Do you cancel too many flights?

One of the most popular features on Air Facts is our “Go or no go” series. In these articles, we present a hypothetical flight and then review the actual weather conditions. Readers are asked to make their own go/no go decision.

The comments are revealing. While many pilots take a thoughtful and realistic approach to trip planning, it’s surprising how many vote “no go,” even in fairly benign weather conditions. Whether it’s the wind or the possibility for icing, some pilots apparently are uncomfortable in anything less than clear skies and unlimited visibility.

It raises the question: do you cancel too many flights?

Thunderstorm from airplane
Do you always have an out?

Has the aviation community beaten everyone over the head with the risk management stick so much that we’re all afraid to fly? From what I read and hear, I think it’s quite possible.

Now before you accuse me of being reckless, let me offer a couple of important qualifiers. First, I’m talking about IFR flying here. By definition, VFR means conservative and demands a wholly different approach to weather decision making. Secondly, just because a trip is legal does not mean it is safe, and I firmly believe that personal minimums should always be the final determinant.

But let’s be honest: as pilots, we’re risk takers by nature. I don’t mean that in a dramatic or frightening way. It’s simply what IFR flying is all about: accepting some level of calculated risk in exchange for great utility. If you’re not doing that, you’re not using the rating you worked so hard for. In fact, if you’re not doing that, you might not be getting out of bed in the morning.

So why do we cancel so much? Every pilot is unique, but I think there are three major reasons.

1. We put too much stock in forecasts

The TAF does not make the go/no go decision. To delegate decision-making authority to an hours-old text forecast is lazy, naive or both. Now I certainly don’t advocate ignoring a forecast, but neither should pilots put complete trust in them. Let’s call this Richard Collins’s First Rule of Weather Flying. As he explains in his book, The Next Hour:

“One thing is always true of weather…Regardless of what is reported, what you see is what you get…we have to always fly with a complete distrust of reported weather conditions.”

This sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s actually a deep and important concept. Many pilots subconsciously think that as long as the forecast is good, the flight is not in danger. It’s simply not true. But this cuts the other way too–just because a 12-hour-old forecast says there might be some low ceilings does not guarantee there will be. A serious pilot will review all the weather information, including a thorough review of the overall weather picture and current Pilot Reports (PIREPs), to make his own forecast. The TAF is one data point to consider, nothing more.

2. We’re afraid to “go take a look”

Yes, get-home-itis is a major cause of accidents, especially for VFR pilots. But the much-maligned tactic of taking a look can be safe for an IFR pilot if it’s done properly. You just have to have ironclad rules for when to quit and you must always have an out, whether it’s turning around or landing short. As Mac McClellan succinctly puts it:

“How do you go places in an airplane? You depart when the weather is good enough, and then continue only as long as it remains good enough.”

Here’s an example. Last summer I was trying to fly back to Cincinnati from the Southeast, late in the afternoon. The usual pop-up thunderstorms were all over Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Indeed, as I reviewed the radar in the FBO before takeoff, it looked almost impossible to find a path through. But a closer look revealed that these were all air mass thunderstorms–there was no frontal activity and no organized squall line. In addition, it was obvious that I could take off in perfect conditions and have an easy out for the entire route. The end result was a completely uneventful flight, with only a few minor deviations. What looked like tightly packed thunderstorms on the ground-based radar were in fact scattered enough to allow for wide gaps between cells.

Obviously you can get carried away with this philosophy–it’s never acceptable to blast off into the face of a severe thunderstorm or have no plan other than crossed fingers. But if it’s done in a disciplined way, you might be surprised at how many flights you can complete (at least partially) if you go take a look.

3. Instrument training doesn’t expose us to weather

Instrument flying is about weather as much as it’s about flying the procedures. And yet many pilots spend the majority of their instrument training practicing procedures and paperwork. Some never log the first hour of actual IMC, much less practical cross-country weather flying. Just as a person who has never completed any training on gun safety will be overly tentative with a pistol, an instrument pilot who has never seen weather systems from the cockpit will be hesitant to ever get close.

Certainly we could and should improve instrument training. But if you’re already a rated instrument pilot, you have to learn weather flying somehow. And slowly exposing yourself to progressively worse weather conditions (up to a point) can be a fantastic learning experience. Do it in a thoughtful and deliberate way–maybe even with another pilot in the right seat–but get out there and see Mother Nature.

