To go or not to go? That is the (wrong) question

At its most basic, flying an airplane is a never-ending series of decisions. Is the airplane airworthy? What’s the weather like? Where is that other airplane going? When should I turn base? Failing to ask these questions and make timely decisions is a serious mistake – one that will earn you a place in an NTSB report if you’re unlucky.

But there’s another decision-making error lurking out there, one that’s simultaneously more common and rarely discussed: we falsely view most aviation decisions as binary. The language of decision-making subtly reinforces this, with exhortations to “keep it simple” or “be confident.” What we end up with is a hopelessly unrealistic set of answers: yes or no, black or white.

decision right and wrong
It’s rarely so black and white in aviation.

We should know better. Flying is all about subtle clues, 50/50 decisions and shades of gray.

The most important example of this fallacy is the vaunted “go/no go” decision, a topic that fills textbooks and flight lessons. A pilot looks at his airplane, his skills and the weather conditions, then decides whether it’s safe to fly the planned trip. Most of the time, this is presented as a simple yes or no question. (Heck, we’re as guilty as anyone here at Air Facts, with our interactive weather decision-making series of the same name.)

But making the go/no go decision is hardly that simple. If it’s carefully considered, it’s really a series of questions with a variety of possible answers, more an essay than a true/false question. Here are four ways to expand your concept of the famous decision point.

1. Go now or go later/earlier?

A great example of this more nuanced philosophy is the estimated time of departure (ETD). Viewed as a binary choice, that line of storms bearing down on the airport looks like an easy no go. But what about leaving an hour earlier, before the storms get close, or leaving the next morning, when skies will be clear? That type of schedule flexibility is exactly what makes general aviation so fun and useful. While most pilots know this, many don’t take advantage of it. Don’t get so locked into your original plan that you fail to see attractive alternatives.

2. Go direct or go around?

My multi-engine flight instructor used to occasionally challenge me during preflight planning by saying: “you have to go, show me a route that is safe.” It was an exaggeration – we never have to go – but he was an airline pilot by day and wanted me to get a feel for his decision-making mindset. While we may not have a transport category jet at our disposal, it’s amazing how often a flight can be completed safely and comfortably if you’re willing to deviate. On a 400-mile trip, even a 100-mile detour will be quickly forgotten if you have a smooth ride and get to your destination. Especially in the United States, we have incredible freedom to make up our own route, and getting there is half the fun anyway.

3. Go all the way or go part of the way and stop?

Go around thunderstorm
Maybe you can’t go direct, but you can still go.

I believe the age-old approach of “taking a look” gets a bad reputation. Certainly, naively blasting off and hoping low IFR conditions will magically disappear is a bad idea. But flying as far as the weather allows and then diverting can be smart and effective. Some days the only option is to fly up to a line of rain, land, and wait for it to pass. That might mean an hour or a day on the ground, but if it’s done with firm limits in mind and plenty of backup options, there’s no reason this can’t be another useful tool in the savvy pilot’s bag. Similarly, you can choose to go some of the way and turn around if it’s worse than forecast. It takes discipline, but Richard Collins has written before about how practical this approach can be.

4. Go solo or take another pilot?

Here’s one that is especially neglected by newer pilots. Some days, especially when the forecast involves thin cloud layers or gusty winds, the safe answer is no go. But if you’re willing to push yourself, it might be a valuable learning experience to go flying with another, more seasoned pilot in the right seat. This is a great way to get “on the job training” without scaring yourself. Just be sure to obey two rules: know and trust who you’re flying with, and thoroughly brief who is pilot in command before starting the engine.

Make it deliberate

All of these strategies demand careful planning and discipline; they can’t be used as shortcuts or excuses for poor decisions. But grappling with tricky decisions and expanding your personal skills envelope is the one of the real joys of being a pilot.

They’re also an acknowledgement that one of the most powerful safety tools we have as private pilots is the ability to control when and how we fly. We aren’t beholden to chief pilots or customers, and we can each make our own Standard Operating Procedures. If we give up that tool without so much as a second thought, we’ve made flying less useful, less safe or both.

Next time you’re planning a flight, don’t ask yourself “go or no go?” Instead, consider “under what conditions would this flight be safe and enjoyable?” At the very least, it’s a valuable exercise for your decision-making muscles.

13 Comments

  • Excellent Article! Says a lot in few words. Most important is it all seems so obvious and yet… and yet….

    As a 400 hour pilot trying to get into KLNN a few years ago (Lost Nation east of Cleveland), I ignored the fact that the icing Airmet ended 30 miles West of KLNN (this side of the lake) and I cancelled the flight.

    Just after liftoff in the 737 I smacked myself in the head. Why did it HAVE TO BE KLNN? I could have easily made it into somewhere a 25 minute drive to my client. DUMB!!!!!!!!

    So, it seems so obvious yet our ‘get ‘er done’ mindset is a blinder. I am much better now. Looking at my log look there were 16 times out of 42 flight segments that I DID NOT deviate at least to some extent and 12 times I changed airports.

