Flight Plan Myopia
Stress Flexibility, Especially Nearing The DestinationA newly minted private pilot was well into a 250-mile cross-country trip to visit his parents. About 20 miles before reaching his destination, he noticed the sky darkening ahead of him. "Looks like some convective activity ahead," he said to himself. "I wonder if I can make it to the airport before the storm hits?"
He called Flight Watch. The briefer said there was some level-three activity about 30 miles north of the airport moving at 25 mph. After doing some quick calculations, the pilot felt that he could easily make it to the airport before the weather turned really bad.
As he got closer to the airport the weather began to deteriorate. He had to descend to 2,000 feet to stay out of the clouds, and flashes of lightning were apparent on the horizon. A few moments later, rain began pelting the windscreen, obscuring any forward visibility. Turbulence began to increase, and he was having trouble maintaining altitude. Only a few more miles and I'll be at the airport, he thought. Soon he realized he couldn't find the airport. The only option now was to turn toward the lightest part of the sky where there was a smaller chance of cells developing.
All at once, out of the side window, he caught a glimpse of a small airport below, but not the one where he had originally intended to land. Fortunately the sock showed the wind straight down the runway at less than 15 knots. He landed, somewhat shaken but safe.
NTSB accident reports reveal that one of the prime causes of a significant number of the accidents is what is termed "over-commitment to plan." At first this sounds like an oxymoron. How can a pilot be overcommitted to a flight plan? We can all hear the voice of our primary instructors ringing in our ears, "Prepare a detailed flight plan before you depart." That's good advice, but when no thought is given to situations where you may have to deviate from the plan, that's downright dangerous. And student pilots need to be taught that the closer they get to their destination, the harder it is to make a decision to deviate from the flight plan. There is a real psychological force that drives you on to complete the flight as planned in spite of deteriorating conditions or low fuel.
Part of the process of good flight planning is to consider contingencies. Some pilots will spend hours on a flight plan, but very little time on alternatives. Once a sound flight plan is developed, then it's time to ask, "What do I do if I find the weather or other conditions won't allow me complete the trip?" "What do I do if I have a mechanical problem somewhere along the route?" "What are my options?" The middle of an emergency is not the time to think about an alternative plan. The time to think about it is before departure.
Had our pilot in the example above had a Plan B or even a Plan C at the ready before he got near the thunderstorms, the flight's outcome wouldn't have been so much in doubt. As soon as the ceiling started to drop, it was time to consider Plan B - a deviation to an airport that was not affected by the weather. But he didn't have a Plan B. He was so close to the destination airport, he reasoned that he could make it.
Pilots on IFR flight plans suffer the same myopia, except more so. There is a false sense of security when ATC is leading you by the hand. In these situations, deviations from the flight plan are even more difficult. When teaching students flight planning, it is important to have them exercise the same care in preparing alternative flight plans as they do for the primary plan. Teach students to always have a way out.
Free flight planning forms from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation may be downloaded from AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/asf/flight_plan.pdf ).
By Richard Hiner