So how do you vote “go” more often, but still stay safe?

  • Get great training and stay truly proficient, not just legal. Be able to shoot that 200 and 1/2 approach if you have to.
  • Get a thorough weather briefing, beyond the TAF. If you want to know more, read any of Dick Collins’s books on the subject.
  • Always have an out, whether it’s turning around or landing short. Declaring an emergency doesn’t count.
  • Re-evaluate the weather situation continuously in flight.
  • Have hard and fast rules about when you take advantage of your out. If you always give thunderstorms a 20 mile berth, then it’s 20 miles all the time. If you can’t meet your standards, it’s time to go somewhere else.

In the end, smart and efficient weather flying takes dedication, discipline and a willingness to learn. But that’s true of flying in general–it’s probably one reason you enjoy being a pilot in the first place.

You could easily find a reason to cancel every flight. Don’t cheat yourself out of great utility and learning.

Tags from the story
, ,

16 Comments

  • I would disagree that it is different for VFR and IFR. It’s perfectly fine to launch VFR if you have good reason to believe the weather is good to the next airport down the line; not necessarily the final destination.

    I do suspect that the timidity expressed is because most people don’t actually need to use the airplane; so it’s easy to cancel. Richard and Mac had unusual jobs that required the airplane and final business destinations that were airports.

  • As one who does “go” far more often than I cancel and have done so successfully for over 35 years, I agree with you 100%. A few other thoughts:

    If you can’t get IFR training in actual conditions, change schools or find an instructor who will instruct in real weather. Insist upon it.

    If you can, find a good mentor pilot – one with the experience that you’re trying to gain. Discuss their decision making process. Talk about the weather. Go on trips with them if possible in real conditions. A lot can be learned by being in the right seat on trips, particularly about the weather, communications, and IFR procedures.

    Don’t discount the airplane that’s being flown. Planes that are more powerful and better equipped provide more flexibility and greater choices when flying IFR. In-cockpit weather can provide continuous updates as to changing conditions and helps greatly in redefining your “outs”. Having more horsepower to be able to climb higher can help too depending on the weather and terrain.

    Regardless of the plane flown, make sure you really understand all the systems including the autopilot. In weather, knowing exactly how the a/p system works allows the pilot the time to manage the flight effectively. If you use electronic charts, use them as if you’re on an IFR flight, every time. That way, nothing is new and nothing inside the cockpit is a surprise.

    I try to practice something every flight, even in good weather. Typically, it will be something in the approach phase, like doing a fully coupled approach to make sure the autopilot is working properly. Or when there are other pilots on board, we’ll handfly an approach right down to minimums.

    Lastly, I do have a positive mindset about IFR flying. It’s a bit hard to explain because it can sound like I’ll go in any weather which is not the case. I look at each trip as one that I’m going to ultimately complete. It may not happen in the exact timeframe that I originally planned – I’ve changed departure times (and dates) many times, both leaving early and later than planned to better fit the weather. But my goal is to make the trip, not cancel out, if that is possible given the weather, the equipment, my own proficiency level, and how I’m feeling.

    • You’re right, Larry. I think you need to have a bias towards making the flight. That probably sounds dangerous to some, but if you do it the right way, you will fly more trips, learn more and not sacrifice safety.

  • I flew one day thinking I’ll just go and take a look and ended up as a statistic. Thank God I was not injured, but my plane was totaled. Slowly getting my confidence back. But I rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air than the other way around. When the outcomes are catastrophic, risk should be kept low.

    • David – with all due respect for what happened to you, risk needs to be managed, not just kept low. If risk is always kept low, little progress is ever made regardless of the endeavor.

      Before I learned to fly, I was in the back seat of a Cessna with a low time pilot who ended up landing long on a short grass runway while trying to avoid a rainshower. We hit a hangar at the end of the runway destroying the airplane. Fortunately no one was injured.

      Shortly after, I decided to learn to fly. Yes, I was young, but still, I realized that there had to be a better way to operate an airplane. As I was taking flying lessons, I quickly realized that learning flying skills and making good decisions are both necessary to be a proficient pilot. The guy who hit the hangar made a good decision (to land), but wasn’t sufficiently skilled to put the plane at the end of the runway.

      It’s that same combination that manages risk. You can’t control the weather. However flying skills and decisions based on conditions can be managed.

