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DODAR: How to Think Like a Pilot (Facing an Emergency)

Three and a half minutes. That’s how little time passed from US Airways flight 1549 hitting a flock of birds to the A320 safely landing in New York City’s Hudson river. You’ve heard the story of pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger whose plane lost thrust in both engines shortly after takeoff. Within seconds, he made the call to attempt a water landing. Welcome to the world of pilot decision-making. It’s fast-paced, high-stakes and full of acronyms. And DODAR is one of the most common ones. Here’s how it works and what we can learn from those who both fly and think for a living.

What Is a DODAR?

DODAR is a decision-making tool used in aviation by pilots and crew members to solve problems during unexpected situations or emergencies. The acronym stands for Diagnose, Options, Decide, Assign Tasks and Review. Simply put, it assists the crew in making decisions under pressure. The process is applicable to any environment really. Though it was specifically developed for aeronautical decision-making.

Pilots operate in a unique environment. A winged aluminium tube cruising at 35,000 feet. While in the air, they manage risks and make decisions on a continuous basis. They must deal with changing weather conditions, ensure fuel efficiency, factor in the state of their crew and nail the obligatory cabin announcements. According to airline pilot Charlie Page, excellent workload management is key to avoiding dangerous situations from happening in the first place.

Since the 1980s, the field of aeronautical decision-making has come a long way systematising pilots’ mental processes. The FDA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge dedicates a whole chapter to it. Today, pilots use structured approaches “to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances” depending on the latest available information. This includes unusual situations and emergencies when the pressure to make the right decision is at its peak. Which brings us back to DODAR.

DODAR In Action

Used by British Airways, DODAR is one of many cognitive tools used in aviation to aid decision-making whenever something unexpected happens during flight. Let’s go through the five-step method by putting us in the pilot seats of a jetliner that suddenly loses altitude. Just note, with only one introductory flight lesson, I’m not a qualified pilot. So while I do rely on authentic sources, please take my applied aviation knowledge with a grain of salt.

Diagnose

Whenever an issue comes up, the first step is to determine and/or confirm the problem and its root causes. A loss of altitude and thrust, for example, are mere symptoms of a larger issue in need of diagnosis. In order to fix it, it’s important to determine what exactly led to the problem as well as the current status of the plane and flight. If there is more than one issue, each problem requires its own DODAR.

Flying with a co-pilot it’s useful to perform the DODAR together. While the captain has ultimate responsibility, a shared understanding of what’s wrong gives extra confidence in the process. It’s crucial to do the diagnosis thoroughly since your situational analysis will determine the next steps and the outcome. This is especially true if there’s not much time to act.

In our case, we’ve noticed that our left engine has stopped working. The remaining one seems to have a hard time providing the thrust needed to keep us at altitude. Our co-pilot concurs. Part of the problem, he suggests, is most likely the engine being engulfed in flames. All other systems are working fine, which makes it hard to say what the root cause of the engine explosion is.

NOTE: There’s an extended version of the decision-making tool called T-DODAR, which adds the factor of time. In this iteration, the pilot starts by estimating how much time to allocate to the DODAR. This can be tricky if the nature of the problem is unclear. In cases like Sully’s, there was no doubt that a decision had to be made within seconds. If the problem appears to be non-urgent, on the other hand, the captain can spend more time consulting with crew members.

Options

With the problem diagnosed, we swiftly and decisively move on to discussing options. Mind you, we’re not choosing one. Time permitting, we’re merely trying to think of as many viable ways of addressing the problem as possible. This includes the often overlooked Do-Nothing Option and any risks associated with the possibilities. Again, it’s wise to involve the crew in the idea generation.

Granted, some options might be part of standard operating procedures. But the more unusual the issue is, the more creative we have to be in generating solutions. This is why it can be beneficial to approach a problem via negativa. Meaning, rather than trying to be particularly intelligent, we can focus on avoiding stupid mistakes we know will get us killed. In other words, we think of all the things we should definitely not do first.

