The choice was before me, stay an extra day in LA with friends departing first flight after annual in instrument conditions into busy airspace, or leave a day early in crystal clear blue skies. That small decision could have turned into a big implications had I not considered my personal minimums which happen to include the aircraft.
Last month we began our journey into the mindset needed for the functional implementation of personal minimums. As I pondered minimums in a pandemic, I reached into my address book of pilot friends, 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.
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 “hidden 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 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.
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?
*[For the sake of this article, in their responses, I will simply use the word “minimums”]
B.S., Active CFII, Captain for major airline, Citabria owner
The way minimums are taught in the airlines is by policy manual. The pilot themself is a part of that policy which includes sleep, wellness and emotion. As a CFI I make a similar policy manual with students and actually have them sign it.
Are they Iron clad rules? Yes and no. It is important to make them realistic. If you say, “I am never going to fly unless I have 5000 OVC,” you will end up cheating. If you cheat on your minimums you might as well not have them at all. As you become more experienced and comfortable, you can lower the minimums. Make sure to revise as needed. If they become expired then they are useless.
As an instructor I impose limits on the student for solo flight. Gradually the transfer of the responsibility from the instructor to the student pilot takes place. Many times, I ask my students to put themselves in a Pro-Pilot position and think of having passengers in the airplane, even if alone.
Another technique is to mentally put yourself in the back seat and become a passenger. Pro-pilots have to be willing to make a plan that might disappoint your passengers or yourself.
Pucker Factor: I was ferrying a Cessna 310 across the country for its new owner in Northern California. He made it abundantly clear that he wanted this airplane NOW. “No problem” I said, contemplating flying the twin from Tulsa, OK to San Jose, CA. Eight to ten hours of coveted multi-engine time would make a wholesome addition to what was the first in my collection of logbooks. An Eastbound cold front was racing me to the Rocky Mountains, and I had to make good time. Unfortunately, the prevailing Westerlies hampered my progress. So, I pushed it for the new owner. It got dark, no problem. One generator had failed, no problem. There was another generator still generating. Nighttime over the mountains with strong headwind and downdrafts while unable to maintain altitude and having no supplemental oxygen – no problem.
Until it was…
When a downdraft takes you below the menacing mountain peaks on both sides of your airplane, it turns out that not only does the VOR receiver become dead weight, but radar contact with ATC is lost too (GPS was not a thing yet for GA). “You’re below my radar coverage. Radar contact lost, squawk 1200, good day,” they said. Good day? Dead reckoning between mountain peaks at night in turbulence is nowhere I ever want to be again. The lights of Tonopah, NV never looked so glorious. (This is probably the only time that the words “glorious” and “Tonopah” have ever been used in the same sentence.) A landing was made, the ground was kissed and a vow to never succumb to external pressures was indelibly etched in my personal minimums.
Hidden Gem: Emulate an airline pilot. No matter what you are flying regard yourself as a professional.
JA Private Pilot, Instrument student when interviewed, now Instrument rated, Cessna owner.
I had my personal minimums written down for private pilot but have not updated since, but will for Instrument check ride. I keep in mind three broad areas: weather, airplane, and pilot. With that said, my comfort level has expanded with my IFR training.
I always take extra caution when going into unfamiliar airports. I particularly like Foreflight’s runway info, NOTAMS , weather, and I use their comment section. I also use AirNav to assess runway conditions, airport facilities and read comments.
I do tend to stick with a basic minimum of 3 miles visibility, but when you think of it, that isn’t much. I have come up with a minimum about cross-winds which is 5-7 kts. With passengers who haven’t flown much I have adjusted minimums on wind and turbulence for their comfort.
In regard to the aircraft, I am careful about pre-flight and engine run-up. If something is missing [piece of equipment, fasteners, etc.,] then I would not fly. A mag check fail would equal a no-go for me. Even for VFR if something failed, I wouldn’t fly as it isn’t worth the risk.
For my personal evaluation I use IMSAFE going through each of the letters in the mnemonic. I always ask myself about sleep, and how I feel.
Pucker Factor: I was headed to French Valley for lunch. The winds were okay on launch, but when got there I noticed there wasn’t much traffic, unusual for this popular airport. Checking the ASOS the winds were now above my personal limit. I landed fine, but I was a little surprised, and it did take quite a bit of concentration and focus.
Hidden Gem: Fatigue can bite you. There were a couple times where I disregarded fatigue and went ahead an IFR lesson anyway. My performance was greatly degraded. I won’t make that mistake again.
EE, Active CFI, Aeronca TC-65 Defender owner
My minimums are not written down, however I grew up with flying. My Dad worked for the FAA as a check pilot. As such I suppose there was a lot of trickle down knowledge.
I have found a lot of pilots overlook personal minimums because of ego, which proclaims “I can do that!” In regard to flight instruction when someone does something stupid in the airplane it is usually an instructor problem. IE: not having student fly a close-in pattern for downwind. Many CFIs don’t know how to get into the head of the private pilot, and teach the mental aspect of how to fly. I am a hands off instructor, and will sit back not touching controls as long as possible. This helps students because it teaches them to be ahead of the airplane, for example knowing what it is going to be doing ten seconds from now. When assessing students in regard to wind limits I have to remember that a student’s capabilities are always changing. Conditions with big gusts are out of the question at beginning of training, but close to solo, would most likely be a yes. Much like a CFI assessment of a student, we need to assess ourselves and raise or lower our minimums accordingly.
Another bit of wisdom I picked up from my Dad, “Don’t be in a big hurry to get there.” I have waited out weather on long trips to Wyoming for days. For visibility I prefer 5 miles. I have to say I am a real stickler for ceiling requirements. I land with at least an hour of fuel on board. I consider my wellness as a pilot too. For example, last week I had three teeth pulled and the doctor gave medications for pain. Since I did need the medications, I decided to cancel flying for the week.
My 1941 Aeronca Defender, has no electrical system. One time a mag went out and I was 300-400 rpm low, putting along at 65 mph. My thought process was “Should I put in a field or try to get back to airport?” I assessed the situation and since I was VMC I chose to fly a route where I knew I could land if needed.
Pucker Factor: Flying to home to Schaumburg Airport which was reporting 30 kt cross-wind with gusts to 27. I first did a low approach and went around. I felt everything out and concluded, “I will be able to land here,” but there was a pucker for sure.
Hidden Gem: Make sure to look at your physical health as objectively as possible to make sound decisions.
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. Make sure that you consider all aspects of minimums; airplane, pilot, and environment before you yell. “clear prop.”
For me, I am looking forward to some fabulous capital improvements at my home ‘drome Oceano Airport [L52], and planning my cross country to Oregon this month and on to #OSH21 this summer.