another ‘trick of the trade’ when faced with critical decision-making is to imagine six months in the future. What would people remember of the day when you decided to cease flying operations instead of continuing in marginal conditions with a resultant accident, incident, or non-effective application. As with many things, when you’re right, no one remembers, but when you’re wrong, no one forgets.

NOTE:  FAA’s “Aeronautical Decision Making” and Transport Canada’s “Human Factors for Aviation – Basic Handbook” are both excellent resources for learning more about the decision-making process specific to aviation.

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