Acknowledgements: John Zimmerman/AIR FACTS

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 can earn you a place in an accident report if you’re unlucky.

But there’s another decision-making error lurking out there, more common yet rarely discussed: we view most aviation decisions as binary. Yes or no, black or white. It’s rarely so in aviation, which is more about subtle clues, 50/50 decisions and shades of grey.

For example, the “go/no go” decision. A pilot looks at his airplane, his skills and the weather, then decides if it’s safe to fly the planned trip. A simple yes or no question. But it is hardly that simple. It’s really a series of questions with a variety of possible answers; rather an essay than a single “true/false” question. Here are four ways to help expand your view of the flight planning process:

·         Go now or go later/earlier?
First off, 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 flexibility is what helps make general aviation so much fun. Most pilots know this, but many don’t take advantage of it. Don’t get so locked into your original plan that you fail to see attractive alternatives.

·         Go direct or go around?
My multi-engine flight instructor would challenge me during pre-flight planning by saying: “you have to go, so show me a route that is safe.” An exaggeration, as in truth we never have to go, but he wanted me to get a feel for his decision-making mind-set. 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. Arriving is half the fun anyway!

·         Go all the way or go part of the way and stop?
Naively blasting off and hoping low-level 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. It might mean an hour or a day on the ground, but done with firm limits in mind, it can be a useful tool in the pilot’s bag. Similarly, you can choose to go some of the way and turn around if it’s worse than forecast.

·         Go solo or take another pilot?
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 can be a valuable learning experience to go flying with another, more seasoned pilot. This way you 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 as to who is pilot in command before starting the engine.

All of these demand careful planning and discipline; they can’t be used as shortcuts or excuses for poor decisions. But grappling with tricky decisions and thus expanding one’s personal skills is the one of the real joys of being a pilot. As GA pilots we have the ability to control when and how we fly, and can each establish our own Standard Operating Procedures. If we give up that tool without a second thought, we may make our flying less useful, less enjoyable, and perhaps less safe.

So next time 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.

Tony BirthComment