Doing the Right Thing

July 1, 2006

A man's got to know his limitations

It seems there's been a lot of bad aviation karma in the news lately: a boundary fence overrun at Chicago Midway International Airport on an icy and snowy night; a wing strike during landing on a windy evening in Alaska; a crash in Greece because no one seemed to speak the same language.

It didn't hit me immediately, but I eventually realized that all these accidents involved airlines, and even further, the Boeing 737, the same airplane I fly. The aircraft were all legal, yet all ended up in a very bad place.

I naturally found myself wondering if I could see these things happening to me. After some reflection, the responses were: hopefully not, probably not, and no. Why not no, no, and no? Because I could no longer readily distinguish my own personal minimums from the default minimums of the world around me. When did that happen?

It's not entirely unreasonable to get our default minimums from other sources — the federal aviation regulations, our FBO, the insurance company, our charts, the company we fly for. Hopefully these default minimums are at least as restrictive or more so than our personal minimums. But do we even think about that, or do we simply look at our Jeppesen chart minimums and say — "works for me...." I mean, if we meet the published minimums, we must be safe, right? Plus, are minimums really minimums? After all, we're a culture that usually looks at the speed limit as a lower limit, not an upper limit — a place to start, not a boundary.

Today I find myself revisiting the philosophy of accepting default minimums, whether they be the FAA's, the company's, or the procedure's, as my own. After all, before I flew for a living I know I had my own personal minimums. When's the last time you revisited yours?

Where's the line?

We all have a limit. But do we know where the line is before we cross it, or do we only have some vague recollection later of where the line probably should have been?

The first question is probably the most obvious: Is it legal for me to do it? The second is, "Is it within my personal and/or professional capabilities?" If the answer to either question is no, then the decision should be easy, even though the application of said decision may not be. The third question is a matter of perception and is usually the one that gets us into trouble. "Is it something I have to do?" The answer to this one is almost always no, but we often think it is yes. All this and we still haven't even gotten to the most important question yet — "Should I do it?"

Personal minimums involve setting the parameters for what we will accept as safe — before we go flying. Personal minimums, like personal values, must be internalized to be effective. That means they must be created without the pressure of the Aviation Moment — that time when all we want to do is aviate. They must be thought about and refined before emotions and egos get involved.

Equivalent level of safety

The FAA talks a great deal about "equivalent levels of safety." In broad strokes, it would like to see an equivalent level of safety for every operation across the board, which can end up meaning some things are allowed for some people and airplanes, but not for others.

To try to achieve this equivalent level of safety, sometimes personal minimums are forced upon us by someone else, like the high-minimums programs that airlines have. Pilots who are new to the airline, an airplane, or a seat (captain vs. first officer) have higher minimums placed on their operations than other, more experienced pilots (at least in that new position) at the airline. "High Mins" involves adding a margin to both ceiling and visibility values on approaches and takeoffs (sometimes extensive), as well as outright prohibiting some actions for the first few hours in a new position. For example, a "High Mins" captain is required to add 100 feet and a half-mile to the ceiling and visibility minimums on an ILS approach, while new first officers are not allowed to make takeoffs or landings at certain airports, like Burbank, California, Reno, Nevada, and Juneau, Alaska, during their first 100 hours in the airplane. It's just the company saying, "You're new, and we don't think it's a good idea for you to do this until you get some experience." It's also why at an airline you almost always start at the bottom and work your way up.

High minimums address experience and currency, but levels of safety also can change dramatically depending upon the airplane, weather, pilot competence, and physical condition, just to name a few variables. How does the fact that we often fly different airplanes during our flying careers affect us? Because of where I fly (Alaska and Mexico) I do a fair amount of DME arcs and don't think twice about it. But I also fly them using a flight management system and a flight director, which make them pretty easy. If I had to do one using raw data on a dark and stormy night in an unfamiliar airplane, it might be a different story — there's not an equivalent level of safety between the two operations. Does it mean I shouldn't go? Not necessarily. But where I would accept a DME arc at face value in a Boeing 737, I might take a much more conservative view in a Cessna 172 — adjusting my personal minimums by adding fuel, raising minimums, finding better alternates — giving myself room for a few tries just in case I'm less than perfect.

What would you do?

On the other hand, there may be situations that warrant accepting a lower level of safety. You're on the ILS at minimums and you don't see anything. What do you do? Most would go around. Opinions might vary as to what to do next — divert, hold, try it again — all reasonable options depending on the circumstances.

Same situation with one minor twist. The airplane is on fire and filling with smoke. Now what do you do? Opinions will continue to vary, but many would consider continuing the approach. I would.

Same situation with yet another twist. You have six people on board, and one of your passengers is going into labor. Do you continue? If you do, what about the comparative safety of the other five occupants, including yourself? You are putting their lives in danger, for one. If you don't elect to continue, how do you justify putting the mother and baby in peril?

Choices are not always as easy as black and white; they are often imperceptibly colored with shades of gray. And gray is not a good color when it comes to determining our personal minimums. We can't anticipate everything that may happen in an airplane, and certainly not all situations will have equivalent levels of safety. But the more we can contemplate situations and what we're willing to accept in advance, the more comprehensive and current our personal minimums will be when the time comes.

You and your crew?

What about the people in our airplane? We often consider our comfort level with another pilot, but what if there is a passenger that affects our ability to fly safely?

