Tip of the week #2

Always have an out.

Advice like this seems obvious, but it’s only obvious because we don’t properly teach how to actually accomplish it. Having an out means that regardless of the situation, you have options. Here are two very different scenarios that detail how and why to start thinking this way.

Scenario 1

You’re a student pilot who is on her first long cross-country. Your logbook says you are allowed to go from airport A to airport B to airport C and back to airport A. But when you tune in the weather for airport C it seems like the wind could be beyond your capability. What do you do now? The weather is otherwise clear, so that’s not a concern. And you don’t have to worry about fuel. The first thing you realize is that you have multiple answers, a common issue with aviation. Often it’s a good thing, but choosing the right one is part of being a good pilot in command.T

The first thing is that you should have had a plan B for each airport. Ideally, your alternate would have long runways that have a different alignment to your planned destination. If you have a plan, and it looks like it will work, by all means execute it. It’s irionic to me that it often takes a more advancaed pilot to throw in the towel and activate an alternate plan. But all of us should be doing this from day one of training.

Assuming you don’t have an alternate already mapped out, you can either try to land, go to another airport, or turn around and go home. See, multiple options. In this case the only wrong answer seems to be to land at the original airport. There’s no prize awarded for not cracking up an airplane in strong wind. In other words, situations like this offer little reward but come with big risk. So what would you do?

Scenario 2

This second scenario is for more advanced pilots. Let’s say you’ve planned a cross-country that is easily within the range of the airplane (three hours of flying with five hours of fuel). You’ve filed IFR and the destination airport is at 1,000 feet, and has an ILS approach. It’s expected to go up during your trip. You take off in clear skies but within 20 miles the ground becomes completely obscured with heavy low clouds and remains that way the entire trip.

When you get close to the destination, you listen to the ATIS and hear it’s down to minimums, as is everything within range at that time. Even your alternate has gotten worse.

This problem is more serious than the first. So what would you do?

The point is that we always want to give ourselves an out. Whether it’s another airport to land at, a heading out of weather, or some other option, we want to make sure we are always thinking about “what if.” Unfortuantely it takes experience to know what those “what ifs” are, but with time every pilot learns his or her comfort level.

This discussion can be adapted to almost any situation. Whether it’s flying over water, looking for a field after takeoff, or stopping short to get more fuel, there are almost always options. When they’ve all gone away is when it’s time to get nervous and use any available resource, including asking ATC for help or declaring an emergency.

What are your outs? And what would you have done in these scenarios?

–Ian Twombly


  1. It’s amazining how much more stress free a trip can be when you have options planned before a flight. And having an ace up my sleeve has paid off more than once over twenty or so years of flying. Sometimes the best alternate, either VFR or IFR, is the one you passed just a few miles back. A flight is dynamic and subject to change. Be flexible, and don’t be afraid to use Plan B. Even if messes up your flighgt log.

  2. You’re absolutely right about reward and risk. So often, when I’ve taken the cautious approach and canceled or diverted, my “reward” was feeling like a coward and inconveniencing my customers, co-workers, and family. In the meantime, the risks that I have taken have (so-far) worked out. I felt guilty about taking the risk…but at the same time, I also lived to tell the tale and got home in time for dinner.
    Life is not designed to train us for good decision making. The rewards and punishments that we experience are neither consistent with our behaviors nor are they commensurate when they happen. So often a big mistake has a small consequence or none at all. Sometimes the little momentary lapses have life-changing results.
    All we can do is manage our risks as objectively as possible. I commend the aviation industry for all of the advances in human factors training and management in the century+ that we have been flying. From the invention of the checklist and user-friendly cockpit layouts to crew resource training and models such as “PAVE” for systematic decision making, the aviation industry has done what it can. Now it’s up to each and every pilot to push past the lessons from our own risks gone right and learn from others’ risks gone wrong.

Comments are closed.