    ALL ABOUT Patience, Flexibility

    ALSO, with all of the weather information now available on board, the most important decisions are made in the cockpit – should I continue this course, circumnavigate or stop?

    We are fortunate to fly in 2016 with all of the help we have in flight. There just is not any excuse for blundering into a thunderstorm, risking icing in a not FIKI plane, or taking chances when the ceilings are below mimimums or the winds above our capabilities.

    Maybe I have been lucky but in nearly 1,000 flight hours I have only had a METAR be substantially and potentially dangerously wrong (2 ceilings and 1 visibility) 3 times.

  • John,

    Great essay, couldn’t agree with you more.

    Here’s the other benefit of being flexible in where and when you decide to “go”: I have really enjoyed being forced to land at an airport in a town I would otherwise never had any interest in visiting. And in doing so I was introduced to people, to situations and concepts that were interesting.

    Just one minor example: on a flight from Hobbs to my home airport in Albuquerque on a late summer afternoon, a line of impenetrable thundershowers popped up between me and my destination. I couldn’t get around it as the line extended from central Colorado all the way south to the Mexican border. I had no real choice but to set down for an unplanned stop in Santa Rosa. Well, at the airport office (not manned) I was the only pilot there. A little note on a bulletin board read “call this number for the local motel, and call this other number for a ride into the motel”. Well, I called the motel and reserved a room, then called the other number.

    Well, when my “ride” showed up, silly me expecting a motel van or taxi, it turned out to be the local deputy sheriff in his cruiser!

    He was quite happy to give me a free ride into town to the motel, and then told me to call back in the morning and he’d pick me up and take me back to the airport! Those are the only two times in my life that I’ve ridden in a “cop car”, I’m happy to say. Very friendly officer, friendly motel staff, the food at the restaurant next door was fine, and the next morning I was back on my way home. Maybe my trip wasn’t as quick or direct as I had hoped, but it sure gave me a great reminder of the charms of small town life in America.

    • How very true, Duane. I’m sure most pilots have memories like that – minor inconveniences that turn into fond memories (a rainy night in Amarillo, Texas comes to mind for me).

      It’s a good reminder that flying really is about the journey, not the destination – if we’re patient enough to embrace that mindset.

  • Excellent article! The day I wanted to return to Galion, Ohio (near Mansfield) after Sun-n-Fun this year, there were sigmets for moderate turbulence, wind shear, and icing in Ohio. The weather south of Ohio was fine. Instead of not going on the flight, I chose to go as far as Huntington, WVa and then recheck weather in Ohio. On the ground at HTS, the sigmets still existed. Instead of go/no-go, I chose to see how far into Ohio I could get. I could stay below the 6,000 ft. ceiling and avoid ice. If the turbulence became too bad, I could fly back to HTS and land. There was no turbulence at altitude and as it turned out, manageable turbulence/wind shear below 3,000. I made it all the way back home.

  • Similar experience here; left San Felipe, mx with 30mph winds, well aware that if things don’t calm down I won’t be able to land at calexico and its 17kts direct cross wind. When got close to the border, I asked ATC to let brown field know that I’m going to make my port entry landing at their house (with that monster wide and long runway helping me combat the wind). It ended up to be an easy landing and the officers on the ground were great and speedy. we got home safely.

  • I guess I will play nasty party-pooper or devil’s advocate for a few moments. For all that I understand your points, I think you’re overall idea is very poorly conceived.
    It’s true enough that various alternative means might allow a flight to be conducted safely and to the enjoyment of all. Trouble is, most of these alternatives are prone to undermining the primary reason for using an airplane in the first place.
    I can make a flight from North Platte to Omaha in about two hours, while driving might take 4 hours, so flying look’s like a great idea. …Until I look at the routine weather picture. If it’s possible to fly quickly to Omaha, weather on the Great Plains may mean that it’s not possible to quickly fly back. In spite of my love for flying in general and using those cool skills, I’m still better off to drive four hours each way, not having to be hindered by thunderstorms moving through. It’s true enough that I could either wait 6 hours for the thunderstorms to dissipate or leave, or I could fly to Wichita first, then back to North Platte. Trouble is, doing so fundamentally undermines either saving time or saving money. I cannot wait an extra 6 hours for thunderstorms to end without admitting that the four-hour car ride would’ve been quicker. I cannot fly to Wichita, having to buy extra fuel, without admitting that the car ride would’ve been far less expensive.

    I generally consider that if GA truly wants to carve out a place in American life, the GA world will need to be much more honest with itself and with the average consumer regarding the actual costs of doing business. For my thinking, GA generally exists now because government still funds VORs, GPS satellites, runway construction, and other need. ..Some of these still work because airlines still pay fees for their use and other government agencies use them too.

    I have long wondered how long GA would be able to exist if taxpayers ever became finicky enough about government spending to actually dig into federal and state budgets to see how much money actually goes into various endeavors. I dread to think how quickly GA might die if we all had to handle the same costs of operating as the airlines.

    In general though, I don’t think General Aviation will be able to function well until we find a way to make it more cost-effective.

