Personal Minimums

Copyright © 2010 Liz Sommers

The recent tragic crash in Palo Alto is a very sad incident. While the accident findings may take up to a year to uncover what may have happened, there are some things which are apparent. The pilot took off in low IFR. The IMC conditions around the Bay area that morning were 1/8 visibility and 100 VV. The pilot was on his way to a meeting in southern California. Whatever happened on that unfortunate flight, we must do all we can to prevent this type of very tragic accident from happening.

No matter what our level of expertise in flying, we should all have our personal minimums. For example, while it is perfectly legal to depart under IFR in “0/0” (0 visibility and 0 ceiling), is it smart? For me, my personal minimums dictate that I need at least enough visibility and ceiling to take off, so that I am able to complete the approach back into that airport if needed. Perhaps with a ceiling of 200’, if I lost an engine, or had another major mechanical issue, I may have been able to see enough to land in a nearby street or field, or even possibly (with a minor issue) been able to return to the airport for approach and landing.

We must realize that “get-there-itis” is a very real and potentially dangerous attitude to have. When flying on the airlines, it bothers me greatly when people tell me, “I HAVE to be there.” I always think to myself, no, you really, really WANT to be there. But wouldn’t you rather be there alive and a day late, rather than not get there at all? I would.

We spend much of our training covering the emergency control of the airplane, the “what if’s”: what if I lose an engine, what if my alternator goes out, what if I have an engine fire, what if I stall, what if I enter a spin. Much of our primary training is for aircraft control (best glide, landing spot, etc for engine out, stall recovery, spin recovery). We must also train mentally for the other “what ifs”: what if I get lost, what if the clouds move in and I can’t land at my intended destination, what if the wind picks up, and I can’t land safely at my airport, what if my fuel is lower than expected due to delays, vectors, bad fuel management, etc. These items need a different type of recovery. We need to prepare for those “what-ifs” mentally. What is our alternate plan of action to complete the flight with a safe outcome? We should always have a plan of action in case we are not able to continue the flight safely as planned.

We must also set our personal minimums when looking at weather (ceilings/visibility/winds both current and forecast), fatigue, or other issues, to match our level of experience. As we become more experienced, and have more training, then it is time to change those minimums. The go/no go decision remains a very important decision that we must make as PIC, and hopefully it will never be our last decision.

Have fun, and fly safe.