Clouds off wing
10 min read

Pilots spend a lot of time talking about decision-making, and for good reason. Personal flying, even in a basic VFR airplane, has more to do with mental skills than physical skills. Yes, for all the angst about eroding stick and rudder ability, most of the fatal accidents in general aviation are still caused by bad decisions.

The most famous decision pilots make happens before we even get airborne: to go or not to go? Heck, Air Facts even has a series on this very topic. But after a busy summer of flying, I have learned that this is actually one of the easiest decisions in aviation. Saying “no” may be stressful when you’re on the ground, desperate to fly, but it’s much harder once you’re in the air. Call it plan continuation bias or get-there-itis; whatever the name, it is a worthy opponent.

Two flights over the last few months hammered that point home for me, but they also left me with a question.

Flight One

The weather for this flight was just about perfect and the mission was simple, so it would have been easy to get complacent, but any time I’m flying a helicopter out of a confined area, I pay attention. That was the mission today: pick up two friends in a Robinson R44 and take them for a ride. The landing site was tight but not unreasonably so, and I had flown out of it many times, so I knew the right procedure.

I made an uneventful landing in the grass and loaded everyone quickly, but as they sat down I noticed that both my front seat and back seat passenger were a little bigger than I remembered. There goes the margin I build into all weight and balance calculations, I thought. Still, with only three of the four seats filled and half fuel, how bad could it be?

Landing spot in grass

Some room to work with, but not much. And of course there’s an audience.

As I always do, I calculated the maximum takeoff power for the day’s conditions (a handy cyclic-mounted placard makes it easy) and picked up into a hover. Unfortunately, that perfect summer weather meant high temperatures and very light winds – hardly ideal for a maximum performance takeoff. I sensed this flight might be a challenge when it took almost takeoff power to hold a hover, but the engine gauges were green so I pulled a little more collective, right up to my maximum manifold pressure. We climbed about 20 feet in the air but then stopped. I felt the urge to keep pulling the collective to keep the climb going – we were almost clear of the trees! – but the voice of my flight instructor came through loud and clear, so I settled back down to the grass.

I briefly explained the situation to my confused passengers, promising we would make one more attempt to take off and then give up: “Nothing is wrong and we won’t bend any rules here, but I have one more option.”

That option was to take a running start: if the helicopter can reach about 30 knots, the entire rotor system becomes more efficient and takeoff is easier. There was just enough room to give this a try, so I maneuvered into the back corner of the clearing and pointed into what little wind there was. Before making this attempt, I confirmed the maximum manifold pressure number and reminded myself not to deviate from that limit. If it wasn’t going to work, there was no point in forcing it and either harming the engine or bending metal.

After some rather unenthusiastic acceleration, the helicopter made it to 15 knots. Again, we were so close to escaping the hole, but a pessimist might say we were also close to crashing. I quickly aborted the takeoff and set the helicopter down. Now my two passengers had moved from confused to worried, and I was a little embarrassed since I had an audience watching (don’t you always in a helicopter?).

The solution was easy – unload one passenger and give tours one at a time. I had enough fuel and it meant more flying for me, so this wasn’t much of a sacrifice, and yet I had a nagging feeling that I had failed in my mission. No matter that it was an unimportant flight and purely for fun; I had signed up to fly a couple and I didn’t do it. Fortunately, that disappointment was offset by some degree of pride that I had stuck to my guns and said “no.”

Flight Two

The second flight, an IFR cross-country in a Cirrus SR22, was at the other end of the general aviation spectrum but it led to a similar decision. This was supposed to be an ideal mission for a light airplane: take the family on vacation, and turn a five-hour drive into a one-hour flight. The weather wasn’t great, but we managed to weave our way around the afternoon thunderstorms without any bumps. Nearing our destination, a private airport with no instrument approaches, it was obvious that the forecast of scattered clouds was off. Instead of VFR conditions, we were greeted by a solid layer of clouds from roughly 500 to 3000 feet AGL.

