Plan Continuation Bias: Just Another Name for Get-There-Itis

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Single-pilot light aircraft operations require good raining, sound procedures, excellent motor skills—and an awareness of our own cognitive bias.

April 2015-

Flying offers so many possibilities. As pilots we can pull our aircraft out of the hangar virtually anytime we want and sail to any horizon. It's a privilege that comes with immense responsibility.

When we deploy our aircraft, we have tools to keep us safe. Combined with our training, these tools can take much of the risk out of operating aircraft.

The term fail-safe is often used to describe many of our critical light aircraft components, and our Cessnas are built with intelligent systems that consider human factors and have ample safety margins. In many cases there are redundancies so if one system fails, another takes over. But what about the system between our ears? That system is responsible for thousands of tasks and decisions each and every flight.

Fortunately for us, it works remarkably well. Through disciplined use of procedures, good training and excellent motor skills, we can maintain very high levels of safety. But our brains aren't without fault.

Cognitive bias
There are several areas where our old dependable noggin can let us down in a big way. Scientific communities have determined several biases that impact human performance in the area of powered flight, and one bias in particular can be lethal. It's called Plan Continuation Bias, and you may know it as get-there-itis.

The term Plan Continuation Bias originated over 10 years ago from a NASA Ames Research Center study that identified it as causal in almost half of the 19 airline accidents that occurred between 1991 and 2000.

But don't think that just because this research focused on airline accidents your Cessna is exempt. Plan Continuation Bias is even more prevalent in single-pilot light aircraft operations; NASA simply doesn't devote resources to forensically study each small plane event.

VFR into IMC, fuel exhaustion, thunderstorm penetration, wind shear encounter and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) are pilot errors we are all familiar with. Not all of these accidents are caused by get-there-itis, but if we could thoroughly investigate them and drill down into the human factors involved, we would likely find Plan Continuation Bias at the forefront.

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