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Horse Sense

Do you know the difference between genius and stupidity? ... genius has its limits.

I have seen arguments in the aviation community that there is no such thing as horse sense – common sense – when it comes to the operation of an airplane. Think about it. The definition of "common sense" is "the unreflective opinions of ordinary people forming sound and prudent but often unsophisticated judgment."

Judgment is "the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing." It is important to the pilot that discerning and prioritizing is done in a manner consistent with the problem that he is trying to resolve.

When a judgment is acted upon by intuition, the situation often goes astray. We know that some aviation activities do not lend themselves to intuition, for example, the spin. When an airplane enters a spin you would swear that the nose is pointing straight down at the ground. Intuition screams, "Pull up the nose." But we know that this prolongs the stalled condition allowing the airplane to continue to spin. In this case it is wise to set aside the intuitive reaction and resort to a conditioned reflex of relaxing the back pressure (or making a brisk forward movement of the control wheel in some airplanes) to fly out of the resulting dive.

Jackson Hole Airport and the Grand Teton Mountains. Something as innocent as fog over the airport can be a problem if you don't have adequate fuel reserves to divert to an alternate airport.

Judgment may also be dealt with as factual knowledge, not wishful thinking. Deduction may be more useful in solving a particular dilemma, for example, mechanical failure of the engine, unforecast weather conditions and fuel shortage. An analysis of the particular event leads to solving the problem.

It is necessary to prioritize during any predicament. If the engine has failed, the first priority is to fly the airplane. Next we search for a suitable landing area. And finally we troubleshoot, trying the mixture, throttle and mags. If these don’t work in solving the problem, the airplane is flown to a suitable landing area and the forced landing executed.

Unforecast weather conditions may present more of a dilemma for the pilot. This is especially true if he doesn’t have the experience of dealing with the various weather conditions to the extent that he can predict their likely outcome, such as continued deterioration of the ceiling and/or visibility. Analysis by an inexperienced pilot should first involve the 180-degree turn. If the weather conditions continue to degrade, land at the nearest suitable airport. Study what is going on from the safety of the ground.


Whenever someone tells me there is no such thing as common sense actions in an airplane, I try to expose them to the following definitions, then put them in perspective.

Sense – the faculty of perceiving by means of sense organs as sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch, basically involving a stimulus and a sense organ, the sensory mechanisms constituting a unit distinct from other functions such as movement or thought.

Assessment – the action or an instance of assessing, to determine the importance, size, or value of.

Value Judgment – a judgment assigning a value (as good or bad) to something.

Estimate – means to judge something with respect to its value, worth or significance. It implies a judgment, considered or casual, that precedes or takes the place of actual measuring or counting or testing out "estimated the crowd at two hundred."

Evaluate – suggests an attempt to determine relative or intrinsic worth or value in terms other than monetary. Evaluate is to determine the significance, worth, or condition of a situation by careful appraisal and study.

Assess – implies a critical appraisal for the purpose of understanding or interpreting, or as a guide in taking action.

Perspicacity – of acute mental vision or discernment.

Sagaciousness – of keen and farsighted penetration and judgment.

Value judgment

Some pilots try to ignore the reality of a situation. When running short of fuel they try to justify continuing toward the destination by reasoning that they did the preflight planning and there has to be enough fuel.

They justify the cognitive decision to continue because of their empirical factual knowledge of the fuel burn and the time they have flown. Although the fuel gauges show ‘empty,’ they continue discounting the common sense that a fuel cap may not be seated allowing a slow siphoning of the reserve or ignoring the possibility of a drain being stuck open. In this case the pilot’s capacity for forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing has been reduced to wishful thinking.

Often the novice pilot, compared to the experienced pilot, is more successful in dealing with unexpected contingencies. They do not have the experience necessary to become complacent.

For example, the experienced pilot may get caught in the trap of "continued VFR flight into adverse weather conditions; whereas the novice will turn tail and head for an alternate airport at the first sign of unacceptable ceiling or visibility. Remember the successful outcome of scud running — intentionally flying during adverse weather such as a low ceiling or reduced visibility condition — demands that the pilot develop rules pertaining to his minimum ceiling and visibility for continuing flight. Otherwise, he too, makes the 180-degree turn, or puts the airplane on the ground.


Whether you are out practicing takeoffs and landings in a 20-knot crosswind, flying in canyons and valleys, or flying cross country, it is imperative that you think ahead of the airplane and play the "what if" game. "What if" the engine fails? "What if" I experience a downdraft as I approach a ridge? "What if" the weather turns sour?

Develop a plan of action, such as diversion to an alternate, to deal promptly and effectively with these questions.

In other words, use common sense.

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