Top Five Reasons To Cancel An IFR Flight

Just because you have the instrument rating doesnt mean youll never have to cancel a flight.


An overly long list of chores guaranteed a couple of things for flying from my home in Wichita, Kan., to Atlantic City, N.J., some years ago. First, the entire trip would be flown IMC and with instrument departures and arrivals at all three airports involved. Second, the timing of my departure meant not only was the first leg assured to be IMC and with ILS conditions, it


was going to be mostly at night-with a night ILS.

The questions running around in my head prompted me to undertake a higher-than-usual degree of preparation, starting by making a serious personal risk analysis. The questions didnt need 100-percent affirmative answers, but getting a negative response on more than one merited a longer look at the elements of the flight, in search of a way to turn one of the “no” responses into a “yes.” Three “no” responses would warrant a new decision on going, starting with “not going now.”

I had a lot on my side of the “go/no-go” equation. For one, my recent flying involved lots of real-world practice, a significant portion of it at night. The airplane was tip-top, I was familiar with the route and there were plenty of options for diversion along the way. Too, my double-I had drilled into me a risk-assessment process that helped make the critical decisions about going: when Id try to go as well as when Id stop trying to go. Basically, he had instilled in me the ability to perform an honest examination of the various aspects that could present a risk and answering the questions they presented. Lets walk through some of them.

1. Familiarity/Regularity

Any honest risk assessment should cover a number of points, of course, a leading one concerning the normality of your upcoming IFR trip compared to your usual flying. How often do you fly the same kind of or similarly challenging trips?

If youre familiar with the route-the MEAs, ATC facilities, possible divert airports and how the forecast weather will impact all of that-youre ahead of the curve. If youve flown the route regularly-once every year or two isnt “regularly”-youll need to dive in a bit deeper to the available information and consider what to expect.

One aspect you should consider when deciding how regularly youve flown the route and how familiar you are with it is the extent to which, if any, the route and other variables represent a departure from your usual flying. The less any aspect of the flight strays from your norm, the less of a departure from your routine flying or recent experience, the more it weighs toward a “go” for that element of your assessment.

Of course, if the route is one youve never flown before, its peppered with icing Airmets or thunderstorms, its night and youre in a strange airplane, nows a good time to contemplate what its going to be like out there, all on your own, when you need to troubleshoot a system-say, the electrics have failed-and your pitot tube has iced up. Its usually fairly easy to complete a flight in a familiar airplane over a route youve flown before. If none of that applies for the proposed flight, seriously consider staying home.

2. Proficiency

Of course, were presuming youre current and legal to make the flight. (If not, we shouldnt even be having this conversation.) But legally meeting the FAAs recency of experience requirements means you comply with the agencys minimum standards; youre free to exceed them, of course.

In weighing the ICT-ACY trip, an element that gave me pause to think further about the “go” on this factor stemmed from the lengthy nature of the trip and its all-but-assured flight conditions. Full-length all-actual-IMC trips occurred infrequently for me, but not long trips or IMC specifically. Beyond meeting currency requirements, my recent experience, thankfully, had been maintained wholly in actual conditions, a quirk. As it happened, I even had some recent real-world partial-panel practice.

This thing about honestly assessing yourself is important. Sure, you must convince only yourself-but others could suffer from indulging yourself for whatever reason.

3. Weather

While the weather promised to be unpleasant for my ICT-ACY flight, it wasnt dangerous (unless you consider widespread IMC a hazard). It was cool, rainy and cloudy for the entire distance, but there was no icing in the forecast and the time of year made convective activity extremely unlikely. So unlikely, in fact, I figured Id hear about it from ATC and other aircraft on the frequency long before I saw any bumps. In fact, there were no forecasts for turbulence, nor any related pilot reports. And, masochist that I am, I tend to enjoy long, smooth flights in IMC, with nothing to look at but the instrument panel. That said, spending two long flight legs in IMC wasnt my first choice.

What would have made me reconsider a no-ice, no-convection flight over a long distance? Snotty surface conditions, for one thing. Its one thing to drone happily along in the same smooth IMC for hours, knowing theres some decent VFR underneath. Its another to launch on that same flight when the best weather you can hope for along the route is ILS minimums.

