Flying comes with certain risks. After all, we as humans aren’t physically designed to soar through the skies alongside birds. Biology would say that we were meant to stay planted firmly on the ground. Still, to reach for the skies seems to be part of our DNA, so how do we do that in as safe a way as possible? Is there anything we can do to make aviation less risky?

Staying safe and mitigating risks are such a priority in the aviation industry today that there are whole teams and companies dedicated to creating formalized measures for achieving these goals. The development of these measures is commonly referred to as aviation risk management.

What is aviation risk management?

Aviation risk management is a term that refers to the process that companies and even individual pilots use to mitigate the inherent risks of aviation. During the risk management process, you will go from developing a high-level awareness of potential dangers to creating and executing a plan that reduces their potential impact.

Why is aviation risk management important?

A formal risk management plan is critical because it ensures that there is a methodical, well-planned out way of identifying potential safety hazards and minimizing their potential risk. Without a risk management plan in place, companies and pilots would lack a clear way to respond to hazards and the potential for catastrophic injury and accidents would increase.

What are the steps in the aviation risk management process?

The aviation risk management process can be broken down into 6 key steps. The steps are completed sequentially and then revisited as needed to address new hazards or to improve the effectiveness of the existing plan.

While the risk management process can be applied at an organizational level, as we walk through the steps, we will focus specifically on how you as a pilot can apply them in your cockpit.

1.      Foster Awareness of Hazardous Conditions

An awareness of hazardous conditions means thinking proactively. Before a specific risk situation even occurs, an experienced pilot knows what type of conditions and circumstances can lead to risk.

Your awareness grows over time as you gain experience with your aircraft. Training and mentoring can help as can communication.

Make a high-level Preliminary Hazard List (PHL) of potential dangers that you are aware of.

2.      Identify Specific Risks

Now it is time to identify specific risks. At this stage, you want to record detailed risk information by addressing the who, what, where, when, how and why questions regarding the hazardous conditions identified in the first step. Paint a picture of the exact risk.

3.      Conduct Risk Assessment

You know what specific situations you have reason to be concerned about. During your risk assessment step, you will determine the likelihood of the risk situation occurring and assess its worst possible severity.

The FAA’s Risk Assessment Matrix (see attachment 1) will help you categorize the threat level of the risk.


Rate the likelihood of the risk situation occurring as one of the following:

  • Improbable: So unlikely that it can be assumed it will never occur
  • Remote: Unlikely but possible
  • Occasional: Likely to occur at some time
  • Probable: Will occur several times
  • Frequent: Likely to occur often


                Rate the potential severity of damage should the risk situation occur.

  • Negligible: Less than minor injury and/or less than minor system damage
  • Marginal: Minor injury and/or minor system damage
  • Critical: Severe injury and/or major system damage
  • Catastrophic: Results in fatalities and/or loss of the system

Plot the Likelihood and Severity ratings on the Risk Assessment Matrix to find where they intersect. This determines the level of the risk and whether a plan needs to be put in place to mitigate the risk.  

Risk levels are defined as “low, medium, serious, and high.” Low level risks are those that are expected to happen at the most often occasionally and with only negligible severity. On the other end of the spectrum, high risks are those of critical severity whose likelihood of occurrence is judged to be at least probable as well as catastrophic risks occurring occasionally or more frequently.

4.      Determine What Risk Management Protocols/Procedures are Required

Prioritize your risks list based on risk levels identified in the previous step. This allows you to start by putting plans in place for the highest risk situations and working backwards from there.

Determine if the current risk is as low as reasonably practical (ALARP) since most risks cannot be completely eliminated.

For every risk that is not as ALARP, develop an action plan. Common actions include the addition of safety and warning devices and/or additional procedures and trainings.

5.      Implement Risk Management Protocols/Procedures

Now that you have a plan in place, it is time to implement.  The fewer people who are involved, the easier the implementation process is. People tend to dislike change, so be aware that you may face reactance and lack of buy in from others if they are being asked to alter the way they have always done things.

6.      Monitor and Assess Effectiveness of Risk Management Plan

Once the new plan is in place and is being followed, you will need to monitor and assess its results. Create a monitoring system that helps you answer the following questions:

  • Is the plan being consistently followed?
  • Has the risk level decreased?
  • Has the risk level reached as low as reasonably practical risk levels?

7.      Modify Plan as Needed

During your assessment you may realize that the risk management plan, while implemented, has not decreased the risk to acceptable levels. If so, re-evaluate the plan and adjust as indicated.

Implement the revised plan and continue to monitor results. Repeat these steps until the risk level becomes as low as reasonably practical.

3 essential traits for successful aviation risk management

As you work your way through development and implementation of your risk management program, check in with yourself and ensure you are embodying the 3 key traits that are essential for a success.

1.      Situational Awareness

Having a high level of situational awareness means you are constantly alert and highly attuned to your surroundings. You know what normal looks, sounds, smells and feels like. If anything abnormal occurs, you notice it right away.

This is crucial because little things can be big things. The sooner you notice a small anomaly in your aircraft or your surroundings, the more time you have to determine if there is a problem. This gives you time to take corrective action before the situation becomes catastrophic.

2.      Problem Recognition

Once you become aware of an abnormal situation, it is key to develop your problem recognition skills. Too often we may be tempted to dismiss a seemingly small and insignificant anomaly. As pilots, that snap judgment could easily prove fatal. Train yourself to ask, “What is the worst problem that this anomaly could indicate?” Then investigate and if a problem does exist, recognize it.

3.      Good Judgment

The final key component to bring with you on your risk management journey is good judgment. You have noticed the minor anomaly and you have recognized the problem. The final step is to make a judgment call on what to do next. If this problem occurs in the air, it is critical that you use good judgment to decide what your best, safest course of action is. Do you turn around? Do you maintain course? Do you divert to a different airport?

Good judgment is honed by years of experience, but if you are a young pilot who doesn’t have the personal experience yet, there are still ways to cultivate good judgment. Practice thinking of different scenarios that could occur mid-flight and go over what your response would be. Read books that other pilots have written to share situations that happened to them. Before they share how they responded to the problem, decide what you would do in that situation. Then read their response and the outcome.

Finally, if possible, find a good mentor who is willing to invest time coaching you and helping you develop your skills. Later in your career, pay it forward and become a mentor yourself.


Some level of risk is inherent to flying, but as responsible aviators, we must do everything within our power to decrease our risk level. We can take charge and manage our risk by developing and implementing a risk management program.

A good risk management program includes:

  • Developing awareness of the hazards
  • Identifying specific risks
  • Conducting a risk assessment to determine how likely a risk situation is to occur and how severe the repercussions are likely to be
  • Determining what risk management protocols or procedures are needed to reduce risk to an acceptable level
  • Implementing the new protocols/procedures
  • Monitoring and accessing the effectiveness of the risk management plan
  • Modifying the plan as needed based on the effectiveness assessment

The 3 traits that you must cultivate in order to maximize your risk management success are:

  • Situational awareness
  • Problem recognition
  • Good judgment

By developing and implementing a solid risk management plan and cultivating the skills to recognize and successfully handle problems that do arise, you will be well on your way to a lifetime of the safest possible flying.


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