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Look Up, Look Out

See and Avoid CFIT Strategies for VFR Pilots

By Jennifer Caron
Source: FAA Safety Briefing, Nov/Dec 2020

So why does a VFR pilot, with positive control of a fully functioning aircraft, accidentally fly it into the ground? Or into the side of a mountain, or a body of water, or any obstacle?

Despite the fact that many pilots have enhanced cockpit technologies on their side, these unintentional collisions, defined as controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), consistently ranked as a top three general aviation (GA) accident causal factor over the last two decades.

You would think that CFIT accidents involve inexperienced pilots flying in dark night or instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). In fact, in a typical year more than 75-percent of CFIT accidents occur in daylight, and more than half take place in visual conditions, with either VFR or instrument-rated pilots at the helm.

When it comes to VFR flying, a CFIT accident does not have to happen. With proper preflight preparation and smart decision making, you can see and avoid CFIT.

Plan, Prepare, Prevail

The key to combating CFIT accidents starts on the ground, and sound preflight planning is step one. Be proactive. Know what you’re getting into; know where you’re going; know your capabilities; and know your resources prior to takeoff.

Good situational awareness begins with a good preflight risk assessment. Preflight checklists are your friends — use them. The PAVE, 5P, and IMSAFE checklists will help you make a well-reasoned go/no-go decision and determine your personal level of risk for any flight. Take advantage of the various flight risk assessment tools (FRATs). FRATs easily integrate with charting programs, cockpit displays, and weather imagery.

Be sure to obtain and understand a preflight weather briefing, and don’t forget that webcams in some locations can provide a real-time look at the weather along your route. Check again for the return flight. While en route, stay tuned to the outside world — heads up, eyes out — for unexpected weather. Keep track of conditions behind you, so you know if you can simply reverse course in a pinch. In summary, prepare for the unexpected — have a plan for what you’ll do if you encounter less than stellar conditions.

PAVE checklist

Know Your Route

Get familiar with your route before takeoff. Review Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) and airport layouts. With a pre-planned mental map in mind, you’ll spend less time heads-down and more time looking out the window to see and avoid other aircraft, terrain, and obstacles.

Identify a pre-planned diversion or suitable landing areas near or along your route. For example, check the charts for an alternate airport for every 25 to 30 nautical mile segment of your route.

Review VFR charts for minimum safe altitudes, obstacles, and terrain elevations to determine safe altitudes before your flight. Give yourself some breathing room. That means at least a mile from airspace and 2,000 feet vertically from terrain that you’re trying to avoid. Use maximum elevation figures (MEF) to minimize chances of an inflight collision.

If you’re flying into a remote area or unfamiliar environment, use Google Earth for a sneak peek at where you’re going and what type of terrain and obstacles you might encounter along the route. Use a flight simulation program or device to practice flying into the area. Many feature realistic graphics that offer a good picture of your destination.

Expect the Unexpected

Always keep in mind that no flight is routine. Learn to expect the unexpected. You can’t prepare for every eventuality, but you can take some positive steps to know in advance what you’re capable of dealing with should you find yourself in an adverse situation.

Develop a set of personal minimums and tailor them to your current level of training, experience, currency, and proficiency. VFR weather minimums are a must, but it’s also a good idea to have personal minimums for wind, turbulence, and operating conditions that involve things like high density altitude, challenging terrain, or short runways.

Never adjust personal minimums to a lower value for a specific flight. If you’re comfortable flying in a 10 knot crosswind, don’t push your limit to 15 knots just to satisfy disappointed passengers who may pressure you to complete the flight. Remember, PIC means pilot-in-command. It does NOT mean passenger-in-command.

Managing pressure is one of the most important steps in flight planning and CFIT avoidance because it’s the one thing that can cause a pilot to ignore all the other risks. The key to managing pressure is to be ready for and accept delays. Have a backup plan B and maybe even a C to avoid the “I must get there” mentality — that determination to get to your destination at all costs, regardless of the risks that lie ahead. “Get-there-itis” has caused pilots to over-fly en route fueling options, running short of fuel before reaching the destination. It clouds your judgement, and tempts you to continue a VFR flight into IMC.

Don’t Mix VFR and IMC

Continued VFR into IMC is an ongoing threat to GA safety and is the deadliest CFIT accident precursor, proving fatal in most cases. Never continue a VFR flight into deteriorating visibility, especially if you are not instrument rated, current, and proficient.

See and avoid dangerous assumptions. Good visual meteorological conditions (VMC) on departure doesn’t mean you’ll see the same clear air at your destination. If you’re already flying in marginal VFR weather conditions (MVFR), consider the likelihood of encountering IMC. Mother Nature is fickle. Weather is dynamic. Visibility can fall from unlimited to zero very quickly. Panel-mounted or handheld NEXRAD displays can be 15 to 20 minutes behind — or more. Give a wide berth to any weather you’re trying to avoid.

Another tip for avoiding CFIT is to always remember the priorities: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Your first task is to fly the airplane, followed by navigating to avoid impacting terrain. Talk only when you’ve got the first two tasks under control.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in the Automation Basket

Pilots have access to more information in the cockpit than ever before, which probably contributes to the reduction in CFIT accidents over the last 20 years. Technology such as terrain awareness/warning systems, autopilots, ADS-B, and moving map displays all help to mitigate CFIT accidents. Problems can arise if you don’t understand the technology, or if you try to use it beyond what it’s designed to do. Get training on how they work, keep databases current, know how to interpret the information they provide, and understand how to detect equipment malfunctions.

If you fly with an autopilot, bear in mind that automation dependence can lead to complacency and degraded hand-flying competence and confidence. Strive to balance use of automation with hands-on flying to keep your flight control skills smart and effective.

Keep your skills sharp between flights too. Try making simulated flights over routes you intend to fly and consider a few what-if scenarios. One caution: simulator flying is not adequate preparation for flights to challenging locations such as mountains, obstructed short runways, and high density altitude environments. For those, consult a flight instructor who knows the area well.

Be Realistic About Aircraft Performance

You need to understand how aircraft performance is affected by density altitude, particularly in mountainous terrain. High density altitude, combined with a shorter or obstructed runway and aircraft at/near gross weight, has resulted in collisions with obstacles on takeoff. Carburetor or induction system ice can reduce climb performance with the same result. Tailwinds on approach or takeoff can also contribute to CFIT accidents.

Give Yourself Some Extra Altitude

Keep a close eye out for power lines and supporting structures during approach and landing. Not every tower is published on aeronautical charts, and many power lines are not marked or lighted. Wire strikes are common in agricultural operations, but more than half are not associated with aerial application flying. Most occur below 200 feet above ground level (AGL).

Give yourself some room and a little extra altitude. Even 500 feet will keep you above 90-percent of the wires. A lesson from the helicopter community is to fly overhead at a safe altitude and check the area for towers and hazards before descending to a lower altitude.

It Doesn’t Have to Happen

A CFIT accident should never happen to any pilot, especially one who is maintaining visual contact with the terrain. Plan, prepare, and make smart decisions based solely on the safety of your flight.

Learn More

CFIT Brochure - bit.ly/CFITbrochure

FAA Safety Enhancement Topic: Mountain Flying - bit.ly/2pu6UP8

FAA Safety Team Video: CFIT - Youtu.be/yERx9Wx-itM

Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.

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