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Tales from an FAA Inspector
And All I Wanted To Do Was Go Have Breakfast!


by Al Peyus
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

I got the call at 8 a.m. this morning. My friends were getting ready to head over to the advertised pancake breakfast at the airport that is about 100 nautical miles away from me. They were only 25 miles from the airport and decided to drive over because it was so close. They said it was clear, sunny; cool (temperatures currently in the high 40's and going into the low 50's for a high), and that I should hurry and get over there because it was such a beautiful day and lots of people were expected!

Now I am really excited and pumped to get there! We have been talking about this little fly-in for most of the last two weeks. The local weather has been full of nasty wind and rain for the past three weeks and we really were looking forward to getting back into the sky! I hadn't had a chance to fly in over two months!

I grabbed my flight bag, coat, hat, and money and headed for the front door. Reality hit as I opened the front door and started outside. FOG! I could barely see the end of my driveway! This is a real bummer! After a few minutes of grumbling, complaining, and moaning, I decided that I really should start looking at what it was I was intending to do and how. Was grabbing my flight gear the proper way to do all that was required for a preflight? So, back to square one!

How many of us have started to head to, or even arrived at the airport, with the intent to fly because it was what you had wanted and planned to do for quite a while and at the same time thinking about that fun fly-in everyone has been talking about? It is so easy to do. Your friends call and tell you the weather is great there and the fun is about to start and that you had better hurry over because there was little room left to park airplanes. Off we go, grabbing the gear and heading for the airport all the while thinking about and looking forward to the great trip and all the fun to be had as soon as we arrive!

If we are unlucky, we make it out our front door and start toward the airport. If we are really unlucky, we made it through take off and a few miles into the flight before the weather shows its ugly face or we realize we have left out a very important part of the preflight: charts, approach plates, airport information, etc.

So where did I go wrong this morning?

My eagerness to get to a location that has been discussed for a while and to do something I would really like to do had clouded my judgment. To further exacerbate the problem were friends who called and told me that the fun was about to begin, the weather was great (at their location!), and why wasn't I there with them yet? The excitement of the planned trip, the notice of clear and perfect weather, and the draw of friends telling me to hurry over so that I would not miss a second of the fun can start us down a path that I would normally never travel! Peer pressure is a powerful drug that has hard implications even long after I have left my teenage years behind me!

Let me start from the beginning and see if I can point out what did happen versus what should have happened.

Just because my friends were 75 miles away and were in beautiful weather does not mean that my weather for departure was going to be the same! My eagerness to get to the pancake breakfast was driving the urge and desire to get there! It was also blocking the normal patterns I would follow before I finally decide to go to the airport to check out the airplane. So, what did I do wrong?

To start with, taking someone else's weather description for MY weather was not good. Even going as far as starting to gather my flight gear without further looking into the flight was a gross error in judgment! And I know better! Never allow eagerness of others or the desire for a planned engagement take over when training and experience is contrary!

My first step should have been to check in with a weather briefer! What was the weather at least at my departure, destination, and possible alternate airports? What about en route weather? While I was at it, what about special use airspace? Were Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR's) being placed between my destination and me? If so, how long, what areas, and what altitudes where they?

Now that I know the weather, what about me? Was I fit to fly? Have I checked my own personal limitations? Was I within what I had programmed as my own limits for flight? Was I rested enough to head off for a long day that was going to include friends, eating, and having fun before I was going to head back to home? The FAA has a great little pamphlet that helps pilots to set personal limitations to keep them from going off into the wild blue yonder stretching their own limitations and experience. It is called 'Personal Minimums Checklist' and can be found at http://www.faa.gov/education_research/training/fits/guidance along with 'Personal and Weather Risk Assessment Guide.' We all should be using them!

Not only should I have checked my personal limitations, but what about me? Was I taking any prescribed medication that would affect my flying skills and judgment? What about the 'over the counter' medication for the allergies I keep fighting? Are any of them going to interfere with me on this flight? Will the sinuses cause a problem with my equilibrium that would invite some unplanned excitement along the way?

The weather calls for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) for the first portion of the flight to the breakfast. The destination is forecast to have near perfect weather until around 1400 hours local. Then there is the possibility of scattered thunderstorms coming in with rain, hail, and lightening! Now that made me sit up and take notice. I had forgotten what autumn weather could be like. This is my first flight after the 'official' run on summer! Am I ready for a day of potential hard IFR flying after a day of eating and partying? When was the last time I flew IFR? When was the last time I was with an instructor to check my IFR skills? Does this all meet with the personal limitations I have set for myself?

Before I even consider taking off, am I current to fly IFR? It has been two months since my last Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flight, but what about IFR? While looking at the weather again I begin to ask myself is that really enough to make me safe to handle this flight? I know it makes me legal and 'current' but does it make me competent?

Although the flight is going to be about one hour for each way, and I can carry a full tank of gas, what if I need to divert because of the thunderstorms? First I need to understand where the storms are going, how fast, and how severe. Is there a way I can fly around them if necessary? How long will that take? Where will that take me? If I have to set down at an alternate, will there be fuel available and someone to pump it?