Faced with unbroken clouds and no approach, I made the smart decision to divert to my alternate right away. Since this area does not have very good radar coverage, I was cleared for the full approach, including a procedure turn. As I was outbound on the procedure turn, still above the clouds, I switched the #2 radio to my original destination’s CTAF. I thought I might be able to tell my friend, who I was supposed to meet upon arrival, that I was diverting to an airport about 40 minutes away. Sure enough, he was carrying a hand-held radio (like a good aviation enthusiast) and he heard me.

Clouds off wing

The clouds are thin, but where is the hole?

Then came the trap. He replied, “Do whatever you need to do, but there’s a big hole in the clouds over the airport.” It sure didn’t look like that to me, but I had to confess I hadn’t flown over the airport and he was a pilot – maybe it was worth a look? I asked ATC to hit pause on the instrument approach while I detoured over my filed destination.

A couple minutes later, my friend was back on the radio: “I can hear you right overhead, can you see the runway?” The clouds were thin and there were occasional breaks in the layer, but I couldn’t honestly say I saw a hole that I could descend through. I had flown into this airport many times before, so I knew there was lower terrain south of the airport. Given the thinner clouds, maybe I should drop down under the scud and find my way to the runway? After all, I had a good GPS and a terrain map…

I’m still here to write this article so it should be obvious that I dismissed this foolish idea. After one circle over the airport, I went back to my original plan and shot the approach to my alternate. Even still, there was one final trap. I broke out of the clouds on the instrument approach higher than expected, about 700 feet AGL, tempting me to turn left and scud run to my friend’s airport. It would have been legal, but it would not have been safe, especially given the rolling hills in the area.

Once again, discipline saved me from making a mistake. I had briefed myself before starting the approach and had decided that if I was not out of the clouds by 1500 feet AGL I would not divert under any circumstances. I stuck to that plan, made an uneventful landing, and enjoyed some small town hospitality while I waited for ground transportation to show up. We arrived two hours late but otherwise unbothered (still beat driving – barely!).

The question: why?

Both of these flights failed in their stated mission, but I consider them both to be smashing successes. I resisted the (strong) urge to cut corners and accepted some minor inconvenience in order to stay safe. I’m not looking for an award here – I suspect most pilots would have made the same decisions and the inconvenience was incredibly minor in both cases – but I am curious why I was able to say “no” both times. When do we as pilots find the will to do the right thing, and when do we succumb to temptation and break the rules?

I honestly don’t know the answer, but I’ve considered four theories.

A PIC mindset. I had passengers on both flights, but none of them were pilots. It was obvious that I was the only person who was going to make a decision about the safety of the flight. If I would have had another pilot on board, I’d like to think the decisions would have been the same, but we have to admit that the atmosphere changes in such cases – especially when that other pilot is more experienced than you. In fact, I was close to ceding my status as pilot in command to my friend on the ground on flight two. The lesson is to decide who’s in charge before the airplane ever leaves the ground (be quite explicit about it if need be), and then play the part. “In command” is the key part of the phrase.

Experience. It’s hard to describe quite why, but after 25 years of flying, I am no longer trying “to prove I belong,” as one pilot described it recently. I don’t know many pilots who would think less of me for doing the safe thing anyway, but I honestly don’t care if they do. Building that confidence requires some level of experience, but as an aviation community we could do more to encourage it among new pilots. You really don’t have to earn your seat at the table with tales of narrowly-averted disaster.

Personal minimums. The concept of a personal minimum (different than the bare bones FARs) is popular among safety advocates, but it’s only worthwhile if it is religiously adhered to. Some pilots see that as a problem, but to me it’s actually easier – 100% compliance is easier than 98%. In the case of the helicopter flight, my rule is to never exceed max takeoff power; unless I’m being shot at, there’s simply no reason to even consider it (this is easier to do in a helicopter than you might think; max power for the day might be an inch or two below redline). Likewise, in the Cirrus I had decided on my minimum circling altitude before I ever started the approach. Crucially, these minimums are a binary for me: yes or no decisions. “If I’m not in VFR conditions at 1500 feet, I’m not diverting to the VFR-only airport.” There are no exceptions, mitigating factors, or analysis to be done.

