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Flight Safety — “Confirmation biases”- Fearsome foe By: Johan Lottering

IF PROPERLY trained and fully aware of surroundings and the overall situation, pilots are rarely caught out by minor deviations. They usually “expect the unexpected”. To understand the mind-set, consider what a former airline captain, Adriaan Fischer, used to say: “A crew should be so mentally prepared for an emergency during each take-off as to be disappointed if nothing goes wrong.”

If we were to remove that same crew from the protected airline environment and add fatigue and a few minor deviations, such as unserviceable surface and on-board equipment, they might find matters far more challenging. One of the worst underlying causes of poor decision making is “confirmation biases”. It is far worse than being prejudicial.

The psychological phenomenon is a two-edged sword, lethal when mental defences are low and equally lethal when super-high. The challenge to accident investigators is to bear in mind correlation does not always establish cause and effect. Years after a report a missing link might linger on. We can tell what happened, but not why.

Even policy makers are sometimes very close, but not spot-on. Ever since the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) identified Controlled Flight-into- Terrain (CFIT) as “Public Enemy Number One” all sorts of remedies have been concocted, like a CFIT checklist. It makes perfect sense to a perky crew in a sterile environment, but very little evidence proves it works.


We hope it does, but there is no way of measuring results. That is probably why ICAO introduced the concept of the Safety Management System (SMS).

Often our way of thinking limits us to “confirmation biases”. The mental condition according to Robert S. Feldman in Social Psychology, Ed. 3 (2001; p. 70) …reflects the tendency to seek out, interpret, or formulate information that is consistent with one’s current beliefs. He further explains confirmation biases cause us to detect what we think we ought to detect.

That’s true for both policy makers and crew members.

A classic South African accident on June 1, 2002 perhaps depicts a form of confirmation biases.

The crew of a Hawker Siddeley 748 flying from Bloemfontein to George was trying to intercept the Instrument Landing System (ILS) localiser beam in clouds.

They were turning onto the final approach segment for landing on Runway 29. Yet, the signal never came alive. They could simply not contemplate the scenario.......................... For the FULL ARTICLE please subscribe to our digital edition.

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