Well, since I am only going to be in the weather at take off for the first 1,500 feet and then clear all the way to the destination I feel good about that part. The flight home might have Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) only on the en route portion so that also seems doable to me right now. And, more importantly, it falls into the safe area of my personal limitations! So far so good! So, what else do I need to check?

Oh, yeah! The airplane has limitations also! There are several items I need to check on it to make sure it is safe, current, and legal to fly VFR and IFR! Let me check the VFR stuff first. It's airworthy. The latest maintenance (the annual) was accomplished last month. That took two weeks that kept me from flying for part of the past two months! The ELT battery was replaced just before summer started so that is good. The radios work great and the navigation, although old fashioned, still does the job. So, VFR I am OK.

For IFR, what else do I need to make sure is checked? That's right! The pitot-static system, the altimeter, air speed indicator, and vertical velocity system need to be checked by maintenance. Yep! That was signed off last year during the aircraft's annual and is good for one more year! So, what about the aircraft's VOR? When was the last time I checked the VOR accuracy? Well, thankfully there is a VOT checkpoint on the field I can use at my home airport before I head for the departure runway! I will make a mental note to do so and log it in the VOR folder I keep in the cockpit.

That takes me down to my charts, and approach plates. Are they current and do I have all that I need for the flight? Let's see. I need departure and approach plates for both my departure and arrival airports and at least one other alternate airport. Do I have those and are they current? What information is on the plates that tell me if there are special actions required to either land or takeoff from any of them? Do I need to plan on a special climb gradient or are there obstacles I need to be aware of? I had better take a closer look at each plate for each airport just to make sure because right now I have no idea what one I will be using.

I guess I am ready to head to the airport now. I have all my gear. The weather briefing is complete. I have checked every thing against my personal minimums and limitations and am still good to go. I know what inspections have been accomplished on my airplane and what is needed for the IFR portions of the flight. My flight bag has all the necessary VFR and IFR navigation departure, approach, and en route plates, and charts needed for today. And I have had the good sense to tell my wife when I am to depart, where I was going, and when I was planning to return. I think I have the 'myself' covered! Now I am off to the airport to check out the airplane and make sure what I think I know is correct!

After my preflight inspection I called the weather briefer one last time to make sure there have been no changes. Not only changes in weather but airspace use and those pesky TFR's. No changes! That's great! My tanks are filled with the proper grade of aviation fuel (no one snuck in Jet-A or tried to put auto fuel in the tanks) and the sump drains were properly checked. One last stop to the restroom and I am ready to head off to a great pancake breakfast!

And to think that things almost started off on the wrong foot. I came close to getting myself into a situation that I would not have appreciated. It all started because my friends and I have been talking about and planning to attend this fly-in for almost a full month. We were excited it was coming around and were ready for it! At least I thought so. It was hard to stop and think like a professional pilot when the friends called and stated telling me how great the weather was and how fantastic things were looking for the breakfast. Just the incentives I needed to jump the gun and start off on a trip that would have been very ill planned and prepared! I could have gotten into the airplane without the IFR plates and charts, or flown off with little regard to the airplane's required checks for IFR flight. In the middle of scattered thunderstorms is not the place to find out the altimeter, airspeed indicator, and/or vertical velocity system was not up to the flight!

There is no record or historical data to show us how many flights that ended in unfavorable situations have started this way. But we can only surmise some have! So what can we do to stop it from happening to us? Our best opportunity lies in our bag of tricks that include training, expertise, common sense, and a professional attitude toward all flights. We need to be able to have the professional ability to set aside the prodding and urging of friends and associates trying to get us rushing off to the airplane. We know what must be accomplished and in what order. We have been trained to make everything we do in aviation in a correct, proper, and methodical process when preparing for and initiating a flight.

We must always be ready to check the 'myself' with our own identified personal limitations and restrictions. We also need to check the weather, the airport(s), and the aircraft, and plan the needed fuel before each flight. If the weather conditions are beyond what we have set for ourselves, why push it? If the weather is beyond what we have become comfortable with, why fly into it? If the aircraft is even one second out of any required inspection or check, why fly it? If our approach plates or navigation charts are out of date by even one day, how can we safely use them? Although the fuel has grown to be a very expensive item, why would we limit it and place ourselves in a position to have to fly more direct then we need to?

Yet every year, several pilots do just that and end up being statistics for the rest of us to try and learn by. How can we stop this from happening to us? We must rely upon all of our instruction, experience, and mature judgment to try and mitigate the risk hazards and not allow impetuous actions to lead us down a path we will not like. Remember, there are at least four major items that need addressing before any flight can be initiated: the pilot, the environment, the aircraft, and the necessity of the flight!

Stop! Think! Plan! Consider! Decide! And all this is accomplished before we get in the aircraft. We are all professional pilots! We exhibit that professionalism by using our training, experience, mature attitude, and all the tools at our disposal to plan fully and properly each and every flight we make!

Al Peyus is an Aviation Safety Inspector in Flight Standards' General Aviation and Commercial Division.