The rules of visual flight are well stipulated and are designed to keep the non-instrument rated pilot out of harm’s way. However, the craft of successful VFR flight is more than merely measuring visibility or distance from
Am I Legal?
Total safety can never be assured in any
Through harsh lessons of the past and the ongoing review by governing authorities, guidelines and regulations have been established to point us in the right direction. However, there has never been a rule book, manual or computer program that is able to cover every scenario or cater to the varying levels of ability of the masses destined to apply the information. By their very nature, regulations tend towards the conservative side and rightly so; that is the safe thing to do. Yet even then the regulations may not be conservative enough for some individuals or difficult to apply in the real world.
Visual Flight Rules are
Furthermore, the average ability to gauge height and distance is, at best, marginal. One only has to look at the wide variation of responses from aircraft asked to report at 3 miles when there is no GPS or DME to assist them. To take this
To safely operate in the visual flight regime, there is a need to not only strictly adhere to these pre-defined
Am I comfortable?
Flying should be enjoyable. Even when it is a paid profession, there should be a degree of gratification every time the world falls away from the wheels. That’s why we do it. There is very little fun to be had getting boxed into a corner which may ultimately cost your life. As such, one of the first and foremost questions a pilot should ask is, “Am I comfortable with this situation?”
This question can be applied to many aspects of aviation, but in the visual flight
The ‘comfort threshold’ will vary from person to person and change as the individual gains experience, hence the difficulty in applying a broad standard as defined by the regulations.
The crosswind limit on an
In flight, at the first sign of discomfort with any particular scenario, the pilot should look at removing themselves from the situation or at the very least, critically review their circumstance and options. All VFR flight should be conducted with a ‘
Am I Orientated?
An escape route should be ever-present. At all times the VFR pilot should have a
Continually through a VFR flight, the pilot should be aware of the nearest landing field and ensure that there is a clear route to it. It may be a private airfield or a farmer’s crop-duster strip, but it is an option and should not be released from clear access until another presents itself ahead. The field does not have to be in sight, but access to it must be apparent. Even with 5km visibility, if there is no clear route to a landing field it means that the pilot will be forced to possibly conduct a precautionary landing on an unprepared surface should the weather close in further.
To have suitable options and an escape route, it is vital that the pilot remains orientated and ‘situationally aware’. ‘Situational awareness’ can be defined as “...being aware of what is happening around you to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future”. To be aware of what is happening around you and how that may evolve requires the pilot to continually review the situation.
BEFORE the weather even approaches the minimum legal levels for VFR flight, the pilot should have a clear picture of where they are and where they are going. This should include an awareness of the location and elevation of the highest terrain in the area and possibly setting a ‘personal’ minimum altitude based on that information. Remember that sneaking up a valley in poor visibility can also be a trap as power-lines may be draped between the ridge lines. Additionally, the high surrounding terrain may nullify the path of a pre-determined escape route and even prevent a safe
As well as an awareness of potential landing fields,
Outside of the three dimensions of flight, a critical element of situational awareness is that of fuel and endurance. Fuel equates to time, distance and options. If we have the fuel, we may hold clear until the shower passes at the field, navigate around the offending weather or divert to another airport or possibly our point of departure. When the weather is approaching our ‘personal minimums’, fuel management can be overlooked as aviating and navigating consume a greater part of our finite brain-space. Running a fuel tank dry, or worse, total fuel exhaustion is the last thing we want to occur at this time.
Being orientated and situationally aware at all times is critical to the ongoing assessment required for visual flight. It is best appreciated continually when the weather is in our
Am I Safe?
We have considered the legal minimums, reviewed our options, assessed our personal comfort level and appreciated our orientation. If we are not satisfied with any aspect of this exercise, we are pushing our limits and had better look at rectifying the situation. This is always best achieved sooner rather than later, It is quite possible that the pressure is already beginning to mount by this stage and the age-old adage of AVIATE-NAVIGATE-COMMUNICATE should be remembered; fly the
Visibility is critical. Rain and showers will reduce it below the minimum in a flash. Flying with minimum separation from the cloud base also often results in poor visibility, so if the terrain permits, afford some more clearance from the cloud and its scrappy under-hang in an effort to see further ahead. But beware of lowering cloud and rising terrain leading to the classic trap for the unwary pilot.
Aviate-Navigate-Communicate. Fly the
Similarly, there is often resistance by pilots to ask for help, yet the sooner they are able to advise air traffic services, the possibility exists of their assistance in the form of radar vectors clear of terrain where the service is available. When out of the immediate harm’s way, double-check the management of fuel before the engine goes quiet and ensure that enough fuel is available to execute your new plan. Of course, the flight would have been best served if these plans were in place from the outset and an early decision had prevented flight in deteriorating VMC.
In the Zone.
VFR flight is a genuine skill. As such, it needs to
Am I legal?
Am I comfortable?
Am I orientated?
Am I safe?
When the situation is deteriorating, these answers are not as straightforward and this is a sure-fire signal that action is needed. Execute any plan sooner rather than later and always Aviate-Navigate-Communicate.
By looking beyond the regulations and applying personal buffers, a greater margin of safety results. These ‘buffers’ do not need to be numerical in nature, they may simply be the fact that the evolving situation makes the pilot uncomfortable. By exercising prudent