Always have an out. On both of my flights, it was easier to do the right thing because I had attractive alternatives. That involves two parts, one obvious and another less so. The obvious part is to always have an out, a famous aviation rule that deserves its notoriety. It was easy to dismiss the scud running idea in the Cirrus because I had filed and briefed an alternate airport that was close by – this was a legitimate option, not just a box that had been checked. Equally important is an attitude of mental flexibility, acknowledging that there are often multiple alternatives. In the helicopter, I could have certainly just dropped off the passengers and flown home. But there were clearly other ideas, including taking one passenger at a time, picking them up at a nearby field with much more space, or waiting for the temperature to cool off. The lesson is to not get tunnel vision when plan A doesn’t work.

While all four of these factors help us make the tough decision to say “no,” they hardly feel like the complete answer. What do you think? What helps you make a safe decision?

John Zimmerman
19 replies
  1. Bruce Ziegler
    Bruce Ziegler says:

    Great article. Perhaps a “Go/No Go” series article where the pilot is already enroute and conditions change. It would be interesting to see how other pilots (and myself) respond to the changing conditions.

    • Mark Fay
      Mark Fay says:

      No offense and not to quibble…

      But Mr. Collins advised and I practice eschewing the phrase: go or no go

      In favor of…

      Start / Continue.

      His argument is if it is safe to get to the next airport toward home you should START.

      And constantly evaluate whether you can CONTINUE never trusting the forecast and always having an out.

      Go or no go implies that if you start you will finish.

      Semantics, for sure, but it always resonated with me.

      • John Zimmerman
        John Zimmerman says:

        I agree with this 100% – I hate the binary nature of the go/no-go decision. It is very much a mindset of constantly evaluating your situation and your options. There are usually plenty of options besides just “go as planned” or “cancel.”

        • RichR
          RichR says:

          … and you’re only fooling yourself if when you develop your “outs” you haven’t actually committed to executing them if conditions demand.

          Good discussion, each flight should be a continuous decision process.

  2. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Great question; my answer:

    Fly like an amoeba.

    By that I mean – after absorbing all of the information about the flight – resort to your base level instincts. Does it feel right? Are you taking a risk that might not allow you to get home? What would happen to the people you love if you kill yourself today?

    Mr. Collins talks about ‘sitting quietly for a few moments’ before departure.

    I do, every time.

    In those few moments I am not a critically-thinking top-of-the-food-chain human, coolly reviewing the detailed facts and making a considered judgement.

    Instead, I am an amoeba. My decisions are made based on how I FEEL after reviewing all of the facts.

    For what it is worth…

  3. George Haeh
    George Haeh says:

    Last year in my glider I landed out 3 times after 4 years without landing out. I’ve run up 4 landouts within 2 miles of a glider field – better landing out than a marginal approach at destination. By contrast I heard of a pilot who wrote off a glider just short of his home field after overlying several good fields and running out of ideas and altitude. He had never landed out before.

  4. KM
    KM says:

    Great article John. We need more pilots talking about maintaining discipline in their flying and not feeling ashamed of taking a conservative approach. These types of stories with positive outcomes are much easier to read than the ones we all read on the AOPA accident case studies – thanks for sharing happy endings. As a newly minted instrument pilot, these stories encourage me to stick with my personal minimums even when it is inconvenient.

  5. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    The idea of personal minimums is kind of a variable isn’t it? In the case of an instrument approach, the published minimums are proven safe and the pilot certification requirements are to be able to fly to those minimums. So why would one fly to a different limitation? If the pilot isn’t up to that, then I would suggest that there are other problems that need to be addressed by means other than arbitrarily raising the published minimums.

    In the case of VFR minimums, then I would have to agree. Those minimums were established to some criteria (maybe a flat field in Kansas with a J-3 Cub) which requires a lot of personal, aircraft, terrain and weather adjustments to arrive at some personal minimums for a given flight.

  6. Frederick S. Spencer
    Frederick S. Spencer says:

    Really helps you to jump from Plan A to Plan B whether at the Start or Continue (go/no go) if you’ve TOTALLY been open with your passengers or people expecting you. After commitment, you look stupid if you haven’t been OPENLY FRANK about the differing conditions and that forecasters can only give us their best GUESS.

