5 Big Decisions

Youll make lots of choices in your flying career, but none will be more important than these. Better know how to handle em.


In the time of your life that you spend flying, you will have to make thousands of decisions. Some will be easy and some will be hard. Some will occur with regularity, and a few will only occur one time. A few of those decisions are highlighted here, along with some ways to cope with them when they come up for consideration.

None of these decisions are going to be easy, but they are a part of the world of flying. Most of the time they will be made decisively and without a second thought. But once a difficult decision is made the first time, no matter the outcome, you will probably feel that you have done the right thing.

That means that the next time and every subsequent time you need to make a similar decision, you will find that doing so is much easier. After all, you have been there and done that, and you probably do not have a wrinkle in your skin or a gray hair in your head to show for it – because you did the right thing before it became too late.

# 1: Go/No Go
This is probably the most important decision you will make on a routine basis. There are so many things to consider, and each pilot, like each flight, is different. Pilots without instrument ratings have an easy time staying grounded when the weather is low IFR. Even some instrument pilots can say that.

But what if the weather is low VFR, say 2,000 feet and 3 miles? Are you as a VFR pilot comfortable with that? A proficient IFR pilot who is legally current would probably say the decision to file IFR just got a whole lot easier.

But weather is only part of the equation. Your level of fatigue, your comfort level with the equipment you plan to use, time constraints and personal weather minimums all come into play. When I was a low-time private pilot I once had to cancel a flight with my best friend when we got to the airport because I did not like the looks of some approaching clouds, and my confidence level in my crosswind landings was not that high. He was not happy, and he let me know it, especially when the weather failed to materialize. But it was my decision to make, not his, and I was not going to budge.

Making the decision not to fly is easy when there are no passengers to consider, but the social or political pressures brought on by a passenger or a boss make the decision much more difficult. You must keep in mind that you are the pilot, the one ultimately responsible, not them.

Since my early experience canceling on my best friend, I have made it a point to tell anyone who wanted to go flying with me that if I felt safety was being compromised at any time I reserved the right to do what I felt was in our best interest, consequences to the contrary.

That statement will garner you more respect than you can imagine, especially when you are forced to stick to it.

#2: Broken Airplanes
Mechanical problems are always extremely valid reasons to divert or cancel flights. One time at night, over water in clear VFR conditions, I lost my attitude indicator doing some atmospheric data sampling. I could have finished the job and made it home, but due to the fact that it was late and I was tired, we decided to divert and then make a decision. The expense was never mentioned, and the next night we finished the work.

Such scenarios need to be considered. Know ahead of time if possible what airports are good mechanical diverts. Which ones have an adequate maintenance shop on the field? Which ones are not far from a hotel and/or rental car agency? Use the Airport/Facilities Directory or AOPA Airport Directory or some other source to do some basic research. If necessary, make a few phone calls.

If you know what your options are, you will not be tempted to ignore a mechanical problem that could compromise the safety of the flight. If you think you have a problem, you should have some idea where to land for help. If you are wrong (maybe the rough engine you heard was due to using a mixture setting that was too lean), dont be embarrassed, but thankful that you did the right thing.

Its one thing to refuse to fly your own airplane because you find something that may compromise safety. It is often something else to refuse someone elses, such as a rental.

If it is a fairly obvious problem (like a wing missing), thats one thing. It is something else entirely when it is less cut-and-dried. Just because the parking brake on a rental 172 does not work does not make the plane unsafe. Likewise, your definition of soft brakes may be entirely different from the owners.

Rental planes are rented to make money, and if you have to refuse one due to a mechanical deficiency, then it is costing someone else precious dollars and it could have a snowball effect due to the loss of multiple rentals.

But if you honestly feel the airplane is unsafe, you can probably find someone to agree with you. However, just because a CFI might tell you in confidence that he does not like the problem does not mean he might refuse to fly the plane. He needs to make a living and keep the peace with the boss.

Simply put, if the plane is not safe, dont rent it or fly it. You do not need anyone to agree with you. I know of one flight instructor who had a serious disagreement with his boss regarding the seat in a Cessna 152. The left seat back was leaning back farther than it should have, about an inch and a half more than the right seat.

When there was a slow period in the schedule, he got into the plane and saw that one of the pins had nearly worn away. His boss said that the plane was to fly, period.