It's probably no secret that the airline industry is in complete disarray — jobs cut, pay reduced, pensions lost, promises broken, airlines bankrupt. It's a sad time. The airline I work for, even though relatively healthy, had the opportunity to reduce the wages of its pilots last year. It took the pilots to arbitration, where the pilots lost badly. Several weeks later one of the pilots who was heavily involved in this process was the captain on a flight where the chief executive officer of the airline was a passenger. The pilot, though a fairly calm and levelheaded guy, realized that having the chief executive officer on board agitated him to the point that he wasn't safe to fly — it was a situation that was beyond his personal minimums.

He called crew scheduling and asked for a replacement, but was turned down. The captain went to the CEO, explained the situation to him, and said that in the interest of safety, one of them had to get off. So as not to delay the flight further, the CEO ended up getting off the airplane and the flight left. Unfortunately, when the airplane got to the next stop, the captain was suspended for several months. For better or worse, he made a decision for safety — even though he knew it would cost him dearly — and it did.

I want to, but...

So, what if it's you on the hot seat? If there's pressure to do something that is beyond your personal minimums, how do you treat it? Is it a sliding scale, where it depends on "how bad it is" or "what's in it for me"? How do you approach it? For me, while I make good choices now, I know that not every choice I've made in the past has been a good one.

Someone just handed you the keys to an airplane that you have never flown before and said, "Have a good time?" What do you do? Do you want to go fly? Absolutely. Who doesn't? Should you go fly? Maybe. Any time in that make? Any time in that model? How current are you? Where are you going flying? Is anyone coming with you? If you go, will you be insured? Who's the inquisitive little bugger asking all the questions? If he'd just shut up for a minute I could go flying.


A lot to think about, huh? I didn't think about any of it the day I was told to take a Cessna 421 out flying for a maintenance check. Yes, I had time in the airplane, but I was a low-time pilot and had never flown a 421 by myself. I didn't even think of turning it down — I wanted them to think of me as the "go to" guy. In retrospect, they wouldn't have asked if they had known how green I was. So any pressure I felt was self-induced. Plus, being caught up in the aviation of the moment, I just wanted to go fly.

The flight went fine. But I remember thinking during the takeoff roll, "I hope nothing goes wrong." Not really the mantra of a confident pilot. And since everything turned out fine, it wasn't that bad, right? Maybe, maybe not. I can tell you that today I would not take that flight. How do I know that? Let's go comparison flying with a slightly different situation.

...and now

My girlfriend, Leja, and I were in Bellingham, Washington, last summer and planned on taking Jerry's (Leja's dad's) Cessna 172 over to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands for lunch. It was less than a half-hour each way, and we really wanted to go. We both fly for airlines now and every general aviation opportunity is treasured. But, although it was August and the terminal forecast promoted blue skies and calm winds, low ceilings and high winds prevailed. We contemplated the situation, contemplated some more, and eventually scrapped our plans. The clincher for me that day...currency, weather, familiarity with the airplane? Nope. It was as simple as having no hull insurance on the airplane.

In general, if I'm afraid I might need to use the insurance as a result of the trip, I probably shouldn't go. For me there was too much risk. I had talked Leja's dad into a dowry of two goats for Leja. If we banged up the airplane, I'd not only lose the goats, but also I'd probably have to come up with some goats of my own and God knows what else to make up for the airplane. With the airline industry being what it is these days, we can't afford to give up the goat.

Why did I go the first time and not the second? Fifteen years of experience, and the evolution of personal minimums that comes with them. I can tell you almost without hesitation that 15 years ago I would have taken that flight to the San Juans — summer scud be damned. Would it have worked out? Probably. But that still doesn't mean it would've been a bright idea.

What was I thinking?

Things ain't what they used to be — today's GA airplanes and avionics ain't your daddy's 172 with a King Silver Crown radio stack. As GA singles get faster and personal jets happen onto the scene, there are a whole lot of pilots making a whole lot of decisions a whole lot faster than they had to in the past.

So, while the world gets faster around us, what can we do to slow things down and help keep bad things from happening to us? Clint Eastwood said it best: "A man's got to know his limitations." That's where personal minimums come in. Personal minimums are something we should know by heart (or by gut), and should be no different whether we are sitting at home on the deck reading AOPA Pilot or at the FBO getting ready to fly.

That said, even with a healthy set of personal minimums, there are going to be situations that we get into, because of mechanical means, acts of God, or just downright stupidity, that will leave us wondering, "What was I thinking?"

That's good. Learning from our mistakes is how we become better pilots. I'm still learning, and as I gain experience my personal minimums are continually evolving. Remember, those who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them — until they become fatal, that is. Just like the sign says at the FBO: "I don't mind flying in weather that makes me earn my pay. But I flatly refuse to fly in any situation that may prevent me from spending it."

Marc K. Henegar, of Bend, Oregon, flies a Boeing 737.

Do the Right Thing

A special guide to developing your own set of personal minimums is included in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Safety Advisor Do the Right Thing — Decision Making for Pilots, available on the ASF Web site for free. It's a sad fact of aviation that, every year, approximately 75 percent of all aircraft accidents are caused by pilot error, with a very large number the direct result of poor decisions. The good news is that making superior decisions about flying doesn't require superhuman skill or exceptional judgment — just the ability to anticipate and recognize basic problems, and then take timely action to correct them. This Safety Advisor provides practical advice to help you do that. Visit the Web site.