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Thinking Still Required!

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By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Editor

We are now well into the tablet/app and ADS-B-driven shift to anytime, anywhere mobile capability for instrument flight planning, risk analysis, and all aspects of flight monitoring. The most popular apps even include information about the ground facilities and services you might need if the weather data they provide persuades you to divert.

We’ve talked about some of today’s terrific tech in this issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, but even the best technology can improve safety only if we pilots use it in the context of overall critical thinking about what we realistically can — and can’t — safely do in a typical GA airplane. Just as pilots differ widely in their levels of knowledge, training, experience, and piloting ability, it’s a fact of life that some airplanes are more capable than others. Think of the plane you’re flying as your partner in this activity. The weather analysis for every flight should thus consider the collective capabilities of the pilot and the airplane.

Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Remember:

  • No matter how skilled a pilot you are, you can’t adequately compensate for what your airplane partner lacks in terms of performance capability. You may be a Super Pilot, but there are limits to what kind of weather you can consider when you are flying, say, a Super Cub.
  • Your technologically advanced airplane can be very helpful, but no airplane can adequately compensate for deficiencies in its pilot’s knowledge, training, experience, or skill.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself

Use every electron at your disposal to help plan and conduct a safe flight. But it’s also important to be sure you are not delegating decisions and thinking to the magic boxes. Listen when the technology talks. Then ask yourself these four questions:

1. Is there any convective activity?

There is no category of airplane certified to fly in or through thunderstorms. If the forecast calls for convective activity along your intended route of flight, dig deeper, develop a solid understanding of the situation, and ensure that you have both a plan for, and a commitment to, diverting to a safe alternate destination. If you conclude it’s safe to launch, appropriate use of weather technologies such as ADS-B and datalink can help you monitor developments and stay well clear of convective activity.

2. What is the freezing level?

We associate icing with winter operations, but it can occur at any time of the year. ADS-B, datalink, and even radar are all blind to icing, so your best defense includes a very careful preflight analysis of forecast and actual conditions (including any pilot reports on icing) and then disciplined in-flight monitoring of the outside air temperature. My personal policy is to never launch into the clouds without knowing that I can stay below the expected freezing level without hitting anything.

3. How low is too low?

Your instrument rating allows you to shoot an approach to minimums legally, but “legal” and “smart” are not synonymous. Here’s where it pays to have well-established and frequently reviewed personal minimums that account for your actual proficiency and comfort level in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). My personal rule is to avoid low IFR (LIFR). LIFR conditions add more risk to single-engine GA operations even with another pilot on board.

4. Do I have options?

Having real options (not just legal alternates) is another important factor in preflight planning for a trip in IMC. In my book, widespread IMC strongly indicates a “no-go” decision, especially if there isn’t even a marginal VFR airport in range.

Susan K. Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.
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This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/newsroom/faa-safety-briefing-magazine
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