Into the Alligator’s Mouth: Installment 1

For the next few months this series will center on the psychology of personal minimums.  Like most relationships, we will focus why we create them, why we commit them to paper [or not], when we fudge on them, what we learn from them, and what we hope never to again experience.

As I thought about personal minimums in a pandemic, I decided to reach in to my address book of pilot friends and reach out to ask questions about minimums, guidelines, self-restrictions and the like.  I spoke to range of folks from pretty newly minted private pilots, to those working on an instrument rating, commercial, CFI and DPE.  I talked with female and male pilots with hours ranging from low hundreds to 25,000.

In regard to minimums a DPE pondered,  “How far do I put my head in an alligator’s mouth before I can’t get it out?”

I had a fabulous time talking with the 12 pilots and I got a little gem or a pucker factor from each of the conversations. My hope is that our words might start an honest discussion on ways that we can keep ourselves safe in the airplane or on the ground. Because in the end, cheating on your minimums is cheating yourself.


For the interviews I asked starting questions and interchangeably used personal minimums and personal guidelines.  The reason for this is some pilots initially thought when I spoke of minimums, I was referencing charted instrument approach minimums.  The following answers will be in their voice, the first person.


  • Do you have a current set of personal guidelines or minimums for your flying?
  • If yes, do you have them written down?
  • If so, do you ever review them or alter/update them?
  • What are the areas you consider when you think of your own minimums?
  • Have you had a time where you cheated on your personal minimums?
  • Has there been an experience in the airplane you would like to share that gave you a “pucker factor” that others might learn from?”
  • Do you have a “hidden gem”, or learning tip, to share?

D.L., Instrument rated, commercial pilot, Mooney owner

I do not  have my personal minimums written down, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have them.  Over the years I have general rules, based on avoiding the most common failures.  For example, I carefully study conditions and airport environment prior to departure.   I simply won’t take off anywhere I can’t follow the approach back in to airport should I need to.

Ice is very much part of my thinking living and flying in the Pacific Northwest. I will avoid ice at all costs. That is a personal minimum for my planning. I will not go if there is forecast icing.

Another rule is to be very cautious about fuel. I have flown across country by myself. I like to have at least an honest hour of fuel when the wheels touch the ground on landing. I don’t ever want to be one of “those” pilots.

When it comes to my VFR ceiling and visibility minimums, my minimums have come down when I got my instrument rating.  The rating has made my flying safer and increased the utility of the Mooney.

Aircraft maintenance and condition is a consideration for me.  This is something on my go-no- go list.  For example, I know what to expect on my engine monitor, and when that is not right, I figure it out, be it a mag check or oddly low EGT.

Pucker Factor: I was flying in rising terrain lowering ceilings, scud running getting in to the Las Vegas area.  I was crossing a hill trying to stay below the ceiling, following the interstate that went through the notch in the hill.  At that point there was no room to go left or right, I was at a pinch point.  It was then I realized I had flown into a bad situation where I didn’t have options.

Most people don’t have minimums written down. But in their heads, they know when they have exceeded them. It is only then they realize that they should have them written down and follow them.

Hidden Gem:  Just because it worked once, doesn’t mean it will always work.

J.G., Former Airline Captain, Corporate Jet Pilot, Decathlon owner

These are timely questions. We all say we have minimums 1000/3 or 1500/5, but we cheat. We cheat on ourselves.  For me, there has to be a hard-line thing. Currently I fly to gigs in my VFR-only airplane.  If I have less than 1500 feet on my altimeter I will turn around.  I have to be hard on myself not to cheat on myself.  I have to have a firm limit.  I have cheated on myself a year ago, what I call a “normalization of deviance” I went down to 1400. My thinking was, “It is only a 100 feet.”  If you normalize violating your rules you risk doing it again and again.

I really consider external pressures.  I worked with a guy who always had his assistant book him an airline ticket as a back up when he was flying his GA airplane to do a presentation.  When I fly to my gigs, I know that I can turn around, or have my son-in-law can come and get me.

Pucker Factor: I was flying from Dallas-Ft. Worth [DFW] to Portland [PDX] in an MD80. I flew lower en route for a smoother ride but that resulted in burning more fuel. During the descent into PDX the turbulence over Mt. Hood was severe. When I finally got to Portland the entire airport was closed. We were diverted to Seattle, bumping around in severe turbulence landing with minimal fuel.

Hidden Gem: If I land because I need fuel and cannot find fuel due to inoperative card reader/pump/empty tank, I don’t take off without getting it. I have it brought to me in Perrier bottles if I have to.

J.B. Instrument rated, A&P, Cub owner

As a younger pilot I didn’t have any minimums.  I would simply do what I want, without a focus on safety.  As I have gotten older, I play it way safer, but I don’t have any minimums that are written down. Now, I am a lot more cautious with weather and particularly runway conditions. I study the weather en route and at my destination using all tools available.  I have a habit of checking out runways, including comment sections, at unfamiliar airports for sure.

Pucker Factor: I was flying in Oregon [Corvallis] with a  solid cloud deck below.  My inner voice was saying “I need to turn back now; I don’t have enough fuel to continue.”  Went through a hole, and landed.  Some locals tried to talk me into continuing on but I am glad I set down. It rained for three days solid. I ended up staying there, weathered in, for three nights.

Hidden Gem and Pucker Factor:  I was landing at a neighboring airport on runway 14. I did check the wind sock, but It was missing, torn away from a previous storm. I assumed the wind, if any, would be from the South, so I continued my landing on 14. I made a faster than usual touchdown, but it was a greaser landing. As I slowed to enter the taxiway, GROUNDLOOP to the left [first one in 1200 hours]. I soon realized that I had a left quartering tailwind! After this experience, I always confirm wind direction, visually, by looking at smoke, trees or flags.

Hidden Gem:  If I am at an unfamiliar airport, I will overfly the airport at 500ft above TPA and look for a windsock and any other wind direction clues.

S.S., Private Pilot, Bonanza owner


I don’t have any minimums written down, but I am VFR only. My flying is mostly recreational now, though a lot of it is night flight.

I am a stickler about weather, I do lots of weather planning which, I suppose is a minimum of mine. I need to feel comfortable with the planning I have completed. I am careful to choose routes avoid terrain, and like to have lots of airports [options] below. A minimum of mine is that I don’t like to fly below 5500 feet ever.

In recent years I flew a lot for business. I used the  IMSAFE model to make sure I was good to fly because the homeward leg was at night.  Throughout the afternoon I assessed myself,  particularly my level of concentration. While I love to fly at night, the work load is higher and I am VFR only and I want to give myself every safety measure.

Pucker Factor:  I have to say I got complacent at 500-hour mark.  I like to fly high and would look for holes in layers to fly through to get to VFR on top. It wasn’t smart and I put a stop to it.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s installment.  Please consider using one of the AOPA templates to write your minimums down whether VFR or IFR.

If you have feedback about the interviews, please feel free to use the comment section below. In the meantime, keep up with online safety seminars, join your state aviation association, and stay involved with your local airport.

For me, I am looking forward to some fabulous capital improvements at my home ‘drome Oceano Airport, heading up to the Pacific Northwest for work, an planning my cross country to OSH21 this summer.

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Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: Twitter: Mooney4Me

1 Comment

  1. Jolie Lucas, another great article! Thanks for keeping us safe.

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