    • John, I do believe you miss the point here of John’s post.

      If you absolutely have to get from Point A to Point B by time certain, no matter what, on any given trip … then flying private light aircraft is probably not the way to go. John is saying if you broaden your travel requirement to allow for different arrival times or via different routes, then flying light aircraft more flexibly becomes a more feasible form of travel. Not only that, but the mindset that allows for changes from the preferred travel plan is also a big assist to safe flying, in that it removes one of the biggest causes of pilot error, i.e.,suffering from get-there-itis and therefore being tempted to make poor risk management decisions.

      Finally, while weather is a bigger factor affecting flight in light aircraft than in passenger vehicles, weather is not a non-factor for cars either. Heavy thundershowers, fog or duststorms, road icing, and snowy/slick roads are all potentially extreme hazards for ground-pounders too.

      When I bought my Cherokee 8 years ago, my purchase was motivated by the need to make a long weekly commute of 330 miles each way over an extended period .. as it turned out, for four straight years. I had to significantly delay (more than 2-3 hours) or redirect a flight about once a quarter during that four years, or about one flight out of every 24 flights attempted.

      I made the long drive only a few times during that four years due to bad weather,or my aircraft being in the shop for its annual or repairs … maybe twice per year, or a total off about 16 driving trips. I was delayed by heavy snow on the road in or near the mountains on two of those 16 driving trips. So my “on time” delivery was actually a little better in the airplane than in the car over the course of many trips. And over those four years, I saved about 8 hours per week flying vs. driving – the equivalent of one working day per week. Not to mention saving myself the aggravation of dealing with all of the terrible drivers on the roads!

  • Something I forgot to mention with that last commentary: Utlimately, either you choose to take off or you choose not to take off. There is not gray area there.
    Once off the ground, you must expect at least the best part of five minutes in the air before you may realistically expect to be back on the ground. We all know that quite a lot can happen in five minutes.

  • Good Morning Mr. John Flaherty,
    I do understand the point you have graced us with, however, it seems that you have missed idea / message that the author was putting across to it’s readers. Which is all of the reasons that you’ve touched on, so did the author. Thus the reasoning for the ” Go – No Go ” decision can have multiple levels at how we as pilots can view the circumstances surrounding a planned flight. Yes if the situation you have described has all of those elements, then maybe for decision to drive may be answer to making that trip. On the other hand, what you have deemed as problematic to you for e.g. ” time added to flight; incurred cost for diversion; or just making diversions” may not be a problem for another pilot. In fact, he or she may enjoy the challenges making the flight but takes on the challenge(s) of doing it as safely as possible while using all smart, sound and, safe alternatives. Now just to be on a critical side of the scenario you described, maybe your decision should be not to plan a trip that is ” So Tight” in terms of time scheduling that it does not allow you to make the trip the way you would like. After all, weather “Never” adjust to pilots but we pilots “Must” always adjust to the weather. I Just saying maybe you should have another read of the above article from an open-mind approach and may get the same appreciation that I have and hopefully many other pilots have. Safe Flying God Bless

  • Gentlemen,
    I did read the article fully and I well understand the points he makes. I simply disagree with his conclusions. I think we mostly have a difference of perspectives. He’s pointing out the alternatives available to make a flight safely possible. I’m pointing out how those alternatives will be likely to make flying much less attractive. He makes a great case for the passion for flying and how that passion can be workable and exciting. I’m making the case that most of the people I have ever met will not bother with the alternatives. They most likely will either fly commercially, drive, or avoid taking the trip.
    I’m making the point that in the larger picture, the decision much of the time will, in fact, be the simple go/no-go decision.

  • John,

    It seems that most of your posts are always related or come back to the financial aspects of flying GA. Perhaps GA is no longer for you.

    Just for the record, I have been faced with similar decisions as you have been in trying to fly between Ohio and DC. To help, I got my IR, but that did not solve the problem completely. After falling out of currency now for many years, I have cancelled many planned GA trips because, “I had to be there and did not have the flexibility”, so I ended up flying commercially. Disappointing?, yes, but I am still here enjoying the GA flying I feel comfortable doing. BTW – I am not the most patient person, so I know my limitations, and stay within them.

  • Sadly, Richard, for all that I’m thrilled by the concept of flying, I came to understand how GA is “not for me” before I completed my PPC. When large chunks of the population struggle to pay basic bills, effective hobbies such as flying are prone to be cut first. I do not know if means to cut costs effectively and safely exist, but if they do, I rarely see them offered.

  • John Z, I appreciated your piece. Sure, the discussion devolved to one of GA as an unneeded hobby, the practicalities of not even going by plane, etc.; but you weren’t addressing those. GA is needed by many–and they are the ones needing your tips. Of course, driving the entire trip is a possible option at the front end. But, having one’s aircraft ready for a return flight is not really the time to decide if “GA is right for me” (or maybe it is, and one should begin looking for someone else to deal with retrieving or buying). So, if even just for the return portion of the trip, your suggestions are most helpful.

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