  7. Rick
    Rick says:

    Really helps you to jump from Plan A to Plan B whether at the Start or Continue (go/no go) if you’ve TOTALLY been open with your passengers or people expecting you. After commitment, you look stupid if you haven’t been OPENLY FRANK about the differing conditions and that forecasters can only give us their best GUESS.

  8. John
    John says:

    Good article. However, I’ll play a little “devils advocate “ here. In my experience As a CFII, I’ve observed that most people are so conservative that in a slightly challenging situation they almost never go. Now that sounds very good doesn’t it? The truth is in our current aviation environment we train them that way. After all ,better safe than sorry right? I tell my students after they get their ticket to go out and challenge themselves and if they really are uncomfortable to call me and discuss it or even let me go with them. I’ve rarely been called. So, here is the scenario that we all see. Pilot gets ppl,buys airplane.Time goes by,they fly less and less and therefore lose confidence. Months go by while hangar rents are still due. Tires go flat, battery loses its charge and airplane won’t start. More time goes by and airplane goes out of annual. Airplane is sold to a new fresh student. I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years. Nothing has changed.
    At the risk of sounding like Donnie downer, the solution is very simple. Go out and fly! It’s not amazing training that makes the difference,it’s the time in the seat.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I completely (and passionately) agree with you. Conservative decision-making is good, but it absolutely can go to far. I wrote about this a few years ago:

      But while many pilots are probably too conservative preflight, I think the opposite may be true in flight. That’s what I’m trying to get at here. I like the mentality of “go a little but and re-evaluate” vs. the hard “no go.” As you say, that’s how you learn and how you prevent skill atrophy. But you do need rules for when to give up on a flight, or at least on plan A.

  9. George
    George says:

    I often have an extra safety feature when my wife, who does a lot of our navigation, goes along. She has always had the go-nogo decision also. I figure that if she trusts my flying and knows my capabilities that she should have a say in the flight. On only two times during our 40+ years of flying together has she opted to nogo until the weather and other factors is more favorable.

  10. Ed Engelhard
    Ed Engelhard says:

    Such a good article. My last decision point for any flight is this maxim: Would I rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air or in the air wishing I was on the ground. A sobering and encompassing risk mitigation statement after all the facts are at hand. Sometimes it leads to a start/continue scenario, and sometimes a go/no go. And I agree that challenging oneself regularly under controlled conditions keeps one from losing skills but gaining confidence and even improving skills. I had two instructors for my IFR rating. When I asked each about establishing ‘personal minimums’ they were of two minds. One endorsed the concept and the other said, “You just finished training with all of your approaches to minimums and passed your checkride doing the same. Why would you limit yourself that way?” I went with the former but have carefully challenged my minimums in order to advance my skill set. Application and use personal minimums should be a ‘fluid’ activity at any given time accounting for your proficiency, the nature and details of the flight, the capability of your equipment at the time, etc.

  11. John
    John says:

    Good article that applies to agreeing to ‘go for a ride’ with another pilot. A surprising number of fatal flights start out with “hey, wanna go for a …” I’ve declined more than one “opportunity” because the plane was obviously over weight, I had a low opinion of the pilot, or for other reasons I thought then and still think were more than sufficient. Perhaps where I depart from JZ’s thought is that I strongly prefer to make my ‘nope bad idea’ call on the ground BEFORE I climb into the flying machine.

  12. JWS
    JWS says:

    Good article, but also one of many scores of them on this subject. In my early old age, I’ve found a method to greatly simplify decision-making.

    While also considering the rational factors involved, ask oneself: Is this fun?

    Now if you’re getting paid to fly, perhaps a little suffering is legit. But most of us aren’t getting paid, rather pretty much the opposite. It’s supposed to be fun. If we’d be seriously annoyed spending $200 for a crappy concert, why intentionally get into a marginal situation with stomach-in-knots? Self-challenge is fun, but I think we mostly know the difference between “butterflies” (for me, like when heading out cross-country in a sailplane in good conditions over un-landable terrain) and “knots” (like passing on a fuel stop when I think there might be just enough fuel to get home).

    Ultimately, one thing we can likely all agree on is that crashing is *not* fun.


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