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Don’t Dither with Weather

By John M. Allen - Director, Flights Standards Office

Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

We pilots pride ourselves on being decisive, take-charge kind of people. And, for the most part, that’s exactly who we are. That’s why it’s so ironic to see how much many of us dither with decisions on weather, especially since that is so obviously an area where clear, take-charge decisions are both necessary and appropriate.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of flying over a wide range of places. The kind of wide-ranging weather that is the focus of this issue of FAA Safety Briefing naturally comes with wide-ranging terrain. I have vivid memories, for instance, of towering tropical thunderstorms that often popped up over and around Panama. The dry desert heat of the American Southwest introduced me to the perils of density altitude, and reinforced the importance of proper performance planning. I have rocked my way through terribly turbulent air, and warily kept watch for signs of ice accumulation on the airframe. No aviator could ever presume to have seen everything, but I have been privileged to see and experience a broad range of weather conditions.

What Makes Us Dally?

So why do we aviators still come to grief in weather? Based on my experience as a pilot, including many years of flying as an instructor and evaluator, I believe there are elements of the pilot personality profile that conspire to lead us astray.

First, we do tend to be decisive and take-charge people. We don’t like to admit there’s something we can’t handle. What to do? Remember that Mother Nature always wins weather arguments. As the editor has previously preached in these pages an important part of weather decision-making is to consider whether, and then how, any given set of weather conditions matches with not just the experience and skill of the pilot, but also the performance capability of the specific aircraft to be flown that day. There are some conditions – icing is one – that are very likely to be beyond the capabilities of both pilot and aircraft. If you still don’t like saying that conditions are beyond you, blame the airplane!

A related element of the pilot personality is pride. There’s nothing wrong with pride in being a pilot, and it is appropriate to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. But pride can slide into ego and, with apologies to Sigmund Freud; ego can degrade into id – the unconscious part of the mind that houses instinctive and sometimes unhealthy impulses.

Here’s an example of how pride and ego can get you into weather trouble. Your weather briefing reports one of the many hazardous conditions described in this issue. You know it ought to be a no-go decision. But then you watch another pilot blithely launch into those conditions. Thus begins the dither. Does a no-go decision make you a weather wimp? Didn’t you spend thousands on an instrument rating and new equipment for your airplane? And so it goes, until the pilot too often drifts into the wrong course of action.

Defeating the Dither

Here are two ways to defeat the dither. First, use established, written personal minimums to make the decision well in advance. If your personal minimums call for at least five miles visibility and the METAR gives you just three miles in haze, you already know it’s a no-go. The same principle applies to in-flight diversion decisions. If conditions fall below established personal minimums, it’s time to land and make a new plan.

A second anti-dithering tool is KARMA: Know the environment that affects your flight and ground operation; Analyze those conditions in terms of your personal minimums; Respect the reality of the weather; Make a decision based on informed and rational thinking; and Act decisively in accordance with that decision (and don’t over think or second guess).

In the spirit of promoting solid aviation citizenship, consider this benefit as well: Instead of being the pilot who leads others astray, you can be the one who provides a potentially life-saving example to others. And that’s good karma!