Acknowledgements: AOPA/Dan Namowitz & Tom Horne


Pre-flight weather report

“A warm front is advancing toward the area with its first effects expected during the time-period of a proposed VFR cross-country flight to visit family in another state. Ceilings are not expected to go down for several hours, but throughout the period there is a chance of marginal visibility and freezing rain from precipitation falling from the warm layer aloft into colder air at lower altitudes”.


A pilot considering a VFR flight might well feel torn between making the relatives happy by showing up for holiday fun or staying put and missing a chance to see loved ones and enjoy warm cider and three kinds of pie. Meanwhile, family members, well-intentioned but unaware of the weighty decision the pilot faces, are texting, emailing, and calling, eager to know when the flight will arrive.

Everybody loves pie and no one wants to disappoint, but there are times when it would be unwise to rely on luck where capability (be it naturally-inherent or experience-gained) is lacking.

Thanks to a strong educational effort, numerous widely publicised accidents, and an abundance of common sense among the pilot population, the number of fatal icing-related accidents has been trending downward over the past decades.

But, typically, every year there are still four to six fatal general aviation accidents attributable in some measure to icing. The reduction’s good to see, but this is no reason to let our guard down. Besides, as new generations of pilots join our ranks, it’s important to continue to drive home the basics of icing avoidance. Seasoned pilots, with fat logbooks and ratings galore, also should be reminded!

Not only does freezing rain, or even freezing drizzle, pose a serious threat of structural icing, but a warm front, with its widespread low clouds and restricted visibility, is nothing to tangle with, especially for a non-instrument-rated pilot flying a basic aircraft. Unfortunately, not all pilots are deterred.

Here are some important thought-traps to avoid:
·         It’s just rain. Let’s say you are instrument-rated and current and are flying in light rain. It’s tempting to believe that the rain will persist, but you may be flying in a temperature inversion. This occurs when flying at lower altitudes below a warm frontal surface. The advancing warm air rides up and over a retreating cold air mass, causing rain to fall. Problems crop up fast when the rain becomes supercooled as it falls into the cold air mass. Clear icing or freezing rain may soon be in the offing!
·         No problem, I have weather radar. This does a great job showing areas of precipitation, and the bigger the droplets, the brighter the radar returns. But unless it shows clouds it’s of little use in avoiding most icing conditions!
·         It’s OK, I’m on top. That’s a nice place to be, but eventually you’ll descend for a landing. And it had better be at an airport not affected by icing conditions. Otherwise, a descent through a cloud layer, or layers if you’re between layers, could mean that you’ll pick up ice on the way down!
The FAA’s Airman Certification Standards Concept introduced in 2016 and revised in 2017 is intended to ensure that an applicant possesses the knowledge, ability to manage risks, and skill required under the certification to be able to act as Pilot-in-command (PIC). It includes the requirement for a private pilot applicant to master task-specific knowledge, and to demonstrate understanding of each task’s risk-management elements.

“The goal of risk-management is to proactively identify safety-related hazards and mitigate the associated risks” (FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge). It goes on: it is important to remember the four fundamental principles of risk-management:
  •         Accept no unnecessary risk. If you are flying a new airplane for the first time, you might determine that the risk of making that flight in low visibility conditions is unnecessary.
  •         Remember that you are pilot-in-command, so never let anyone else - not ATC and not your passengers - make risk decisions for you.
  •       Accept risk when benefits outweigh dangers (costs). A day with good weather, for example, is a much better time to fly an unfamiliar airplane for the first time than a day with low IFR conditions.
  •     Because risk is an unavoidable part of every flight, safety requires the use of appropriate and effective risk-management not just in the pre-flight planning stage, but in all stages of the flight.


Remember: While poor decision-making in everyday life does not always lead to tragedy, the margin for error in aviation is thin.

Tony BirthComment