Back in the pilot seats, we have determined that the worst thing to do is to panic and throw the flight manual out of the window. Instead, we come up with three options. We could perform an emergency landing somewhere in a field at the risk of setting the whole plane on fire. We could divert to the closest airport at the risk of going down over a populated area because the issue worsens. Or continue the flight as normal at the risk of seeming irresponsible.

Decide

It’s finally time to make a call; that is choose one of the options discussed and commit to it. The decision should be based on our diagnosis and the options discussed (as opposed to suddenly picking a solution that wasn’t mentioned before). We should also be aware that our call will have implications with regard to the severity of the problem. If we decide to do nothing, it signals to the crew that it’s not a big deal after all.

This is why it’s also worth sharing the rationale behind the decision and seeing if the crew agrees. If they don’t and time is of the essence, it’s the captain’s call. If they independently come to the same decision, it makes implementation easier. That said, there’s not always a gold standard option. Each possibility carries its own risk. Sometimes, the best of all the bad alternatives has to be picked.

In our imaginary piloting scenario we’ve made the decision that It’ll be fine. An emergency landing seems overkill. A diversion seems unnecessary. We’re only 500 miles away from our destination. That’s close enough to make it with one engine still burning at the right end. The decision has been made. But it has yet to be implemented.


Assign Tasks and Act

Once the shots are called, it’s time to get to work. Because chances are the decision made earlier comes with a whole set of tasks. They must be assigned to the crew so the desired outcome is achieved. Each crew member has their own role to play, be it to let air traffic control know about an accident, set a new course or inform the cabin crew and passengers about the decision.

Back on board our (probably rather amateurishly flown) plane, we inform air traffic control and the airport. The pilot ensures we stay on course and monitors altitude and fuel. The co-pilot guarantees that emergency protocols are followed. He also informs the cabin crew of what’s happening. We can then tell our passengers not to worry about the giant fireball on the left side of the plane.

Review

It’s time to review the problem and our efforts to address it. In this step, the crew does not only summarise what happened. They would also continuously monitor whether their solution had the desired effect or if things have changed in any way. I mentioned the importance of a sound diagnosis in the beginning. If the initial diagnosis or decision turns out to be wrong at any point, it can be caught here and corrected by performing a new DODAR.

Sometimes the problem was diagnosed correctly. However, new information came in that changed the options available. The problem may also have worsened or disappeared all of a sudden. Depending on the situation a lot of time could have passed since we got to the A in DODAR. So we might even review the decision again during implementation if it’s of grave consequence. That emergency landing, is it really necessary?

The passengers of our imaginary flight are beginning to question our aeronautical skills. A (real) pilot among the passengers has noticed something concerning: The shrapnel from the exploding engine damaged the wings. Our assumption about the severity of the exploded engine turned out to be spectacularly wrong. It prompts us to review our options. While we retreat to our mind palace to consider our options, the real pilot takes over and lands our imaginary plane at the nearest airport.

Pros and Cons of DODAR

As a mnemonic, DODAR reminds pilots of the key elements in the decision-making process. It enables them to make accurate decisions under pressure and helps avoid analytic errors and jumping to conclusions. As such it has several benefits. The cognitive tool prompts the crew to structure and verbalise their thought processes. This challenges the pilots’ intuition, invites collaboration and makes decision-making more transparent.

Truth be told, the downside is that performing a DODAR is time-consuming. And to an experienced decision-maker, the steps might seem obvious. But it beats taking mental shortcuts and frantically throwing solutions at imaginary problems. Its intuitive nature means it’s easy to apply. That makes it a useful decision-making tool for anyone having to make timely decisions under pressure.

If you’d like to think even quicker on your feet, you may want to check out the OODA Loop. OODA stands for Orient, Observe, Decide, Act. Developed by a US Air Force pilot, it’s a model to better understand and improve our situational awareness. It can also help to analyse the real-time decision-making processes of an adversary so as to disturb the ability to act.

Closing Thoughts

The crew of flight 1549 had only seconds to diagnose the problem and decide to land in the Hudson. Instead of DODAR, Sully probably relied on the unconscious competence he acquired throughout his career. This works out as long as things work out. When they don’t, how would you rather justify your decision? It felt like the right thing to do. OR I used a proven decision-making tool I got from a blogger who pretended to be a pilot.