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Several years back, I used to participate in a monthly safety meeting in which the presenter asked the question, "Have you ever had a perfect flight?' This was a question asked merely for effect with no answer expected. The presenter would then go on to say, "There is no such thing as a perfect flight" and would go on to list the many things that would happen along the way to the airplane. This discussion was about how we as pilots face the many threats to flight safety. Simple things like the weather, airplane problems, skill deficiencies are 'gotchas' that can ultimately cause errors and incidents in the aircraft.
There's a whole ecosystem of information about this chain of events called 'threat and error management.' And you can read about those things in my Threat & Error Management series. This series of articles walks you through that 'chain of events' from Threats to Flight Safety to Integrating Threat & Error Management into your flying. There's no doubt, these are the soft skills which get you to think about HOW you fly rather than the traditional stuff you might read on how TO fly. When you get right down to it, at the lowest layers, its all about the pilot and how he manages these threats and prevents them from becoming undesired aircraft states (bad stuff). It turns out that the pilot is the bottom line, where the buck stops, and the last line of defense in the chain of events. This is the heavy burden of being pilot-in-command but your aeronautical decision making and planning can set you up for success.
Planning the perfect flight is not just about putting a plotter against a chart, making a flight log, and checking the weather. It's actually a continuum of factors to consider for every flight and it comes before we even get to the threats to flight safety. Indeed, there is much which must go into a flight even before you touch the throttle. Here's the model:
Everyone understands how the FARs keep us safe. They specify very minimum standards of safety for any flight. But staying within the FARs do not necessarily guarantee the safety of our flight. Two key questions that we can pull out of the FARs are:
This seems to be the first thing that pilots neglect when it comes to undertaking a flight. Often its a quick check of the weather and press direct on the GPS. This is NOT flight planning. A thorough understanding of the available information about your flight takes some effort and thought. The old adage "failure to plan means you plan to fail" would be very accurate in aviation if it weren't for all the layers of safety that exist. The only challenge happens to be when luck runs out and our lack of planning could have prevented the accident. There are excellent products on the market to help you reconnect with flight planning, regardless of your level of pilot certificate.
Red Rules can help keep us safe when our judgement can become compromised by difficult flight conditions. Simply stated, Red Rules are those rules you create for yourself which are meant to be followed to the letter. No matter what kind of difficult spot you're in, you'll follow these self-imposed rules to ensure the safety of the flight. Red Rules protect you from Excess Risk. An example of a Red Rule for student pilots might be:
For traffic pattern work, I will not fly without a ceiling of at least 2000'.When you've written your first Red Rule, I'd like to hear from you about it. Read more about Red Rules.
The Personal Minimums Checklist allows you to evaluate every flight based on risk, prior to take off. It asks you to consider four elements of each flight: the Pilot, the Aircraft, the enVironment, and the External Pressures you face. Note the PAVE acronym to help you remember. Personal Minimums are different than Red Rules because those are absolute barriers that you will never go past no matter what pressure or stress that you're under. Personal Minimums allow you to set even more conservative operating practices than Red Rules or FARs. You can certainly break the standards you set in your Personal Minimums Checklist, but you should only do so if you fully understand the risk, and your margin of safety on the flight allows you to take some of this flexibility and convert it into a result. You might have set a Personal Minimum of chosing an airport where there ceiling is at least 1000' or higher. While planning a flight, you discover that the airport you intend to go to has in fact a ceiling of 600 feet. This is below your Personal Minimums, but you can decide in the planning phase of your flight to accept the risk if there are mitigating factors (such as a really good alternate airport). The Personal Minimums Checklist is such an important concept, I offer it as a free download and I include it in every publication I produce.
Other than lack of Flight Planning, this has got to be the next most neglected element of a successful flight. Even if you're flying single-pilot, it makes sense to perform flight briefings. One pre-startup briefing that every pilot should perform is the Flight Operations Threat Analysis. This briefing format uses the acronym SWAPAFO which stands for Security, Weather, Airport, Pilot, Aircraft, Flight Plan, Other. This briefing will help you to identify threats to flight safety which could, if not resolved, cause an incident or accident. Other briefings you might consider include a PIC briefing (for other pilots on board), passenger briefing, takeoff briefing, and an approach briefing. By verbalizing your operations, you go a long way to bringing an "airline level of safety" to your flying.
The last element of this model is the pilot's attitude. Much has been written about pilot professionalism and fitness to fly. Some of this has even been covered in the news media. When we undertake a flight, we have to put the game face on and rise to the occasion as a skilled professional. This includes eliminating our bad habits, controlling our hazardous attitudes, ensuring we are fully qualified, and having a mindset and a commitment to being the best. If we're not up to the task, the best thing we could do for our own safety as well as the safety of our passengers is to delay the flight until the time is right.
By applying these six elements to your next flight, you'll provide the strongest of foundations for the safety of your flight. You'll discover where your weaknesses are, and you'll be able to mitigate them with these strategies. Please let me know how you've applied this model to your own flying.