Former NASCAR Driver Mike Stefanik, Killed In Plane Crash September 17, 2019
Dale Earnhardt Jr. plane crash in Tennessee August 15, 2019
Patty Wagstaff’s plane crashes at Northeast Florida Regional Airport September 12, 2019
I cannot speculate on the cause of the aforementioned aircraft accidents. I am not a member of the NTSB and I am not privy to the investigative materials that are crucial to making an informed determination of the causes of an aircraft accident.
What I can speculate without equivocation is to state that in each of these accidents the decision making process failed.
In the FAA Aviation Handbook there is information on creating a structured method for making aeronautical decisions. Acronyms such as PAVE, DECIDE and IMSAFE, should be familiar to you. If they are not I suggest that you purchase a copy of the FAA Aviation Handbook and read-up on the topic. All of this information is the responsibility for each pilot to be familiar with.
The author of this article has been flying prior to the implementation of these memory aides for decision making and therefore have developed my own systematic way of addressing these risks.
When preparing for a flight especially a cross country I am concerned with the following:
Weather for the departure, en-route and destination. If it becomes necessary to prepare one or more alternate airports I am also concerned with the weather at these locations.
Terrain, is also a concern, in Florida where I fly; if I can get my airplane to 200 feet AGL I know that I can get it back to the runway for a landing without flying into terrain. In Aspen, CO the a pilot must safely get the airplane to 14,000’ in order to safely navigate the terrain. Two vastly different scenario’s.
Possible issues that maybe faced during the trip, aircraft mechanical, changes in health (the pilot can become ill), navigation equipment.
Performance & Limitations, aircraft, pilots and facilities may all of limitations that can change from flight to flight. Have these limitations been considered?
I have been flying for 40 years and have made several mistakes that I hope never to repeat. The following is a brief analysis of my data gathering and how I decide if I can safely conduct a flight.
While it is extremely important to understand that human factors is important to the decision making process. I am not necessarily going to cover this aspect in this article. Therefore the conditions of the pilot for this article are as follows: well rested, with no alcohol or recreational drugs in his system. He is in a happy and healthy state of mind. The customer is pushing for the trip to be completed and the pilot has no issue putting the customer in their place, if the decision process yields a no-go. This is crucial, being forced into an uncomfortable situation is dangerous and only the pilot can determine their personal comfort level for each and every flight.
When gathering weather I find it important to look at multiple weather products to gain an understanding of what I will be flying through. I start with the Surface Analysis chart, which provides me with a sense of pressure systems, fronts, ridges and troughs and possible frontal associated weather.
I then look at both satellite and radar summary images. This will provide an excellent idea of the locations of visible moisture.
METARS & TAFS are used to gain incite to ceilings & visibility current & forecast for the locations that I am reading.
As I am putting the weather picture together in my head I am considering some of the following:
- Am I comfortable conducting the flight in my dispatched aircraft if all of the equipment is working correctly?
- What will I do if the weather is worse than I am expecting or that it is worse than forecast?
- Finally I determine what will I do if the weather is worse and my airplane develops mechanical issues?
By formulating a plan for the worst case scenario I can mitigate the risks caused by weather. If the worst case scenario is encountered you should have already have a plan to deal with it. Many times the plan can be heading for an airport that has VFR weather to land. This works if you find a VFR airport prior to departing on your flight. If your flight starts to not go as planned you can just head for an airport with better weather.
Another useful decision making tool is to use some industry best practices. You might be legal to depart your airport as a Private Pilot with a visibility of less than 1 mile. But is that exercising good judgment? Pilots operating under a Part 135 certificate generally have a minimum takeoff visibility of 1 mile for a two engine aircraft. It seems to me that if a professional pilot is limited in takeoff visibility it stands to reason that we should put some limits on our selves. I try to follow the operation specifications from my training as an air taxi pilot. I find that it helps with the really tough decisions. Plus I can backup my decision with an FAA approved document that can support my decision. Be careful when following my idea, some certificate holders have different and much lower minimums for takeoffs, and en route decision making based on advanced aircraft capability, and specialized pilot training scenarios.
There are a host of issues that should be considered prior to conducting a flight. Most notably aircraft performance or mechanical irregularities. Are you prepared for an engine failure at an inopportune time? Can you handle a fuel imbalance or an electrical system failure? Aircraft system knowledge and what can be done to alleviate the loss of a system should always be considered. Once again having a plan prior to the actual loss of capability will provide the best chances for a positive outcome in the event.
What will you do if a ground navigation facility is unscheduled NOTAM’d out of service as you are traveling en route? I know you will say GPS. But will your GPS approach take you to the same minimums as the ILS? Or, will you have to make an adjustment based on the forecast weather at your destination?
Where will you go if the facility that you are traveling to as your destination closes through a catastrophic event? This question was posed to me when I first started making routine flights to the Bahamas. If an airplane landing before you crashes do you have fuel enough to make a suitable alternate? Remember the Bahamas has hundreds of islands and just a few airports. Depending on the island the distance to the next airport could exceed the endurance in your fuel tanks unless the proper plan is created. I am not specifically writing about flying in the Bahamas but the same question can be asked about any airport within the United States.
Having excellent maintenance practices, checking NOTAMS, and performing proper preflight systems checks can help prevent unexpected issues from being unsuccessful.
Performance & Limitations
Each pilot must consider the aircraft limitations in addition to their own limitations prior to conducting a flight. It is entirely possible on some days in certain aircraft the pilots skills are more limiting than the aircraft’s ability to handle the flight. Other days the pilots skills are more capable than the aircraft and the aircraft is limiting for the trip.
Being honest with yourself about both your pilot skills as well as the capability of the aircraft are important to determine if a flight can be conducted safely.
Performance for the aircraft is an important consideration in decision making. Prior to each flight the aircraft weight and balance must be computed. Also runway lengths for takeoff and landing, V speeds for aircraft certified under Part 25, fuel burns, single engine climb gradients. All of these calculations help the pilot make informed decisions as to whether or not the aircraft will be safe for the planned trip. Keep in mind that weather conditions will change aircraft performance placing all of the pieces together in a coherent and logic format are not only required but excellent best practice for making a decision for go or no-go on each and every specific flight.
In conclusion, it is each pilots responsibility to determine, risks and mitigating factors for flight. Decision making is a skill and with practice the ability to make routine go or no-go decisions becomes easier.
Written by Erik S. Aibel, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, Associate Director of Training