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Overcoming the Fire-Hose Effect

By Susan Parsons
Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

In the best known verse of his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge laments the paradox of “water, water, everywhere…nor any drop to drink.” A modern author, Barry Schwartz, addresses this irony of abundance in his 1994 book about The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz suggests that since the wealth of options available in everything, from a college curriculum to the corner supermarket, requires more time to make choices, we have less time to do what is most important.

The irony of abundance, that is, the notion that more is sometimes less, is very familiar to aviators trying to imbibe droplets of useful weather information from the fire hose of available data. It can be very difficult to screen out non-essential data, focus on key facts, and correctly evaluate the resulting risk.

Sipping from a Glass

Directing the fire-hose information flow into a more manageable “drinking glass” is the goal of an FAA Web site document called the General Aviation Pilot’s Guide to Preflight Weather Planning, Weather Self Briefings, and Weather Decision Making. Developed under the auspices of the government-industry General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, this guide uses the FAA Safety Team’s Perceive – Process – Perform risk-management framework as a template for preflight weather planning and in-flight weather decision making.

The basic steps of the framework are:

Perceive weather hazards. First, obtain information from sources such as those described in the GA Pilot’s Guide and in the “Smart Self Briefings” article on Internet weather resources (page 17) as well as through on-board resources, such as data link (page 20). Know the source of your weather data and understand its limitations.

Process this information. This step provides the essential connection between merely obtaining weather information and doing the right thing with it. The key is an unflinchingly honest evaluation of what the specific pilot and the specific aircraft can do as a team in the current and forecast weather conditions. Not all combinations of pilot and plane can function safely in every type of weather.

Perform by eliminating or mitigating the risk. Once you have the information and determine its relevance, you need to execute a safe decision, even if it disappoints or inconveniences passengers and/or people waiting on the ground. Having some of these decisions made in advance through pre-developed personal minimums can be a big help.

Cross-Check, Interpret, Control

You might think of these steps as the decision-making equivalent of basic instrument flying skills: cross-check (perceive), interpret (process), and control (perform). Just as the cross-check, interpret, and control activities are a continuous process, the tasks of perceiving weather (what can hurt me?), processing its impact (how can it hurt me?), and performing the appropriate action (how can I stay safe?) is an ongoing cycle.

Susan Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov) is a special assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight Instructor.

For More Information

General Aviation Pilot’s Guide to Preflight Weather
Planning, Weather Self-Briefings, and Weather Decision Making
http://www.faa.gov/pilots/safety/media/ga_weather_decision_making.pdf

Risk Management Handbook
http://www.faa.gov/library/manuals/aviation/media/FAA-H-8083-2.pdf