Aviation Decision Making – Spatial Awareness and Cognitive Load

Decision-making in the air diverges significantly from decision-making on the ground. Pilots grapple with inherent challenges when it comes to managing three-dimensional space. Spatial awareness becomes critical, introducing complexities beyond traditional two-dimensional decision-making. Cognitive load escalates as pilots must factor in altitude, pitch, roll, and yaw, alongside lateral and longitudinal dimensions.

Understanding these challenges is pivotal for pilots navigating the complexities of aviation decision-making.

Why Decision-Making Models?

As a pilot, you are expected to be knowledgeable not wise in air. All the wisdom lies in high order thinking which can’t really be done in distracted environment. The philosophy “sweat in peace so you don’t bleed in war” encapsulates the essence of preparing for challenging situations, and it aligns well with the development of decision-making models.

Decision-making models are essential for pilots because they provide structured frameworks to navigate complex situations and make optimal choices.

  • Systematic and Structed Approach to problem-solving
  • Effective Risk Management – these models are developed with multiple simulations
  • Promotes consistency in the decision-making process
  • Helps you get out of startle and unstructured thoughts


FOR-DEC is one of the widely used decision-making model in Aviation. It was developed in the 1990s by Lufthansa and the German Aerospace Center. FOR-DEC is a six-letter mnemonic, and each letter represents a phase of the decision-making process. These phases outline a systematic process for decision-making, emphasizing the importance of thorough information gathering, prioritization, and evaluation.

The way people explain each step can be a bit different, but here’s a simple breakdown:

    • Facts: What’s the issue? Here you need to understand current state of aircraft and intensity of emergency.
    • Options: It’s about considering various alternatives or courses of action to address a particular situation or challenge.
    • Risks: What are the merits and drawbacks of each option?
    • Decision: What is the best course of action with available information?
    • Execution: Who does what, when, and how?
    • Check: Is everything going as planned, or are there any issues that need attention?

The hyphen between the ‘R’ and ‘D’ is meant to prompt the pilot to pause and reflect, ensuring that nothing crucial was overlooked and that all available information has been thoroughly considered.

Stress and Decision Making

In your flying career, you may have memorized checklists or encountered lists of memory actions for time-critical situations. A moderate level of stress can be beneficial, as it focuses your attention in the cockpit and contributes to the effective execution of these procedures.

While some stress can enhance short-term decision-making, it may impede the proper decision-making process. The pressure can lead to hasty decisions, deviating from the structured decision-making model and blocking crucial input.

It is crucial for a pilot to adhere to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to discern when to be proactive and when to be reactive in a given situation. At no point of time checklist procedures should be done by memory. Resist the urge to rush; instead, utilize pen and paper if necessary. Many urgent situations in the air have memory items associated with them. Find a balance—neither rushing hastily nor delaying endlessly is advisable.

Decision making fallacies

Input and Output Balance

Make decisions decisively without constantly dwelling on ‘what if’ scenarios. Adhere to the decision-making model, acting based on available inputs rather than speculative imaginations. It is important to keep input and output balanced.

Individuality of events

Not all events in the air are interconnected; they may or may not have any relation. In such cases, a pilot’s knowledge is crucial for accurate understanding. Avoid making unfounded guesses that may confuse others. Stick to your checklists; they account for all possible connections.

Anchoring Bias

This is the condition of fixation on initial information or the first solution considered and not adjusting adequately in response to new information. Don’t not mistake it as contrary fallacy to individuality of events. Anchoring bias is catered in crosscheck phase of FOR-DEC.

Outcome Bias

Just because you nailed it doesn’t mean you were right at first place. Not every day may be lucky. Judging the quality of a decision based on its outcome rather than considering the decision-making process is biggest threat for experienced pilots.

Recommended Video Link

Decision Making in Commercial Flight Operations (youtube.com)

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