Where is a Pilot’s Comfort Zone?

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 cloud. It is about the ongoing assessment and application of a number of parameters beyond the regulations.

VFR Flying

Am I Legal?

Total safety can never be assured in any endeavour and aviation is no different. Still we should manage the risks and threats that confront us to give us all the best chance of a safe flight. Whether it is a quick scenic flight with friends or a trans-continental long haul flight with hundreds of fare paying passengers, the primary obligation of the pilot relates to the safety of those on board. It is not an exercise in ego, or an absolute promise to arrive at the destination on schedule or even that day; it is about the duty of care for all on board and those whose roof tops we overfly.

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 classic instance where the interpretation and application of a defined standard can prove difficult. They involve fixed parameters, calibrated in units of distance for in flight visibility and the separation from cloud. Fixed units which are measured in the potentially highly dynamic air mass through which we fly. Cloud bases fluctuate and visibility can shrink in the blink of an eye. This can be challenging stuff!

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 judgement and apply it to the fluid world of weather raises the bar to a whole new level. Even so, as part of our cycle of activity, pilots must continually endeavour to assess the prevailing conditions against the legal requirements, bearing in mind that these are absolute minimums. Below these we are illegal; however, we were probably approaching an ‘uncomfortable’ situation some time before we actually reached the minimum requirements.

To safely operate in the visual flight regime, there is a need to not only strictly adhere to these pre-defined constraints, but tailor them to our own individual standards and the conditions that are set before us on the day. And all such tailoring MUST be applied on the CONSERVATIVE side of the equation as the countryside is marked with the wreckage of those who thought that their personal standards were better than the regulations.

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 sense it rings particularly true as an early warning system. Generally speaking, well before the visibility drops to the minimum required or the fin starts cutting the nimbostratus, the heart rate will elevate and the hair on the back of the neck will start to twitch. This should serve as a signal to the pilot that they are starting to get towards the deep end of the pool; their feet may still be touching the bottom, but for how long?

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 aeroplane may be 20 knots, but lack of crosswind currency may render an inexperienced pilot to hesitate at going flying in those conditions. It would be legal, but would it be prudent? A dual check with an instructor would be a safer option and a sensible application of personal standards. In-flight weather is just the same. 5 kilometres visibility or 500 feet vertical separation from cloud may be legal, but may not be ‘comfortable’ to everyone.

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 ‘back door’, or a means of escape. It is foolhardy to continue towards deteriorating weather conditions but absolutely fraught with danger if the weather behind is also going bad.

Am I Orientated?

An escape route should be ever-present. At all times the VFR pilot should have a ready made answer for, “Where would I go if...?” When the rain is thrashing the windscreen or visual reference is silently lost in cloud, it is often too late. Furthermore, the stress and workload of the situation will not permit the brain to offer the best resolution. Flailing charts and winding knobs will rate a poor second to keeping the aircraft upright and out of harm’s way.

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 180 degree turn.

As well as an awareness of potential landing fields, utilise all available navaids to support your visual navigation and refine your exact position. They will provide critical distance and bearing information to assist what you see on your map. GPS is a tremendous tool in this instance, but can also come with the pitfalls of over-reliance and complacency for the visual pilot.

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 favour to allow earlier and safer in-flight decisions. Leaving anything to the last minute in aviation has never been a good idea.

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 aeroplane! At this time, inadvertent entry into cloud, a loss of altitude or an unusual attitude could be catastrophic. A level 180 degree turn out of there may well be the safest option. 

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.

Pre-flight cockpit organisation and a sound ongoing cycle of activity may prove to be one of your best friends. Reaching over to search for and tune up multiple frequencies and leaning down to look for a chart are sources of distraction from the primary task of flying the aeroplane. You should already be orientated and if you need one chart, it should be easily accessible and brought up to eye level to read. ‘Head down’ operations should be avoided at all costs. This is another reason why fuel management is important. Ideally you don’t want to be reaching down to change tanks at this time if it can be avoided.

Aviate-Navigate-Communicate. Fly the aeroplane first and maintain control. Assess terrain clearance and extricate the aircraft to a route clear of weather. It is better to divert early, rather than leaving it too late. As we have said before, “If in doubt, BUG OUT!”

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 practised and honed just like any other skill. It is not easy, but that is one of the challenges of flying and a source of satisfaction. Sound preparation and efficient management of the cockpit will aid greatly in offsetting the potential chaos. A sound ongoing cycle of activity will make sure that the house is in order the day when the weather foe comes knocking. Four questions at the heart of that cycle are; 

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 judgement and always placing safety at a premium, a greater level of enjoyment can be forthcoming from the tremendous endeavour of flight. And all the while remaining in our comfort zone.


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