  • “It raises the question: do you cancel too many flights?”

    Well clearly not, accidents that result in VFR flight into IM conditions, are as many well know, a leading cause of generally aviation accidents. I would venture to say that a large portion of pilots that ‘like’ the weather segment on this blog are the same pilots who take an active participation in learning all they can about aviation instead on that 1 hr of ground and 1 hr of flight every two years. Thus can make better decisions.

    I understand a lot of this has to do with Instrument rated pilots, but I believe the same logic applies.

  • On aviation forums, when newbies express a “want” related to flying such as: “I live in the San Juan Islands. Can I commute to Seattle in my own plane?” the dominant answer is “No”. Mostly because the people giving the guidance don’t have instrument capability and experience themselves to do it. Pilots who suggest it is indeed possible (and fun) tend to be flamed as “unsafe”. I fear this negativity costs us new pilots. Why spend the money it takes to do aviation if it does not offer reliable transportation.

    I believe your article highlights an important issue. Thanks.

  • Do we cancel too much – probably – I have seen this first hand with pilots I fly with, many with many more hours than I have. In the last six weeks I had a chance to go up in actual 2x where I had a chance to cancel.

    Both times, my co-pilot (who has 100’s of more hours than I do) wanted to cancel and wait (but hadn’t done much IFR in the last 2 years). In both cases we went, all was good with the flights.

    After the 2nd flight (3.3 hrs, 1.1 in actual with possible icing predicted <25%)) the co-pilot said "I guess I have been too conservative on my go/no decisions". Yes you have, but at least your on the safe side, but at some point you still have find a way to get there and we are commercial pilots.

    Why the issue, in the mountain West, it is VERY hard to get actual without turning your wings into ice blocks, (we don't fly jets or large turboprops) even in the summer. So many just aren't comfortable with "actual" IFR with or without a route that has mountains in the way.

    In any case, we do a lot of sim training and do try to fly the muck when we can find it on x-countries, mainly the west coast from here. Those of us that get the experience are far more comfortable saying "GO" as long as there isn't ice.

    FYI – PIREPS are OK but using forecasts are an art in the mountains, you really have to know how local weather works, the area forecasts are too broad, the TAFs too local, you have to know how things normally work with weather.

  • If you are too “chicken”, you’ll never fly. If you aren’t “chicken” enough, you’ll never fly again.

  • Jack,

    just wondering what your “out” or plan B was in your second flight – the one with 1.1 actual IMC with probability of icing.

    I’m a 650hr private pilot, been IFR rated for 3yrs but with little IMC time because i live in the southwest. I totally agree that out here there are no stable stratus layers to drone along happily building IMC time – the clouds are either convective or are sub-freezing. and the mountains keep the MEAs high enough that you can’t duck under the freezing level. that doesn’t leave a lot of options…

  • You guys and gals spoils should take a trip here to SE. We’ve had had a good combination of VMC and IMC lately. Too bad I haven’t started my instrument training yet.

  • I never cancel, I will leave early, or late for weather, but not cancel. I have been flying in the system for ten years now. I owe a C210 and fly for business and pleasure around the country. On long XC I always file, I have on board Weather, that makes all flights possible, you just need to use the information with some thought, and stay proficient.

  • I would agree with John, a lot of folks cancel too often, but I’ll not second guess them, but encourage them to get the skills and equipment to complete more flights.

    For “me”, it’s no longer a go or no go decision, but a continue, deviate or divert choice. Often, I’ll make the decisions long after I’ve departed.

    Sure I check the wx ahead of time and determine where the problems may be, but from that, it’s a constant process of updated the choices.

    Now, I must say that the vast majority of my flying (east of the rockies) thunderstorms are the biggest issue. And, there’s almost always a way around, or between thunderstorms.

    And you don’t always have to give them 20 miles… it depends. Perhaps some you may want more than 20, and some you may want to fight lower.

    Also, to have a reliable dispatch reliability and trip completion rate, one really needs the equipment. For a minimum, would be at least two thunderstorm avoidance things, and some form of anti-ice or deice.

    Now, I could also argue a few rules to live by…. establish what you will and will not do way before you launch. If you ever have to say “I think I can make it”, you’re toast.

    We can easily have the reliability of the corp and airline guys if we want…. Mine is better, but ya need the equipment and some flexibility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *