Measure of Skill

Having an Out — and Using It

November 1, 1997

What's your Plan B?

One trait that most long-lived pilots have is good judgment. Make the right decision at the right time and it's hard for things to go wrong. Unfortunately, decisions involved in flying an airplane are generally not that cut- and-dried. Many variables play in the equation depending on the severity of a particular situation and the options available for getting out of it. One way around a sticky predicament is to have an alternative plan available at any time — a perpetual Plan B, of sorts.

Plan B vs. experience

Formulating your Plan B is largely based upon flight experience. In general, the more experience you have, the more your flying skill and decision-making abilities can safely get you out of a bad situation. For every pilot, setting personal minimums with regard to flight experience and personal comfort is a great way to start.

Just because the Federal Aviation Regulations say the weather minimums for VFR flight are a 1,000-foot ceiling and 3 miles' visibility doesn't mean that it's wise for the fledgling VFR pilot to launch on a 100-mile cross-country in marginal weather. How about 5,000 and 5 as a nice starting point? With experience, 3,000 and 5 may become more realistic.

Add an instrument rating and the usefulness of the pilot certificate suddenly skyrockets, right? Well, yes, but not immediately. Without a good bit of actual IFR experience — gained through a gentle immersion into progressively crummier weather — the instrument rating is no magic ticket to reliable transportation. Set the personal minimums at 800 and 1 for awhile and see how you feel. Don't bust your personal minimums or until you feel comfortable enough to lower them.

In good weather, choosing your out can be as simple as picking a precautionary en route fuel stop while planning a flight. Choosing your out gets more complicated when the sun goes down, and as the weather deteriorates. Add in a little pressure from home or the office to be somewhere and the brew thickens.

Successful planning

A must-do appointment for which a GA airplane is your transportation should always have multiple Plan Bs ready and waiting. What if the airplane's battery is dead on the morning of your flight — can you rent another? If you're considering taking the Piper Cherokee on a Christmas flight from your home in Tennessee to Grandma's house in Buffalo, New York, you'd better plan some alternatives. Given the winter weather patterns in the eastern Great Lakes, tough holiday celebration schedules, and the influence from family to be there, it's best to have many options available. Airline, train, and auto travel can be brutal during the holiday season, but they are good alternatives compared to putting yourself and/or your family in a precarious position.

Surprisingly, the best alternative may be to fly the GA airplane and avoid the hassle of weather delays. How? Take an extra few vacation days and plan a two-day window of opportunity for departing and returning. If weather looks as if it will turn sour on the planned departure day, leave a day earlier or a day later. Although this window-of-opportunity technique may be a hard sell to the family, feel free to remind them that they don't want to fly with a pilot who doesn't want to fly himself. Everyone will be far less torqued if these solutions to setbacks were planned rather than if the setbacks catch you unprepared on the morning of your planned departure.

Although Plan B should be ready before launching on any particular flight, it is particularly important for IFR flights in adverse weather. If the weather is at or near zero/zero, Part 91 of the federal aviation regulations (FARs) still allows you to take off. It's not a good idea, but it is legal. Pilots planning to take off in low IFR conditions are the ones who need Plan B the most.

Besides considering all of the mechanical anomalies that could happen (engine failure, vacuum failure, electrical failure), the IFR pilot needs to consider all of the meteorological factors that could really impact a flight. Are the tops really at 9,000 feet as forecast? Is the terrain en route higher than the freezing level? What if the forecast for conditions to improve above minimums is wrong? When widespread low IFR and icing are forecast, Plan B will probably involve staying on the ground unless you're a very experienced pilot flying a very capable airplane.

Be patient

Patience plays a major role in properly implementing a successful Plan B. Accidents have a habit of occurring when a pilot lacks this important trait. Although many of us fly to get places faster, we have to be prepared for the inevitable delays that surface when flying GA airplanes. Weather and mechanical delays will happen, sometimes at the worst times. Setbacks such as these, as well as cranky passengers, can test a pilot's patience — all the more reason not to go flying.

In times of emergency, patience can be your best defense. You've probably heard the saying "The very first thing you should do in an emergency is nothing." This is valuable advice because it takes a few seconds for the mind to identify the situation. If your only engine quits after takeoff, the hurried reaction is to immediately turn back to the runway. Slow down a second, though. Do you have the altitude to turn back? If you wait a few seconds to assess the situation, you might realize that a straight-ahead landing is the best resolution. Twin pilots are especially vulnerable to rash engine-out decision making. Many twin accidents have occurred because the pilot hurriedly feathered the propeller on the good engine.

What-ifs

Think of potential emergencies as "what-ifs." Run what-if scenarios through your head over and over before and during a flight and then figure out a Plan B. " What if the engine quits right now?" " What if I lost my electrical system at night in the clouds?" " What if I lost the vacuum pump in IMC?" You might as well start finding answers for these questions now because when the dark day comes that you face one of these nightmares, there will be solace in knowing that you're not completely unprepared.

Ask other pilots what-if questions to learn more. A good pilot is always willing to put the ego aside and ask other pilots what they might do in an emergency. You may be surprised to find that you can learn as much from a low-time pilot as you can from a high-timer.

Where's the good weather?

Part of Plan B when flying either IFR or VFR should involve knowing where the good weather is. When all else fails, where are you going to go? This can be very important information if you get stuck with no radios or navigational aids.

A few years back a savvy examiner made sure that I learned this lesson before signing me off for the instrument rating. During the oral part of my practical test, the examiner asked what I would do in the following situation: You're in IMC and you have a total electrical failure. There's no handheld radio or navigation device and the whole area is fogged in to the ground. What are you going to do? As I nervously fumbled for the miracle answer to my plight, she anxiously awaited the best response. I knew that it wasn't what she wanted, but I babbled something about using the compass to go out over the ocean and descend to a smooth ditching when the altimeter read zero. Wrong! What she told me has stuck in my head ever since. "Go to the nearest VFR weather." It was painfully simple, but she was right. On an IFR flight plan I would have obtained a preflight briefing and, if I were a smart instrument pilot, I'd always know where the closest VFR weather is — just in case. Regardless, she passed me.

Plan B equipment list

Standby vacuum system

Either a second pump or one that operates off the pressure differential between ambient air and the low-pressure air inside the intake manifold (normally aspirated aircraft only).

Flashlights

At least two. Many pilots have four or more at their disposal. Under Part 135 it is required to have a flashlight with at least two D-cell batteries.

Handheld transceiver

For best results, use with an external antenna connection and fresh batteries. During an electrical failure in IMC this (and a precision approach radar, or PAR approach) may be your only ticket to the ground in one piece.

Handheld navigation device

A GPS or VOR receiver will do just fine. Keep fresh batteries at hand, though.

Cellular phone

If you've got one, take it. If you get stranded on (or off) an airport with no phone, the cell phone can be a lifesaver. Although in-air use is prohibited by FCC law, the use of a cell phone in an emergency situation will probably be forgiven.

Charts

Take more than the trip requires in case the weather goes sour over a large area.