The instructor not only refused the airplane, but told potential users of the problem, causing them to leave or reschedule another plane. Needless to say, tempers flared, until another instructor flew the plane with the student. On takeoff, the left seat fell back, leaving the student with an uninterrupted view of the ceiling. Fortunately, the student still had his hand on the throttle, and when he fell, he pulled the engine to idle. The instructor was able to safely complete the aborted takeoff, and the plane was taken off the flight line and fixed.

#3: How Long Should We Fly?
Specifically, this really means how long do you have before its time to refuel? You cannot push yourself to fly to the point of fuel exhaustion just because you have made the same trip nonstop before.

You cannot ignore strong headwinds. By the same token, if you have a strong tailwind that puts you at your planned fuel stop with plenty of fuel in the tanks, do not press on unless you know exactly where and when you can land for fuel. When making this determination, dont presume the tailwind will necessarily remain constant.

Make a personal rule for yourself that you will never plan a flight that involves landing with less than an hour of fuel in the tanks. Some pilots are even more conservative and put that number at 90 minutes, but it depends on your airplane, flight profile and personal risk tolerance.

But whatever personal minimum fuel level you set, stick to it no matter what. You want to know why the airlines never run out of gas? They all have a bingo fuel level for every flight. When they reach that number, they need to be on the ground or on the way to an alternate. No questions are asked. Running out of fuel simply is not an option, and it is so avoidable.

What if you are flying VFR and the headwinds are stronger than forecast?A local pilot several years ago faced that scenario. He had been at work later than expected on the night he was supposed to depart on vacation. Because he based his airplane at a major airport, he found himself stuck in the middle of the last outgoing bank of airline flights.

He also had not made himself familiar with some changes in the weather that had occurred throughout the day, specifically some stronger winds. The result was a far greater period of time than normal burning fuel on a taxiway. In the end, because he had essentially refused to acknowledge a need to divert, he broke his own fuel reserve rules, ran out of fuel and crashed.

He lost his plane, his pride, and caused pretty serious injuries to himself and his wife. He also killed his cat.

That hour or 90 minutes of fuel reserve is what covers you in cases where the flight doesnt go as planned. Keep up with your time en route. Compare actual headwinds with forecast headwinds. Look at it this way, a half-hour fuel stop takes far less time than an off-airport forced landing.

#4: Diversions
Diversions occur primarily for two reasons: weather and mechanical problems that develop. People who try to force airplanes into airports that have unacceptable weather do so for a couple of stupid reasons. One, they simply get fixated on the goal of landing where they intended and are determined that they will go where they want. Often, it is a VFR pilot racing the weather or an instrument-rated pilot who is not current testing the same fate. Before they know it, they have done the tried and failed VMC-into-IMC methodology that can be so disastrous.

But even proficient instrument pilots get suckered into pushing the envelope. They may blunder into thunderstorms or descend below minimums in the quest for the runway.

A second reason is that pilots somehow consider it a failure when they do not make the destination. The only failure is the failure to plan. IFR pilots are required to have an alternate when the weather is less than 2,000 feet and 3 miles at their destinations ETA. Again, this is a decision that is made more difficult with passengers to consider, especially passengers that do not want to take no for an answer. How best to address this?

Prior to flying, sit down and show the passengers your route of flight, and explain that in the event a diversion becomes necessary, you want to agree ahead of time what airports to consider. Explain that you want to stay within a few miles of your planned course, and that you want to have no more than 10 or 15 miles between airports.

Doing this will make uneasy passengers more comfortable when they see how many airports there really are, and it also gets them involved in navigating and tracking your course, which makes your job easier and the whole experience more fun for everyone.

#5: Medical
It hasnt happened to me yet, but you ask any pilot who has had to stop flying, and they almost immediately start to choke up. One fellow at the local field lost his medical due to a heart condition, but he is fortunate enough to be able to pay for a rental and an instructor to be PIC when he wants to fly.

Most of us wont be so lucky, and in the case of this individual, it is obvious how much he misses flying, and what he would give to be able to fly solo.

There comes a time for all of us when we have no choice but to hang it up. If you hang on too long, like an old athlete, one of two things will happen: you will be unceremoniously denied your medical or you will have an accident.

If you know you cannot fly safely anymore, the graceful thing to do is to stop renewing your medical. One can only begin to imagine how hard this will be when the time comes, and it is clearly a decision that must be made carefully due to its finality.

If you are fortunate, you can continue to fly with an instructor, friend or family member. Anybody familiar with Gordon Baxters story got a glimpse of just how painful it can be to give up such an important part of our lives.

-by Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline captain and CFII.


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