The problem, of course, is where to go if a diversion is necessary. If you cant get into any airports along the route because the weather is too low, you may as well be out over the Atlantic, on your way to Paris. Plus, what guarantee do you have your destination will magically open up enough to receive you? In fact, just because your destination is advertised to be above minimums, what makes you think it will be? Did you check other nearby airports for their weather? Are they forecasting the same, or is your destination an exception without good reason?

Even a short IMC flight holds out risks well beyond the risks of the same trip flown VMC. Instrument conditions compound any and every problem that might arise, particularly problems with the airplane itself. So, part of the self-analysis of risks for an IMC trip should examine options you may need if some element of the forecast-lower ceilings, for example, or stronger headwinds-is wrong.

4. Range/Endurance

What about the airplane: Are you ready to manage it? Are you comfortable with its condition and capabilities, considering the lengthy trip? Is everything working? If something breaks while en route, is there a backup system? Do you know how to activate and use it?

If any of your answers are “no,” heres another point at which you can break a link in the accident chain. But beyond that, putting the airplane into an unconditional “go” category must include, as a separate assessment, your knowledge of the fuel system and your plan for the trip with that fuel supply.

How well does the trip-length/fuel-supply equation stack up with your personal IFR fuel practices? Does usable fuel work with the trip length, plus reserves to fly the approach, the miss, hold for 15 minutes, fly at cruise-consumption power to an alternate 40 minutes away, and have enough for another approach-actually, make it two?

If you find any weakness in your personal fuel minima, think of how that changes your risk equation. Maybe the trip needs additional fuel stops?

Both legs for my trip fit far below reaching my worst-case fuel scenarios where fuel supply was concerned, with each leg getting me to the arrival airport with more than two hours of cruise fuel remaining. But any change to this element would instantly warrant a reexamination-big headwinds, for example, or worsening weather.

5. Fatigue

Many of the foregoing decision-making elements are objective; they more or less have definite, quantifiable answers. One big part of the overall equation, however, is you: Are you up for this trip? Get enough rest last night? It might be late when you get to your destination. Are you confident you can hand-fly an ILS to minimums, at night, to an unfamiliar runway after spending all day at work and several more hours flogging your flivver to some faraway airport?

Its hard to quantify, but transportation researchers strongly believe fatigue is responsible for many more accidents and incidents than the record demonstrates. And fatigue is an insidious enemy-like hypoxia or carbon monoxide poisoning-it can overwhelm a pilot without him or her even realizing their performance level has been severely reduced.

Unfortunately, fatigue is hard to fight from the cockpit. A Thermos bottle of coffee might help for a short time, but all it really will do is keep you awake; it wont improve your decision making, nor eliminate fatigues root cause: lack of sleep. The only real cure is rest, and enough of it to overcome any sleep deficit causing the fatigue in the first place. And, just as each persons reaction to hypoxia is different, each person also reacts differently when fatigued.

Droning along for hours at a time with nothing to do except fiddle with the iPod and talk to ATC isnt demanding in and of itself. But when its late and smart decisions have to be made-is there enough fuel, or should you divert?-its easy to fall into the “what the heck” trap fatigue will sometimes throw your way.

Just Say No

When contemplating your own “go/no-go” decision, if any individual element weve discussed here rates a negative response, youve just demonstrated how risk management can work in your favor. And deciding to go in the face of a single “no-go” is not an indictment of your judgment, as long as you take into account that one factor in your planning and flying.

If you attached negatives to two factors and made a “no-go” decision, your risk assessment is also working. You might want to ask yourself whether you would consider not going after one negative decision on one but not the other-and why. And if you needed three negative judgments to make the overall trip decision negative, you may want to take some time and think about why you might have flown with the first two “no-go” items; would you really?

How many of those can you combine and still answer “go”? Another question to ask yourself: “Whats new?” Are you about to do anything on the proposed trip that youve never done before? We all have to do everything in flying for a first time; we dont have to do a lot of first times at once, and were generally advised to avoid such circumstances.

We can live to accomplish a lifetime of new firsts, but only if we honestly assess the risks of each new jewel on our chain of experiences-and we remember even the “been there, done that” elements take on a nature of new when combined with other done-that elements for the first time.

Dave Higdon is a professional aviation writer/photographer with several thousand hours of flight time in hang gliders, ultralights and airplanes.


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